How to choose an IaaS provider

Move over, Amazon: Google, HP, and Microsoft, and others want a seat at the table. How do you choose among all those IaaS providers? Start with this quick primer

Close your eyes and think of the cloud. Odds are Amazon quickly comes to mind -- for good reason. By some estimates, Amazon Web Services holds 70 percent of the IaaS (infrastructure as a service) market, providing compute, storage, and networking services, usually on a pay-per-use basis, to hundreds of thousands of customers. Amazon's cloud has become an extension of many organizations' infrastructure, often for application development and testing, but also for compute-intensive analytics and even ongoing production workloads. Credit Amazon for popularizing IaaS and making it affordable, accessible, and broadly relevant to the current generation of IT.

But in the past two months, three giants have lumbered into the game: HP, Microsoft, and Google.

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HP launched its beta of HP Cloud Services on May 10 -- the first public IaaS service to run on OpenStack, the open source "cloud operating system" generating huge buzz. Then, on June 6, Microsoft quietly revealed that Windows Azure would no longer tie its fate to PaaS (platform as a service) alone and would jump into IaaS. Finally, on June 28, Google took the wraps off Google Compute Engine, a long-awaited IaaS play that will enable customers to rent a piece of Google's legendary infrastructure.

Of course, Amazon wasn't alone before the big names jumped in. Joyent, Rackspace, SoftLayer, and others have been around for years; all three also offer some form of hosting (dedicated infrastructure) and the shared infrastructure characteristic of public cloud services. With little fanfare, IBM has been selling public cloud IaaS services as well, although customer engagements always begin with an IBM rep rather than the self-service Web GUI Amazon popularized. That's the way engagements with Verizon acquisition Terremark start, too -- if you want Terremark's VMware-powered Enterprise Cloud, that is. If you're willing to live with less functionality, simply enter a credit card number and fill out a Web form to upload VMs to Terremark's VMware vCloud Express.

IaaS has become a competitive space. Here's a quick look at the new IaaS cloudscape -- and a little about how to choose among the various platforms.

The IaaS shop-a-thon
The basic idea of IaaS is simple: You upload virtual machines and run them remotely. But with many providers, the range of options is huge, from compute to storage to database services to app dev options and more.

And pricing? It's hard to know where to start. You need a very good sense of your basic compute, storage, and networking needs from the outset; otherwise, forget about direct comparisons among IaaS providers. Depending on the provider, you may have a choice of dozens of types of instances: Will a single virtual CPU plus 3.75GB of RAM and 300GB of hard disk be enough for each instance, or do you need more? You want that in 32-bit or 64-bit? And there are potential discounts to consider: Reserving infrastructure resources in advance, for example, can be cheaper than pure pay-as-you-go.

Then there are operating system and bandwidth considerations. Most providers offer Windows as well as Linux and pass along the incremental licensing charge to the customer. You also need to consider incoming and outgoing traffic -- if you're greedy it may cost you a lot, depending on the provider.

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