Rackspace is not a new company in the cloud marketplace and should be considered a viable choice when shopping for cloud products and services. They offer an array of cloud options that may be appealing to small and medium businesses. The challenge is finding what products and services enhance businesses, not capsize them. Here is a look at some of the offerings that might make Rackspace become your place.

Customer support gone fanatical

I wouldn’t do Rackspace justice if I didn’t mention a key ingredient to their cloud model upfront and that is their robust customer support program. They call it “Fanatical Support” for a reason and it’s a big part of their service-oriented model. They want to ensure their customers that even though they don’t have “hands-on”, they’re still in control of what they own. For many businesses, this is the cornerstone of trust in cloud products.

Their “Fanatical Support” includes 24x7x365 online chat, phone and ticket support. This level of support is unparalleled for the cost, which is zero for most services, and that’s because it is included in their price structure. They also offer access to their Knowledge Center and online resources, which can provide quick answers to routine questions.

Above and beyond their standard level of support, they offer a managed service level for some products including their Cloud Servers, which includes monitoring, operating system and application infrastructure layer support, as well as technical guidance from Rackspace experts.

Your server in the clouds

Rackspace has a diverse offering of cloud-based servers that can take the place of physical servers in your network. They have the ability to expand your server quantities in minutes, whether you need 1 or 50. You can also choose the amount of memory your servers require from 256MB to 15.5GB. Of course, costs increase with the number of servers and their “hardware” requirements.

One of the options that Rackspace offers its customers is the choice of the server Operating System. You can choose from different flavors of 64-bit Linux Distributions such as Ubuntu, Debian, Gentoo, CentOS, Fedora, Arch and Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Each of the Linux Cloud Server distributions has four virtual CPUs, giving them adequate processing power. If Linux isn’t necessary, or desired, you can use Windows Server 2008. Each of these gets a scaled number of virtual cores based on the size of the server chosen. If a business needs database services, you can easily add an SQL Server 2008 R2 to the image.

Security is always a concern when discussing cloud services, but Rackspace is compliant with SAS 70 Type II on all its Cloud Servers, Cloud Files, and all their data centers.

A huge benefit to most cloud services is that they’re automatically backed up. Cloud Server data is no different and is stored in a RAID-10 configuration that provides for balanced performance and redundancy. If a host fails, all of the data can be restored. They also offer the ability to capture a “snapshot” of server images either on a scheduled basis or on request.

One of the best features of the Cloud Server product is the management ability the customer has. There is the capability to manage the cloud servers by an online control panel and API, allowing for easy upgrades or removals as needs change. However, one of the most exciting features is the ability to manage your Cloud Servers via the iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch.

Rackspace has service level agreements (SLA) that are rock solid. They offer a 100% Network Uptime Guarantee as well as a 100% HVAC/Power Uptime Guarantee. That’s hard to guarantee to match when you’re responsible for in-house equipment, especially for SMBs who don’t have dedicated IT staff.

Virtualization, CPU bursting, in-place resizing, Operating System versatility, outstanding customer service and reliable SLAs make Cloud Servers by Rackspace a must consideration for cloud implementations for small and medium businesses.

Storage in the sky

Another service that Rackspace offers, Cloud Files, may also appeal to small and medium businesses as a solution for mass storage. It provides a redundant, object-based option for storing information in the cloud. Businesses can store and retrieve files via a Web Service API, the Rackspace Cloud Control Panel, or through the My Rackspace customer portal. The cost of storage is only what you use. This helps to keep cost under control as requirements fluctuate. No buying in bulk and under-utilizing it, or not buying enough space and running out. Rates for the pay as you grow service start at 15¢/GB/Mo. An added benefit is that there are no long-term contracts to bind you down.

Cloud Files has some interesting features that make it reliable, fast and highly scalable. It is powered by OpenStack, which is an open source cloud standardization platform that has members such as Dell and NASA Nebula cloud platform. Rackspace has been a major contributor to the project and worked on fundamental source code for OpenStack.

Successful cloud storage is largely dependent on speed, and to address this, Rackspace partnered with Akamai’s content delivery network (CDN). The CDN does not statically deliver information from one central data storage location; instead it caches content at global edge locations. This saves time as the requested data is retrieved from within the same geographic location instead of traveling from the source server. Akamai states that they have over 84,000 servers in countries all over the world, which creates the robust CDN. This service is added as needed and starts at 18¢/GB. If you’re in the business of providing any type of media content to users that are far away from your data storage, CDN can improve delivery to your customers or partners.

As with the management of Cloud Servers, you can also store and manage files using the online control panel, desktop software, or programmatically via the API. A standards-based API allows custom applications to directly control the Cloud Files storage. The RESTful API has support for all major bindings such as Java Binding, .NET Binding, PHP Binding, Python Binding and Ruby Binding. This adds the flexibility to integrate this storage option within existing programs. Again, a great functionality built-in to Cloud Files is the ability to manage it on mobile devices such as your iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, or Android devices.

We can’t discuss a cloud service without at least quickly addressing one security feature. Cloud Files allows you to keep your data private or share it publically; they do this by adding the ability to mark each container that you create as either private or public. Private containers use SSL to establish a secure, encrypted channel between your application and Cloud Files storage. This helps to ensure that any data, including usernames and passwords are protected against interception. On the other hand, some public container files can have a web-ready URL that allows anyone to access it, which is great for delivering marketing material to potential customers.

The good, the bad and the ugly

Cloud Files have some great applications for small and medium businesses such as back-ups and archiving of data, images and video streaming, web-accessible data storage, application friendly APIs, and a storage medium to use when specific storage requirements are unknown. If multiple sites share data, Cloud Files will allow for a smooth shared environment.

There are instances where Cloud Files aren’t the best solution. There is no native support within Operating Systems for Cloud Files (at least not yet). Additionally you cannot map to the cloud storage or mount it as a virtual hard drive. There are limited file functions within the containers that might inhibit user requirements. Since it is somewhat of a flat file system, you cannot have nested folders.

As with any cloud product or service, you must carefully calculate all associated costs and understand current usage to accurately price utilizing it. If you are not careful, a project meant to reduce costs and increase functionality can quickly turn ugly.

…and there’s more

We didn’t get to discuss some other great offerings by Rackspace such as Cloud DNS, Cloud Sites, Cloud Drive, or the Rackspace Server Backup. I will discuss these and their applicability to small and medium businesses in future posts. If you have specific questions or issues you’d like to know more about, add them to the comments area.