Rackspace Open Cloud Takes on Amazon AWS

The vendor rolls out three Open Cloud offerings--Cloud Servers, Control Panel and Cloud Databases--based on the OpenStack cloud project. Can Rackspace turn OpenStack into the de facto standard? What does Open Cloud have that AWS doesn't? Find out.

Mike Fratto

August 2, 2012

12 Min Read
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Vendor: Rackspace
Product Family: Open Cloud
Availability: Today

What Is It? Open Cloud is a suite of offerings based on the OpenStack cloud environment, which runs on the open source XenServer. Open Cloud includes the following new services:

• Cloud Servers, a server virtualization offering;

• Control panel, a customer portal for managing all Rackspace products, and;

• Cloud Databases, a MySQL 5.1 database service.

Open Cloud also includes the following services, which are in limited preview release and should be available by the fourth quarter:

•  Cloud Monitoring

• Cloud Networks, which is based on OpenStack's Quantum module; and

• Cloud Block Storage, based on Swift.

Three existing services--a content delivery network (CDN) called Cloud Files; Cloud Backup; and Cloud Load Balancers--round out Open Cloud.

Problem Statement

Cloud computing platforms tend to lock customers into proprietary file formats and service APIs. Since there are few standards governing cloud computing, relying on an open source project like OpenStack means customers face fewer lock-in issues from their cloud service providers.

Vendor Claims

• No lock in with Cloud Servers.

• Support for hybrid cloud usage models, which allows users to run public and private clouds across multiple cloud providers.

• High-performance MySQL instances with Cloud Databases. The instances are partitioned from other customers and metered like a utility based on CPU and RAM usage over time.

Next: Analysis of Rackspace's OpenStack Cloud ServicesRackspace is replacing its existing cloud service, Rackspace Cloud, with Open Cloud.

Like other IaaS cloud providers, it has an uphill battle against Amazon Web Services (AWS). Amazon is such a well-known cloud brand that it helped popularize the term cloud computing, and it continues to expand its customer base as well as feature sets. To compete against Amazon, providers need to make their cloud experiences not only just as easy, but also better, all while charging a comparable price. That's tough, considering Amazon's products run the gamut from basic cloud services to SQL and NoSQL databases, object and block storage, and identity and access management.

OpenStack provides a solid basis for Rackspace to build a product that competes well with Amazon, but Open Cloud isn't as full featured--it lacks multiple database services, payment services, block storage and workflow services. Cloud Server also costs approximately 66% more than competing AWS EC2 instances--but it includes around-the-clock telephone support, which is an extra charge with AWS.

HP also recently launched HP Cloud, its OpenStack-based cloud service, which is in public beta. On Wednesday, HP's Cloud Object Storage and Content Delivery Network moved to general availability, while HP Cloud Compute, HP Cloud Block Storage and HP Cloud Relational Database for My SQL remain in public beta. HP Cloud offers similar features to Rackspace Open Cloud, since both are based on OpenStack, but Rackspace is able to use its existing Cloud Backup and Cloud Load Balancing services.

Rackspace Cloud isn't being discontinued and customers won't be forced to migrate to Cloud Servers--but development on it won't continue. Rackspace is developing new features for only Open Cloud. Migrating from the old service to Open Cloud is currently a manual process--Rackspace says the automated version will be available by year's end. Existing customers can provision new VMs on Cloud Servers, and they'll work seamlessly with the VMs on Rackspace Cloud.

VM Import/Export Coming

Rackspace claims Cloud Servers helps users avoid lock in. Normally with IaaS, VM images are created within the cloud service and can't be exported to competing services, locking the customer in. While it's true that the open source Xen hypervisor underpins OpenStack, on the initial release customers won't be able to import or export Xen-based VMs into or out of Cloud Servers. According to Rackspace CTO John Engates "there are other issues, like number of partitions, number of interfaces, Xen Tools, version, etc., that make it [migrating Xen Server images] challenging," but the company is developing a tool that will automate importing existing VMs created by hypervisors like VMware's vSphere or Microsoft's Hyper-V into Cloud Servers, as well as a tool to export VMs.

By comparison, Amazon does have an import and export service that converts imported VM images from VMware's ESX, Microsoft's Hyper-V and XenServer to Amazon Machine Images (AMIs). Amazon currently doesn't offer a way to export an AMI VM image that was created in AWS, but you can export previously imported VMs.

While a VM import/export capability seems useful, customers are probably better off creating new VMs in the cloud service, configuring the runtime environment, and then importing and exporting the applications and data rather than moving the entire VM images. Doing so saves the cost of transporting the VM over the WAN as well as storing them in the cloud service. However, being able to export VMs and store them in a local data center provides a certain comfort factor for organizations concerned with lock-in and could help with migrating applications from one public cloud service to another.

Next: The OpenStack EcosystemRackspace's Cloud Servers benefits from the diverse vendor support for OpenStack, such as that from cloud management vendors RightScale and enStratus, storage vendors Ctera and NetApp, and networking vendors Cisco and HP. The open source nature of OpenStack provides a rich foundation for any vendor to develop for the platform and compete in a level playing field. Rackspace also benefits from free development on the OpenStack project. Open source projects are the next best thing to standards since there is one canonical distribution. As long as the project isn't forked into disparate ventures, vendors can integrate with the open source platforms and focus on adding features rather than integrating with a number of diverse platforms.

Rackspace can't diverge far from the OpenStack distribution because it risks losing intrinsic third-party support for Cloud Servers and alienating developers. However, Engates did say there were some minor differences between the OpenStack API and Rackspace's but added that the differences shouldn't pose any problems. Since Rackspace has been a contributor to OpenStack since the beginning, it's likely that Open Cloud will remain true to the project.

Our recent report, "Research: Private Cloud Vision vs. Reality," found that 61% of 414 respondents starting a private cloud project planned to use a hybrid cloud. Rackspace recognizes this trend, and is promoting its Open Cloud as hybrid cloud-friendly. However, its version of hybrid cloud refers to connecting Cloud Servers to other servers within the Rackspace hosting environment, or using its RackConnect service, which creates a VPN between your data center and Open Cloud.

Cloud Severs can't manage or be managed by other OpenStack installations, so there is currently no way to extend your private cloud from your data center to Cloud Servers and have a single management instance. Managing multiple cloud installations from a single console requires a service like enStratus or RightScale, which supports a number of cloud software systems like OpenStack and services like Cloud Servers.

What's Missing

Missing from Open Cloud is support for OpenStack's Quantum project, which provides advanced features such as multi-tenant networking, a plug-in framework to support software-defined networking (SDN), and support for customer-defined networking tiers. Also missing is support for block storage, which is used when high-speed I/O is needed or when applications want to read and write to a SATA or SSD physical drive. Rackspace's Cloud Networks is based on Quantum.

There may be trouble ahead for Quantum, however. Nicira, which was recently acquired by VMware, was leading the Quantum effort. VMware's CTO, Steve Herrod, has committed to continuing support for Open vSwitch and the OpenStack project, but companies like Rackspace should be worried that VMware will provide limited resources for projects like Quantum because they benefit competitors. Engates said he believes VMware is becoming more open source-friendly, and continued support of such technologies provides greater opportunities for collaboration between VMware and projects like OpenStack.

Rackspace's Cloud Databases offers MySQL 5.1 as a hosted service. Rather than running MySQL in an OpenStack VM, the MySQL application will run on Linux Containers, which provide process separation between MySQL instances and can limit CPU, RAM and I/O. Rackspace chose Linux Containers because it provides better control over resources than a general purpose hypervisor. The vendor doesn't have a NoSQL service like Amazon's DynamoDB or Microsoft's Big Data, which takes it out of the running for big data applications.

Next: Pricing for Rackspace's OpenStack Cloud OfferingsComparing pricing among cloud services is difficult because each service offers different-sized VMs. We selected a common-sized VM from Amazon, HP's Open Cloud and Rackspace. The only significant variance is the attached disk size. Since HP Cloud Compute is still in beta, the service price is discounted, but we used the full price for the comparison. Amazon and HP Cloud pricing are matched at 16 cents per hour or $115.20 per 30-day period, while Rackspace's price is 24 cents per hour, or $172.80 per 30-day period. That's a significant price difference.

Rackspace charges 18 cents per gigabyte per month for network transmission pricing, which is higher than either Amazon or HP--both start at 12 cents per gigabyte per month, up to 1 terabyte. After 1TB, Amazon's usage pricing drops. HP simply matches Amazon's prices.

Rackspace is quick to point in its comparison of Cloud Servers and Amazon EC2 that its higher price includes premium support such as 24/7 telephone help and fast response times. Premium support is an extra service charge for AWS customers. Amazon's Business support package, which includes around-the-clock support with a one- hour response time, costs $100 per month or 10% of the AWS monthly usage for the first $10,000 spent, whichever is greater. What Rackspace fails to mention is that the point where Amazon EC2 with Premium support and Rackspace Cloud with the included support costs the same occurs at 1,250 compute hours per month. That's less than two compute instances running for 30 days. We asked Rackspace representatives about the price difference. "We continually evaluate our pricing as we strive to be market competitive, but we expect to be at a premium to the market due to our emphasis on fanatical support," was the reply.

HP Cloud comes with around-the-clock telephone, email and chat support. Given HP's price matching with Amazon, it looks like the best offering for basic cloud. The pricing and support charges may change when HP Cloud becomes generally available.

Be aware that the 10% of AWS usages is a combined total of all of the AWS services used by a single account. Amazon doesn't offer support contracts for individual services because it says since its "customers are using multiple infrastructure Web services together within the same application, we've designed AWS Support with this in mind." Customers could end up paying for premium support costs that they don't want.

Conclusion: Rackspace Open Cloud's chances vs. AWS

Rackspace is making the right moves with Open Cloud, but it must maintain API compatibility with OpenStack to successfully challenge AWS. If the APIs diverge too much from OpenStack distribution, Rackspace loses the third-party support that comes with OpenStack. Amazon has successfully nurtured a rich third-party ecosystem, to the point that some analysts point to the company's API as the de facto standard that every other cloud vendor should emulate. Any competing public cloud service needs its own broad set of partners to be successful.

Given the pricing differences for compute and networking compared with Amazon, Rackspace is going to have to convince customers that it provides better value than AWS.

Cloud Services




Amazon Web Services

The market leader. Offers a diverse set of services, from cloud to payment processing. Fosters a rich ecosystem of integration partners.

Perceived as a closed platform. Has had a number of public outages caused by a range of factors, from thunderstorms to lightning. It suffered an extended failure in April 2011 that was exacerbated by automated recovery procedures.


Has run cloud services since 2008. Offers a complete set of services, including dedicated servers and delegated management.

Offers fewer services and partners than Amazon.

Google Compute Engine

Nice integration with Google App Engine PaaS. Can leverage Google Storage service.

Still in limited preview. Linux VMs only. Focused on batch processing.

HP Cloud

OpenStack-based cloud. A large number of established partners signed up for the program.

Still in limited preview. No runtime history. No support for database services like noSQL. No support for Microsoft Windows Server VMs.

Microsoft Azure

Supports PaaS and IaaS services within Azure. Offers a range of services, including a big data service and media encoding and streaming.

Relatively new IaaS service offering. Still building the partner ecosystem. Has had some recent outages.

Rackspace Open Cloud

Based on OpenStack. Offers integration with its dedicated services. Potential to leverage third-party OpenStack integration efforts.

Migration strategy is manual. No import/export of VMs. Support for advanced networking and block storage not yet available. Only way to manage a private OpenStack cloud and Rackspace's is via third-party management systems.


Instance Size

Linux Per Hour

Windows Per Hour


Standard On-Demand Medium Instance, 3.75GB RAM, 2 vCPUs, 410 GB disk space

16 cents

23 cents

HP Cloud

Medium Instance 4GB RAM, 2 vCPUs, 120 GB disk space

16 cents



4GB RAM, 2 vCPUs, 160GB disk space

24 cents

32 cents

About the Author(s)

Mike Fratto

Former Network Computing Editor

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