Open Source

What small cloud players can offer to compete with the giants

Nick Hardiman looks at the smaller players in the cloud space. What can small companies offer to compete with the likes of Amazon and Rackspace?

The Bytemark Hosting company is about to launch their BigV cloud offering, renting simple and low-cost virtual machines. Bytemark are a small company in York, UK. Surely, they can't afford to stuff warehouses full of machines, like Amazon, Microsoft and HP can. Not only that, these guys built their own hosting system. There's no way a small team has the development resources to build another libcloud or Eucalyptus. What do Bytemark think they are doing?

Why create a new cloud hosting system?

The Bytemark team have built hosting systems before. The BigV system is not the first walk around the VM block for these guys. A decade of providing Internet infrastructure to customers has given Bytemark a solid knowledge of VM hosting. So solid that, when they decided to move into the cloud business, they created a cloud system to fit their business rather than fit their business to an existing cloud system.

The Bytemark team created a new clean cloud hosting design. Instead of opting for one of the popular open source cloud stacks such as OpenStack, CloudStack and OpenNebula, the Bytemark team built the new BigV system from a box of open source parts.

One of the aims is to improve uptime: use fewer layers of abstraction to simplify the engineering. If the engineering is simplified, cost decreases, component quality increases, problems are easier to identify, and operational support is easier to manage.

How did Bytemark create BigV?

The Bytemark team stayed within their field of expertise. They don't try to do everything -- they do what they are good at. The Bytemark team built on the work of others by assembling an open source product portfolio (Linux KVM and qemu as the technical heart of the new BigV system, NBD for storage, and buckets of Ruby).

The BigV architecture has three main areas - the head, the tail and the brain - that communicate with a spine protocol (less an anatomy metaphor, more a 50s B-movie). It's more complicated than a VM cluster, and less complicated than OpenStack.

Bytemark provide an open source command line client for working with BigV. If you are used to working with complicated AWS commands, you will find the BigV command set is simple. But if you refuse to work with a Command Line Interface, you're out of luck.

Why call BigV a cloud?

A cloud is many things to many people. It's best to start with the simple genius of Dave Nielsen's phrase "cloud computing is OSSM (Awesome)". The OSSM acronym means On-demand, Self-service, Scalable and Measurable.

On-demand

Customers can make changes on the fly using the BigV client. A key part of the BigV approach is to expose all the useful KVM functions to customers. You can create and destroy VMs, change the memory and number of CPUs and so on.

Self-service

The client controls VMs. The website allows access to account details and DNS.

Bytemark threw in a bunch of self-service goodies into the BigV offering.

  • a free client that makes web service calls to BigV services. All VM work is done using the CLI (Command Line Interface).
  • A choice of disks. Choose ordinary SATA disks or fast SSD disks.
  • Use your own CD-ROM to install your own OS. FreeBSD, Windows, an obscure Linux distro - if it works with KVM, you can install it.
Scalable

A customer can scale up by increasing the capacity of one machine. If an application is running out of memory, the memory can be whacked up to the 120GB maximum. It is not infinitely scalable, but that is more memory than EC2 machine types have. A customer can also scale out by adding more identical machines.

The beta test ran several hundred machines on one installation. More will be added, but they are not added yet. The BigV systems can be duplicated to provide more capacity for more customers.

Measurable

BigV customers pay for what is used with metered payments. Regular reports let customers check their bills.

What's missing?

Loads -- compared to Amazon Web Services. Compare pretty much any cloud hosting service to a small player like BigV, and you will find AWS has way more stuff - no-one can beat AWS on its breadth of services.

What these other companies do is offer a subset of the services AWS offers - a subset that is better, faster or cheaper. For example, CloudSigma bill in five-minute blocks, rather than the AWS hour. Rightscale is multi-cloud, not just AWS. StormOnDemand offer cheaper SSD (Solid State Drive) VMs than AWS. Ylastic takes pride in what's missing -- its web UI is straightforward compared to AWS's crowded browser.

One of BigV's missing components is a decent Web UI (User Interface). Customers can use a browser for account management and DNS, but not for VM work. Perhaps someone will hack a web front end like Scalr to work with the BigV API in future, but it doesn't exist now.

Some BigV services are in development but aren't quite here. Private LANs, more data centers and disk snapshots will be ready in the coming months, but not in time for the launch.

BigV systems only exist in the UK. A BigV customer who has extreme latency and bandwidth requirements could combine this service with a CDN (Content Delivery Network) like Akamai's, but in practice, there is little point. Customers around the world won't even realize their content is crossing continents.

Who will sign up?

Most cloud service customers flock to the same providers that their peers do. It's less about due diligence and more about safety in numbers.

For the rest of the market, BigV, along with the many other small new cloud service providers, represents the egalitarian side of the cloud revolution. All the small providers, even the IaaS providers, can bring unmatched innovation to the new global market.

About

Nick Hardiman builds and maintains the infrastructure required to run Internet services. Nick deals with the lower layers of the Internet - the machines, networks, operating systems, and applications. Nick's job stops there, and he hands over to the ...

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