Around the time of Structure 2010, the leading hosting provider The Planet announced their plans for cloud based servers. Even though the news is somewhat old, I got a chance to talk to them only recently and I thought I will offer my thoughts in this post. Earlier, they offered what they call as Cloud Storage for their dedicated server customers. It is a globally accessible NAS option which can help their customers with backup and, also, as a geographically distributed storage delivery networks for storage intensive businesses. With this move, they are offering compute on the cloud. Let me use Redmonk style Q&A model for this post.
1) Is The Planet cloud similar to Amazon EC2?
Nope. It is not similar to Amazon EC2 at all. At this point of time, it is more like a VPS but without the problems traditionally associated with the term “VPS hosting”. In future, they might add more cloudy features comparable to what other public cloud providers offer. In fact, they will be adding API access pretty soon. The reason they call it the cloud and not VPS is because the VPS industry in the traditional hosting world has really damaged the term VPS with business practices like over-subscribing, unpredictable server and network performance, etc.. The current cloud offering by The Planet is highly available virtual servers with predictable performances. The resource usage by the “neighbors” will not affect your virtual machine’s performance. Once they add API access and utility billing, they will be more in tune with the current day public IaaS providers.
2) If it is not like what the current day public cloud providers offer, what is the motivation behind this move?
Simply put, it is an attempt to safeguard their current customers from getting washed away in the cloud mania. But, there is more. This decision by Planet is based on their interactions with their existing customers. Let me explain it in a bit more detail. The Planet currently has more than 18,000 customers in their traditional hosting. Most of these customers are small businesses hosting their web sites for their web based businesses. The nature of their business requires the servers to run 24/7. Clearly, the utility pricing model of Amazon EC2 is expensive for these kind of situations. The costs associated with the Planet’s traditional hosting servers are also expensive compared to today’s cloud pricing. The Planet was looking for a way to offer cheaper cloud hosting without incurring the over provisioning costs associated with the unexpected nature of the utility based cloud model. This approach helps to keep their existing customers with them by offering them a competitive cloud era pricing. Since these customers are not interested in utility pricing model, it works perfect for The Planet too. Their capacity management is more aligned to their demand and, unlike providers like Amazon and others, they need not build additional capacity they may not even need.
3) What about the elastic part of the cloud based offering? Without the utility billing model, how does it work?
Scaling up and down can be done easily using the Planet dashboard. If you anticipate any spikes in the traffic, you can easily add resources to the VM through their online dashboard and the VM will boot up with additional resources pretty fast. Their technology is fully prepared for the elastic nature of the cloud hosting. However, their billing works different than the other cloud providers. Any customer who scales up will be charged a pro-rated amount based on the increase in their resources. Whenever they scale down, the pro-rated amount for the unused part will be credited back. It is a bit clumsy and non-cloud like pricing model but they claim that their customers are ok with it.
4) Isn’t this cloud washing?
Well, their current offering is in a way cloud washing. When I told them their offering sounds more like VPS than a cloud, they agreed that the current beta 1-ish offering is more like a high end, high performance VPS than a cloud. But they told me that they will eventually add more cloudy features to their offering. I think we should wait and see how their final offering turns out.
5) Like the other infrastructure services, are they really built to handle unexpected node failures?
Yes. The Planet Server Cloud is powered by a high-performance, high-availability Sun Storage Area Network (SAN). Their storage is not directly connected to their compute server. This separation between the compute and the storage will ensure that their customers don’t lose their data to hardware failure.
6) Are they still in beta?
No. They are now open to the public. They ran their beta with 1000 servers from Feb. 2010 onwards. They tested their platform with real customers and its performance were up to their expectations and the platform scaled well to the needs of their beta testers.
7) Are they using VMware or Xen virtualization to run their cloud? What about their host operating systems?
Nope. They are neither using VMware nor Xen. Instead, they are using KVM for their virtualization needs. I asked them to explain their reasoning for this choice. They told me that VMware is ruled out because the economics will not allow them to offer the current competitive pricing. Finally, it came down to a choice between Xen and KVM. The Planet went with KVM because the momentum is currently with KVM and not Xen. Moreover, some of the existing public cloud providers have moved from Xen to the commercial offering from Citrix. Their contention based on observing the dynamics in this space is that KVM is the future and not Xen. Moreover, KVM is integrated into the Linux Kernel and offers a much better performance.
I was thinking that they must be running Redhat on their hosts. Surprisingly, they told me that they are using Ubuntu with KVM on their hosts. When I asked them why they went with Ubuntu rather than Redhat, they pointed out the regular kernel updates on Ubuntu, unlike the six month schedule with Redhat.
8) What is your conclusion on The Planet’s offering?
To me, their cloud offering in the current form is more of a high end, predictable performance VPS offering. However, I do expect them to add more cloudy features in the future. We just have to wait and see how their game plan evolves in the coming year.