It's often easy to forget, but IT pros have choices beyond Amazon and Rackspace when it comes to Infrastructure as a Service.
Two firms already running on Amazon and Rackspace who then took the road less traveled with smaller providers, said that move has led to more flexible provisioning and better customer support.
From Amazon to ProfitBricks: Better support, better interface
Real estate financial services company Neighborhood Pay Services LLC, based in Newton, Mass., has been in business since 2008 and has used Amazon Web Services (AWS) to host its infrastructure since the beginning.
The company is still using Amazon for backup, but about five months ago it switched its production apps to a newer company, ProfitBricks GmbH, headquartered in Berlin with a U.S. location in Cambridge, Mass.
"We didn't like the interface on the Amazon system as much, and customer service wasn't quite as good as we found with ProfitBricks," Neighborhood Pay Services CEO Richard Calmas said.
The problem with the AWS interface and customer service came into focus when a contractor employed by Neighborhood Pay Services to work on the migration to ProfitBricks had questions about the process.
"You cannot get phone support from Amazon without paying … at least $100 a month," said Neighborhood Pay Services Systems Administrator Eric Raunig. "And their UI is a lot more convoluted."
Convoluted enough, in fact, that another contractor managed to accidentally create a new AWS EC2 instance last year just trying to log in to the system, Raunig added.
ProfitBricks also offers finer-grained provisioning than Amazon. While Amazon has pre-set micro, small, medium, large and extra-large instances available, ProfitBricks allows users to scale CPU, RAM, hard disk space and network bandwidth for each instance separately while it is running, something Raunig said has come in handy when performing SQL database analytics.
While happy so far with ProfitBricks' offering, Neighborhood Pay Services isn't ready to let go of the cachet of being an Amazon customer just yet.
"When we share with our customers that we use Amazon's service, everyone's comfortable, because it's a brand that everyone knows," Calmas said.
Amazon, generally considered the market leader in cloud computing services, has hundreds of thousands of customers, while ProfitBricks so far has around 1,000.
Goldilocks and the three clouds: Ogmento finds CloudSigma just right
Location-based gaming company Ogmento ran first on AWS, and then on Rackspace, before launching its latest gaming title on CloudSigma's Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS).
Ogmento launched its first game, Paranormal Activity: Sanctuary, on AWS in 2010, but Amazon's smallest instances at the time were still too large for the highly distributed nature of the company's workloads.
"Many of our instances, we're talking about 512 megabytes of RAM, 1 gigabyte of hard drive space and very little CPU," said Terrance Cohen, vice president of game platforms at Ogmento. This was a closer match for Amazon's micro instances, launched in September 2010, but Cohen said the company experienced poor performance in the early stages of that offering, prompting a move to Rackspace in preparation for its next title, NBA: King of the Court, in 2011.
Rackspace was no fix for Ogmento's performance troubles. Being on shared infrastructure caused performance problems and network timeouts, causing outages with a MySQL cluster, sometimes on a daily or weekly basis. And while Rackspace's support engineers were very responsive, they were not often able to actually solve his problems.
"We had a very poor experience with Rackspace," Cohen said.
Cohen did say he was offered space on Rackspace's private cloud to avoid this issue, but that the cost wasn't right.
Finally, in mid-2012, one of Ogmento's platform engineers encountered CloudSigma at a trade show. CloudSigma runs a high-performance infrastructure featuring 10 Gigabit Ethernet and solid-state disk drives and provisioning down to a single megahertz of CPU, 1 megabyte (MB) of RAM, 1 MB of disk space, and 1 megabit of network data transfer for as little as five minutes at a time.
"The fact that we could individually specify the amount of RAM, the amount of CPU and the amount of drive space we wanted per instance was really compelling," Cohen said. "And we had very personalized attention with expert engineers."
Ogmento is preparing to launch NBA: King of the Court 2 on CloudSigma's infrastructure. The first King of the Court is still running on Rackspace.
CloudSigma's service hasn't been without its problems, according to Cohen -- a corrupted disk issue a few weeks ago caused some files that were supposed to be writeable to become read-only, but "support got on it pretty quickly," he said.
Meanwhile, "the billing can be pretty annoying," he said, citing the overhead of juggling both subscription and on-demand based billing through CloudSigma's system.
Ogmento's experience is not typical, Rackspace CTO John Engates emphasized in an interview with SearchCloudComputing.com Thursday afternoon.
"We're completely focused on support here," he said.
Rackspace has more than 190,000 customers in 120 countries and generally has a very low rate of customer turnover, company officials said, adding that the company has gained 38,000 customers in the last year.
IaaS specialization a growing trend
Analysts say services like those offered by ProfitBricks and CloudSigma are the vanguard of a new generation of IaaS providers looking to build more fine-tuned mousetraps.
However, fine-grained provisioning probably won't last long as a differentiator; instead, expect to see even newer IaaS players focusing on industry verticals, James Staten, analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc., said.
"This is where CloudSigma has the potential to be successful in their differentiation effort -- part of the reason that they focused on high performance infrastructure … was at the behest of some of their customers in the media and entertainment space who wanted to move high-definition traffic," he said.