Ever since AWS pre-announced that it was developing its own web-based console for EC2, we’ve been asked how it compares with RightScale. Now that it’s released we can actually make an informed comparison. The one sentence summary is that the current EC2 console is a control panel that gives you access to all EC2 functions while RightScale is a complete management platform to design, deploy, and manage the life-cycle of mission critical cloud deployments.
For me the release of the EC2 console is a flash-back to AWS-Console: some of you may remember that RightScale started publicly in the fall of 2006 as AWS-Console, a GUI for the EC2 functionality at that time. It was free when initially released and everything it did at that time — and now a lot more — is still free in the developer edition of RightScale. We have thousands of users of the free edition and many of them become paying customers. As their needs grow and their businesses evolve they need the additional functionality in the premium versions. By starting with the free edition of RightScale, they start with a product that can grow with them.
What we discovered back in early 2007 is that our users needed much more than just a control panel. They needed a management platform that simplifies designing, deploying and managing the whole life-cycle of cloud deployments. That’s what RightScale is today. We have a long way to go to realize all of our dreams, but we’ve also come a long way since 2006.
The first step we made back then was to stop bundling machine images (AMIs) at every turn. AMIs encapsulate the whole configuration and state of a machine in one large opaque bundle. Making any change takes hours or even days by the time you’ve iterated a few times and tested everything. And after a few months, chances are that no one in the organization remembers what went into the making of each specific AMI, and thus no one is able to reproduce or reliably change anything.
Instead we built the RightScale platform on an advanced server management architecture that was designed specifically for clouds. We developed RightScripts and ServerTemplates, which make it much easier to design, deploy, and manage servers in the cloud. They take the variable components out of the machine image and put them where they should be — in shareable building blocks that live in the RightScale platform and can be easily created, modified, composed, and shared.
The next step is that we noticed how many of our users were trying to build the same scalable, redundant architectures. Most have a web service at the core, many have back-end work queues, most use standard web frameworks, almost all need a reliable database back-end, etc. This is why we built a library of ready-made ServerTemplates that encapsulate best practices on how to operate in the cloud. This includes the hooks to tie servers together in scalable deployments as well as more mundane, but nevertheless critical functionality such as efficient periodic backups to persistent storage. These pre-packaged solutions go hand-in-hand with the RightScale management dashboard to simplify and automate many management tasks. For example, automatically scaling the number of app servers based on load, or providing easy procedures for upgrading servers, or vertically scaling a database while in operation.
Let’s take auto-scaling as an example. When new users come to the cloud and are looking for auto-scaling capability or similar automation features they typically focus on the machinery that launches new servers. We have found again and again that that’s actually the easiest part of the problem. In the RightScale platform we provide monitoring of many server and application metrics that can be used to drive a number of simple auto-scaling rules. The tricky part is what happens after the automation launches a server. After it gets provisioned and completes the operating system boot sequence it needs to actually be put into production. In the case of an app server, that means it needs to be tied into the load balancing rotation, it needs to be told where to find the database, it needs to be provided with all the right credentials to access the database as well as any other external resources such as back-end assets. After the server is successfully in production the story is still not over. Monitoring needs to be hooked-up and the auto-scaling machinery needs to be told to take this new server into account. Log files produced on the server need to be spooled somewhere where they will persist after the server is decommissioned by the same auto-scaling machinery that started it. All this is what we’ve captured in our ServerTemplates and the tightly coupled machinery in our management platform.
Over the past months we have been approached by many ISVs (independent software vendors) who want to deliver their software into the cloud. To serve their needs we have enhanced the RightScale platform to support an ecosystem that includes ISV’s products and services that interest our customers. For example, we recently started supporting Splunk, which means that our users will have the simple option to drag Splunk’s free offering into their multi-server deployments and thereby utilize a great system to analyze their log files, directly from the RightScale interface. Upgrading to a paid version of Splunk is then a mere matter of plugging in a new license key into the config (after sending some money to Splunk). We are working with many other partners, some of whom we’re integrating directly into the RightScale platform and others are simply leveraging our platform to get into the cloud market faster, cheaper and better.
As we have more and more customers operating production services in the cloud we are seeing one of our initial premises come true: the greatest benefit of cloud computing is the automation it enables and thereby the system administration savings it can produce when using the right management platform. For most companies, the cost of the infrastructure is multiplied by the systems administration overhead. This has been called the “Iceberg effect” — where the tip of the iceberg represents the hard costs of power, ping, pipe and servers, but the submerged, hidden part of the iceberg represents the much larger organizational cost of staff who develop, configure, monitor, maintain, and “tweak” those applications. That’s where RightScale offers compelling ROI — in the automation of those operations across the life-cycle of developing and deploying an application in the cloud, and concomitant reduction in system administration overhead. Equally important, reliability, performance and scalability all improve — so you can have your cake and eat it too.
I’m keeping the best for the end: RightScale manages clouds, that’s clouds in plural. As the cloud market evolves, that’s a critical issue for many companies who require portability and freedom of choice in order to comply with internal IT policies. Business continuity planning is a critical issue. In fact, in our surveys, the top barriers mentioned by customers who are considering moving to the cloud are inflexibility and potential lock-in. There’s no question that AWS has done a brilliant job pioneering cloud computing and storage as a market. But as their VP Adam Selipsky has stated, “Any time you have a large and attractive market, you’ll have more than one winner.” In other words, it’s become a multi-cloud world — and that’s good for customers and therefore the market itself. We intend to continue RightScale’s role as a neutral provider of multi-cloud management support and portability in order to promote an enabling platform for both customers and ISVs — even as we continue to be a close partner of Amazon.
RightScale’s mission is to help all companies, from startups to large enterprises, from application developers to ISVs, take advantage of the cloud computing building blocks offered by all infrastructure clouds. We make it easy to deploy and manage mission critical applications, regardless of deployment size, complexity or cloud infrastructure used.
So there you have our take on cloud management as 2009 gets going. It is clear that Amazon is continuing to innovate at an ever increasing rate and we look forward to a break-out year in the cloud market.