Rackspace and the open cloud

OpenStack t-shirt

If Amazon Web Services represents the cloud computing establishment, Rackspace Hosting wants to be the cool alternative. A comparison based on data from 2010 shows AWS with by far the largest chunk of the infrastructure-as-a-service space, at $500 to $700 million. Rackspace came in a distant second with $100 million.

But Rackspace argues there’s good reason to choose it over its larger rival. The company’s CEO, Lew Moorman is fighting AWS by warning businesspeople of the dangers of being locked in to that company’s cloud. Once a company’s operations are tied up with a particular cloud infrastructure, he argues, it’s hard to disentangle them if you want to choose a different vendor.

Rackspace’s proposed solution lies in the world of open-source. The company joined with NASA two years ago to launch OpenStack, and Moorman says more than 180 companies are now participating in the development of the new structure. Rackspace plans to shift its public cloud to the OpenStack codebase this summer, and other companies can use the same code as they please, creating what many hope could be a more competitive cloud landscape.

Aside from the guts of its systems, Rackspace promotes its customer service as a major selling point. Its trademarked “Fanatical Support” includes a promise that you can speak to a live person round the clock and that staff actually know what they’re talking about instead of just reading from a script.

So far, Rackspace has done quite well for itself. Its net revenues rose from $781 million in 2010 to just over $1 billion in 2011, and its stock price skyrocketed from $10 a share at its 2008 IPO to nearly $60 this spring. (It’s since fallen but remains above $40.)

Photo credit: H. Michael Karshis/Flickr

Giant In The Clouds: AWS

If you use the internet, you almost certainly use Amazon Web Services.

The cloud computing arm of the dot-com dynamo is such a large presence online that an in-depth analysis by DeepField Networks this spring found that more than 1 percent of consumer online traffic goes through Amazon services, and a third of internet users access the company’s servers every day.

As those numbers might suggest, AWS is the dominant player in cloud computing. Big-name brands like Netflix, Dropbox, Instagram and Pinterest all use AWS for their streaming services.

In the relatively new world of cloud computing, AWS is also a veteran player that has been providing virtual computing power to businesses since 2006. Much of what it offers is raw processing and storage power of its huge data centers, provided through an Amazon service known as Elastic Compute Cloud, or EC2. That  model is often referred to as “infrastructure as a service,” as opposed to “platform as a service” or “software as a service,” which describe models that require less IT work from customers but provide them with less flexibility. Many of the companies that do business through AWS use intermediary vendors to turn that infrastructure into something they can easily use.

AWS offers the use of its servers in various ways.  Users can pay only a set hourly fee for each the processing power or storage space they use, or they can pay some amount up front and then spend less per hour, with tiers based on how heavy their usage will be.

Beyond EC2, AWS offers a variety of services for managing databases, billing, and so on, often in partnership with other companies. It also runs a marketplace site for cloud software sold by a variety of vendors that can run on its virtual servers.

In recent months, Google and Microsoft, which now mostly offer more structured cloud products rather than pure raw power, have both been working hard at competing infrastructure products. Still, most analysts say they’ll have their work cut out for them going up against the well-established AWS.

This is the first in a series of blog posts on major cloud computing players.

Photo of Amazon data center courtesy of xcorex/Flickr

Why IT Consulting?

For some business owners, the notion of outsourcing anything to an outside firm might seem a little scary. It’s attractive to have everyone who’s doing anything for your company working as a dedicated full-time employee.

But these days most businesses can benefit from advanced technologies like cloud computing, remote backup and systems that integrate computer and phone networks.  Often, you won’t even know what technological solutions make sense for them until you see them in action.

That’s where IT consulting comes in. An IT firm can look at the big picture and suggest what investments might make sense. Because they work with multiple clients, they have up-to-date expertise in what other companies are finding useful, which means you can benefit from the experiences of others.

Consulting firms also have a surprising cost benefit. If a company has its own internal IT department, a handful of employees probably have to do everything from overhauling the entire email system to setting up voicemail for a new hire. That means they have to be seriously overqualified—and overpaid—for some of their assignments. With an outside firm, you’re hiring a team that includes people with a variety of experience levels. Often it also means you can have several IT professionals on hand when you need them and none when you don’t.

Here’s another thing about outsourcing IT—it’s probably inevitable, at least for some things. More and more of us are using the cloud every day, even if that just means throwing a file into Dropbox or sharing something on Google Docs, and that means trusting our data to outside parties. IT consulting firms can help businesses do these kinds of things in ways that are more secure—and that also offer extra benefits like emergency backup.

IT firms can work with companies a variety of ways—from troubleshooting email problems to developing a cloud strategy for connecting remote offices. But you probably won’t know which solutions might make sense for your office until you start asking.

The State of the IT Worker

According to a survey done by Information Week, the average IT professional makes 90,000, with a prospective one percent raise, every year. Special skills in things like wireless infrastructure and cloud computing topped one hundred thousand a year. That’s a fair chunk of change. So why is it that forty percent of all IT professionals looking for a new job?

Well, the survey clearly states that salary and benefits are the number one and three concerns respectively with stability between them. That seems like a no-brainer. However, forty percent of responders cited whether or not their opinion and knowledge were valued. I think that’s something that a manager or supervisor has a lot control over. A simple meeting to exchange and discuss ideas could improve office moral. Another factor that stood out was that twenty-two percent of IT professionals cited seeing their work contributing to company success as important. This is an old story on why blue collar workers are happier (at least in the past fifty years). They see the fruits of their labor. If IT professionals can see that their work is actually doing something it will increase their own sense of self.

The IT workplace is evolving. More and more programming and help desk jobs are being sent overseas. If you’re an IT worker and reading the writing on the wall, you should consider an occupation better suited to the post industrial age. All indicators point towards business analysis as the up and coming IT position. Business in the information age is done at a dizzying pace. Combine that with a more unstable economic environment, business leaders require more and more projections. Business Analysis is all about an interdisciplinary approach toward solving problems, utilizing tech savvy and business sense. It’s the way of the future.

Check this video out to learn more:

Windows Azure, Leap Day and Cloud Computing

On Feb. 29, many users of Microsoft cloud computing service Windows Azure found their systems unavailable, and, for some, the outage continued into the next day. Microsoft has apologized, issued refunds to affected customers and promised to learn from the incident.

The company says the problems were the result of a “Leap Day bug,” an error related to date/time values. In a blog post, Bill Laing, vice president of Microsoft’s Server and Cloud Division, wrote that the problem emerged from the system’s attempt to create “valid-to” dates one year in the future, which Azure figured would be February 29, 2013. Since that day doesn’t exist, the certification creation failed, and users ended up being shut out of their cloud systems.

Then, Laing wrote, Microsoft inadvertently sent out an update package that wasn’t compatible with some companies’ host agents, which meant a delay in getting back to business.

The issue occurred at a time when many businesses are considering whether to go the cloud computing route, and for what operations. Azure is a prominent name in the space, along with products from Amazon, Google and other companies.

It may not be surprising that there would be bugs in cloud systems. They’re complicated, and pretty new. Windows Azure only became generally available in 2010. Then again, there are also plenty of potential pitfalls in storing data and software on-site. Keeping multiple computers updated with new software and security systems isn’t easy, and local servers—not to mention employees’ laptops—are vulnerable to all sorts of disasters. IT support firms can clarify these issues and help businesses choose the best tools—whether local or virtual—for their needs.

In response to the Leap Day problems, Microsoft has promised a number of improvements to its methods. Among other things, Laing wrote, the company will test its offerings better to avoid problems related to time and date values, work to detect errors more quickly and make customers’ dashboard interfaces more consistently available. The company also pledged to improve customer support and communications tools so that, in the event of an incident, those affected will have quicker access to better information about what’s going on.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is giving a 33 percent credit for the affected billing months for all users of the affected services—Azure Compute, Access Control, Service Bus and Caching—even if their service wasn’t interrupted.

Microsoft must be hoping the slip-up won’t hurt Azure, especially since cloud computing is more and more on the minds of businesses that are choosing how to deal with their data most simply and affordably. In its quest to win over those potential customers, the company also recently cut the price of Azure, following Google and Amazon, which have done the same for their cloud offerings.

Cloud Computing for Small Business

Should you move your small business to a cloud computing platform?

Cloud computing centralizes your software and data on an Internet platform rather than on your desktop, laptop or on a server. Since the users will be sharing storage space, bandwidth, memory, software and processing power, you can amalgamate these functionalities and have one good system rather than furnishing all your staff members with powerful PCs or laptops replete with software and security packages. This holds many advantages for the small business owner:

  • Software tools are accessed online and don’t have to be installed on each computer. This means a reduction in software costs and IT department calls to install or maintain software on each and every device. You can even rent software rather than buying expensive packages upfront.
  • Massive savings on IT costs. Cloud hosting companies automatically load updates and patches and maintain your software and data. Your IT costs are reduced and the hosting company provides all your support, negating the need for an on-site IT department or specialist.
  • You save on hardware costs as expensive servers and data storage devices become a thing of the past.
  • Increased security: Anti-virus software, firewalls and spam protection is available on cloud at a fraction of the cost that a small business would have to pay independently for the same level of protection.
  • No unforeseen expenses: A service contract with your cloud provider covers all the IT maintenance and troubleshooting you need in a month. This makes for predictable monthly expenses as you pay a fixed monthly fee.
  • Broader telecommuting possibilities: Being able to access your information and software enables employees to work from home or on their own personal devices. This means no late nights at the office which improves employee satisfaction and increases off-site work options.
  • Great opportunity for new businesses: New businesses have a lower initial outlay and faster deployment. Since cloud is location and device independent, you don’t even have to have your office up and running to start making money.

Not everything about the cloud is silver lining. Unscheduled downtime will prevent you from accessing your data or using software that may be integral to the functioning of your business. Instead of having other computers which can be utilized to keep business ticking over, you are completely dependent on the availability of your cloud provider.

You must have sufficient security protocols in place to ensure the safety of your data. Establish policies on security for employees who work off site or use their own devices to access data and software. If security policies are in place, your data should be safe.


About Microsoft’s new Office 365 service, and what it means to small business – Part One

Microsoft Office 365 is Microsoft’s newest entry in the Office series of products.  It is a cloud-based platform, which means that all of the programs are stored and accessible online, rather than being on a local hard drive.

When we say “Office in a Cloud”, the first thing you may think of is simply having the usual Office programs – Excel, Word, etc. – hosted on the web instead of on your hard drive.  While this is the case (though some subscriptions to Microsoft Office 365 allow for hard drive downloads of these basic programs), Office 365 promises to greatly expand on this core functionality to make itself an “all in one” solution to your professional consultancy or small business.

Let’s take a look at what Microsoft Office 365 offers over the traditional versions of the program:

Available anywhere:

As with all cloud programs, one of Office 365’s big “claims to fame” is that you can use its services anywhere – on any of your computers (home or work), your mobile devices, your tablet, and much more.  Rather than having to worry about what files and programs are on which computer, now all of your computers are on exactly the same page with one another.

This also means that your Microsoft Exchange data, including contacts, emails and calendars are also always in sync with one another, no matter what platform you’re viewing them on.

Collaborative access:

Let’s imagine that you have an Excel document you’re working on with other people in your business.  In the past, each person would make changes and then email it along to another – a chain that leads to terrible version control issues, errors, and much more.

With Office 365, users can edit Excel spreadsheets with others in real time.  All changes are tracked and documented, so you can always be sure you’re working on the latest version of the Excel file, every time.

A Look At The Major Cloud Computing Players – Rackspace

Today we complete our look at Cloud Computing with Rackspace, a lesser-known but very important company in the Cloud realm.


Rackspace is similar to Amazon Web Services – they offer specific cloud based solutions aimed at the technical side of your business (the IT department).  Like Amazon Web Services, they offer flexible pricing plans and server space that can be expanded or contracted in a matter of minutes.

In Conclusion:

Cloud Computing is an exciting area of growth for the technology sector, and we hope these snapshots of the major players have allowed you to get a better handle on what exists currently in Cloud Computing – and a hint of what you can expect in the future!

A Look At The Major Cloud Computing Players – Google

In this week’s blog post, we’re continuing our look at the major Cloud Computing players by focusing on a titan in the industry, Google.

Google has been working in the cloud space for some time, and is primarily known for their Google Apps programs, which include: Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs, Google Sites and much more.

Google argues that cloud computing is the way of the future for a variety of different reasons.  Google Docs, for instance, offers a level of online collaboration not seen in standard software-based solutions.

Google also highlights the big impact that Cloud Computing can have in terms of tweaks to programs.  Quoting from their online blog, “In 2009 alone, we launched over 100 improvements [to our online applications], and customers didn’t need to manage any upgrades or patches”.  The easy-to-update, always evolving approach means that users don’t have to consistently re-learn new software every few years – instead, their knowledge grows slowly and consistently, as the software does.

In Conclusion:

Google has been a major leader in the cloud space, and their leadership is likely to continue as cloud applications continue to become more dominant.

Stay tuned next week for a look at Rackspace, and a perspective on where Cloud Computing is heading.

A Look At The Major Cloud Computing Players – Amazon Web Services

We continue our look at the major players in Cloud Computing this week with one of its innovators – Amazon Web Services.

As grew, it built powerful cloud-based hardware solutions to grow with them.  Amazon Web Services takes this cloud architecture and offers it to businesses across the world.

Amazon Web Services encompasses a number of very specific offerings, and while Microsoft’s cloud solutions are aimed at the consumer level, Amazon Web Services is targeted primarily at the IT provider level.

Like many other cloud providers, Amazon Web Services prides itself on the unique pricing structure of Cloud Computing – subscribers to their services only pay for the capacity that is actually used.

In Conclusion:

If you’re looking at a solid DIY solution to your Cloud needs, Amazon can be a great provider.  However, if you’re looking for a solution that’s ready “out of the box”, you may want to look at a few of our other featured players.

Stay tuned to our blog for more perspectives on other Cloud players like Google and Rackspace.