Category Archives: Amazon

Updated Virtual Hosting Buyer’s Guide

I updated the virtual hosting buyer’s guide that I’ve been maintaining for a while now; I also gave it its own permalink so I wouldn’t have to keep looking at old posts on this blog to figure out where the data resided. It now lives at http://blog.jeffreymcmanus.com/projects/hosting.

Today’s big news is Amazon’s announcement of EC2 Micro instances, which for the first time gives them price leadership at the very important (to us) low end of the product line. Being able to spin up a server for $14.40 a month is going to be very useful; I’m thinking that instead of provisioning student accounts for certain types of CodeLesson courses, we will just provision student servers, one per student, and let everybody abuse their own instance.

It’s also terrific that you can get a Windows server at this size too (for an extra $0.01 an hour or $23.10 a month). Since we unfortunately still have some Windows hosting requirements it’s likely we’ll be using this at some point this year.

Comparative Pricing for Virtual Hosting Providers

Rackspace just launched a new suite of cloud computing (really virtualized hosting) products. We use a bunch of these products from different companies. We also have a consulting practice dedicated to Amazon’s EC2 offering, so I wanted to take a closer look at how the different offerings stack up in terms of price and features. I also compared the new Rackspace offering to Slicehost, which we’ve used for a while and are very happy with. (Slicehost was acquired by Rackspace in October of last year, so they’re the same company, but very different products. It looks like they’re continuing to run Slicehost as an independent brand, which I think is smart.)

Anyway, here’s my comparison. Bear in mind that this is not an apples/apples comparison (the details are below):

Rackspace Cloud Slicehost Amazon EC2 Small
RAM (MB)
256 256 1700
HD (GB)
10 10 160
Processor
Some vaguely-defined fraction of a quad-core server Some vaguely-defined fraction of a quad-core server Equivalent to a single-core 1.0-1.2Ghz 2007 Opteron
Price/Hour
$0.015
N/A
$0.10
Price/Day
$0.36
N/A
$2.40
Price/Month
$10.80 $20.00 $72.00
$61.20 as of Nov. 1 2009
Bandwidth Out/GB
$0.22 100GB fixed pooled $0.17
Bandwidth In/GB
$0.08 100GB fixed pooled $0.10

So it looks like the Rackspace-branded offering significantly undercuts the Slicehost offering on price in every category as long as your bandwidth is less than about 42GB per month. If your site uses more bandwidth than that, Slicehost would be a better value, particularly if you run more than one instance, since Slicehost pools bandwidth allocations across all the virtual machines you run on their service. Rackspace Cloud is also cheaper than Amazon EC2 across the board except in one area (bandwidth out).

The chart doesn’t reflect this, but Amazon extends volume discounts on outbound bandwidth starting at 40 terabytes. We refer to this as “the Smugmug discount”; I suspect that not too many of their customers beside Smugmug hit this limit in practice (and we certainly never have), so it didn’t factor into my analysis here.

I included Amazon EC2 in this comparison because they get so much attention in this area. To be fair, Amazon has never positioned EC2 as a low-cost offering, instead emphasizing flexibility and the ability to pay as you go. But this comparison shows that the Amazon offering has a weakness in terms of price points (as opposed to price in an absolute sense). There’s no such thing as a “tiny” EC2 instance; their “small” size doesn’t correlate to the Rackspace/Slicehost offering, so they’re missing out on the low end (which in this case is a single-processor virtual machine with under 1GB of RAM). The smallest virtual machine you can run on Amazon’s EC2 has 1.7GB of RAM and 160GB of storage. This makes Amazon EC2 unappealing for a lot of developer use cases, such as temporary staging servers for QA, private/small workgroup collaboration servers (low-traffic blog hosting, file shares and version control servers), and so forth.

(You can pay for a year’s worth of EC2 service in advance and get a pretty significant discount on the per-hour charge; Amazon calls this a “reserved instance“. This might make economic sense depending on what you were looking to do, although it’s not going to beat Rackspace for on-demand scenarios. Again, the problem with the Amazon’s EC2 offering isn’t with price per se, it’s with the price point — they just don’t offer a low-end virtual machine.)

It’s also worth noting that the offerings differ in another area: the ability to spin up and manage machine instances programmatically. Amazon EC2 is far and away the most robust provider in this area, with a web services API that enables users to control most aspects of their virtual machine instances. Slicehost has a rudimentary API, while Rackspace Cloud’s programmable API offering is “coming soon”.

Slicehost also has one feature that we really like: they provide DNS hosting for their customers at no extra charge (their DNS service is also part of their API). Amazon doesn’t appear to provide DNS (although they do generate a DNS name automatically when you create an instance — if you want to designate a host name of your choice, you’re on your own).

Amazon EC2’s large library of machine images (including the ability to create and publish your own machine image) is a big strength and one that many developers have taken advantage of. It’s probably the most compelling feature of their offering in a world in which they are not particularly competitive on price.

Finally, it’s worth noting that of these, only Amazon EC2 offers Windows hosting (which Microsoft will make you pay through the nose for). The Slicehost and Rackspace offerings only contain operating system images for Linux (although they support a bunch of distributions).

I’m spending a lot of time thinking on this as I figure out how to create a hosted service out of the Tinypug project we’ve been working on. For now, we plan to continue to use Slicehost and Amazon EC2 to host client sites as we evaluate the Rackspace Cloud offering in more depth.

Windows on Amazon EC2

Back in February I suggested that Amazon and Microsoft should figure out a way to provide Windows Server on Amazon’s EC2 hosting service. Three weeks ago, Amazon announced a private beta of their Windows hosting service on EC2; today they are opening EC2 on Windows up to everyone.

Their pricing is interesting. It’s slightly more than what you’d pay for a Linux distribution, which is no surprise, but if you’re paying for dedicated Windows hosting today, you will still probably save a significant amount of money with EC2 (particularly if you have spikey traffic and need to spin up and take down servers in response to load). A small EC2 instance running Windows Server 2003 will set you back about $91/month ($0.125 per hour). That’s less than half of what we’re paying per dedicated server at our Windows hosting provider today (ServerBeach) (however, see note below).

Note, however, that you only get that price if you don’t need SQL Server Standard Edition (the non-crippled version of SQL Server that lets you use all your RAM and hard disk space — that is to say, the only edition you’d ever want to actually use in a production environment). Running SQL Standard on an EC2 instance will set you back $1.10 per hour — more than $800 per month for a single server. Ouch.

It gets worse from there — if you need more than five Windows user accounts, you need to use something called Windows Authentication Services, which costs used to cost a lot more (see update 2 below). A standard EC2 instance running Windows Server, SQL Server Standard and Authentication Services will set you back something north of $980 per month. I’d be interested to know what kind of user is going to shell out for this package — the pricing seems almost punative.

So it sounds like Windows on EC2 is a great deal, as long as you just use it to run Windows and bag all that other stuff. Bear in mind that you can create spectacular data-driven Web applications without SQL Server. For .NET developers, the ease of programming is the same (since it’s all ADO.NET). Setting up MySQL on Windows is not difficult, and it runs quite well on Windows.

We’ve been doing MySQL on Windows (as well as Linux) for a couple of years now. You might have caught my talks on using MySQL on Windows at the MySQL conferences (both this year and last year) and at the VSLive conferences over past year and a half. If you have or are planning to build a Windows application and host it on EC2, we would love to help you as part of our Amazon Web Services consultancy.

Update: I pointed out to ServerBeach that Amazon EC2 was undercutting them significantly on Windows Server hosting, and after some back and forth they agreed to match Amazon’s price, which means that at least one part of the economy is still working the way it’s supposed to.

Update 2: I am guessing that a lot of other people did the same pricing arithmetic that I did and stayed away from the “Authentication Services” product, because Amazon/Microsoft just bagged that pricing tier. Now Windows Servers that require logins are billed at the same rate, which has the happy side effect of simplifying the product offering considerably. Kudos!

New Platform Consulting Products: Amazon and Facebook

Just posted three new categories of consulting practices over on the consulting web site:

  • Facebook (application strategy, corporate presence and application development)
  • Amazon Web Services (focusing on their S3 storage and EC2 hosting products)

The Facebook and Amazon practices actually aren’t new, but we’ve packaged them up in the form of consulting practices and put them on the web site for the first time.

We’re launching these practices at the same time because they’re somewhat related. The Facebook/Amazon EC2 in particular is powerful mojo; we’re just about to release a Facebook application for a client that uses Facebook and EC2 together.

SanDisk Flash Drive to Offer Web Storage

Link: SanDisk Flash Drive to Offer Automatic Web Storage

The web storage service they’re using is none other than Amazon S3. The pricing model (first six months free to get consumers hooked, then $30 a year) is smart, too — providing a fixed price for a variable-priced storage service is crucial for consumers, but at the same time it gives them the opportunity to make an interesting margin. And the markup on this service is gigantic (as much as 500% or more depending on how frequently the user backs up, how much they store and how much data they send).

Shortcuts to Amazon MP3 Search

Yahoo! Search’s "Open Shortcuts" feature is the thing that keeps me using Yahoo! Search. It’s sort of a geek/power user feature, but it’s incredibly useful if you do lots of searches on specific sites. I find search shortcuts particularly useful for media sites such as Netflix and eMusic — because so many web sites talk about media, it’s better to use a site-specific search to cut through all the noise and go straight to the download.

I have shortcuts for Netflix and eMusic already, but it occurred to me this morning that it might be handy to have a search for the Amazon MP3 store as well. So here’s how to use the Yahoo! Open Shortcuts feature with Amazon’s MP3 store:

  1. Go to search.yahoo.com
  2. Log in to Yahoo! if you aren’t logged in already
  3. In the search box, type:

    (copy and paste the contents of this text box)
  4. Click on the Search button

You’ll see a confirmation page. Once you’ve confirmed, you can use your shortcut. To do this, from any Yahoo! search box, type:

!mp3 feist

(Replace "Feist" with the name of the artist or song you’re searching for, and don’t forget to precede the whole thing with an exclamation point.) You’ll be taken straight to Amazon.com’s search results for the search term you specified.

Now somebody needs to create a search engine that searches only for downloads from eMusic and Amazon.

Amazon Rolls Out New EC2 Server Types

Amazon.com added some beefier server configurations to their EC2 virtualization product (and some new price points). You can now get a virtual 64-bit server with 7.5 GB of RAM and 850 GB of storage for $0.40 for hour or a big burrito with 15GB of RAM and 1,690 GB of storage for $0.80 per hour. These are a step up from the basic offering which still costs $0.10 per hour.

Amazon S3 Provides Service-Level Agreement

Terrific news, Amazon’s Simple Storage Service now has an SLA. This is one of the big features that they were missing and I suspect it’s going to go a long way toward making S3 more attractive as a commodity storage service.

As with a lot of these things, there are a bunch of caveats. They’re only providing service credits against future usage, not refunds, so if something goes totally kablooey and you want to stop using the service, you can’t get your money back. Also, you have to monitor your own success/failure rate (I suspect that S3 developers will start devoting more attention to logging and reporting on their use of the service; we do a lot of this for Approver.com already).

Even if they flawlessly maintain their 99.9% uptime guarantee (or if no of their users ever applies for the credit), simply drawing a line in the sand and saying "this is our uptime guarantee" is a big deal.

New Amazon MP3 Store is Righteous

I heard a rumor that the one millionth Amazon.com MP3 store fanboy blog post would win a free frozen turkey delivered personally by Jeff Bezos, so here goes.

I needed to buy the Lily Allen record because she’s just cute as a button and appears to embody every facet of British womanhood, so I decided to use the Amazon store to do this. It worked flawlessly after I got the downloader installed. Can’t beat the price, either: US$7.99 for the whole album (just US$0.61 per track), and it’s all encoded as a gorgeous hi-fidelity 256bit VBR MP3.

One minor wrinkle — by default, the downloader is configured to save MP3s to a folder called "Amazon MP3" in your music folder. Having every download service create its own download folder is the wrong choice, but fortunately it’s easily remedied in the program preferences.

The other concern I had is with the download process. Amazon (and eMusic, and lots of others) make you download a little client program that downloads the music tracks for you, presumably so that internet gnomes don’t abscond with the valuable $0.61 music tracks I’m downloading while they’re whipping through the interwebs into my computer. But what happens when there are 20 different competing music stores that I want to buy from? Am I supposed to have 20 different music downloaders installed on all my computers?

Amazon Bucket-Testing New Home Page Design

Amazon.com is previewing a new home page redesign with some of their users (in the exciting world of springing jarring changes onto the users of unreasonably large web sites, this is known as ‘bucket-testing’). You might not see the changes when you go to Amazon unless they put your account in the test bucket.

I’m not wild about the changes. I like the navigational tabs on top, where they used to be, instead of off to the side. To accommodate this, they made the new design much too wide (about 250 pixels wider than their previous design, I’d estimate — I had to resize my browser so I could see the whole page). The “TV Month” promo also takes up way too much space and the “What Do Customers Buy” widget is out of place on the home page (it should really only appear on a product page, since “What Do Customers Buy” is intended to provide an alternative to a specific product you’re looking at).