Tiny clouds taking on AWS, Azure, and Google Cloud

A baker’s dozen of boutique clouds challenging the big three on speed, cost, flexibility, and even on-prem and hybrid cloud options

Tiny clouds taking on AWS, Azure, and Google Cloud
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Clouds have to be big, right? If the best feature of the cloud is that you can just click and start up a machine in seconds, it follows that there must be vast warehouses loaded with computers out there somewhere. Huge warehouses filled with tall racks of machines arranged in endless rows, like a modern digital version of the ending of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

The word “big” is relative, though. The biggest clouds—AWS, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud Platform—may attract much of the market share, but they’re far from the only companies in the game. Some smaller companies are developing niches and finding a way to compete even though their racks of machines are miniscule, at least compared to the big three.

And to call these alternatives “miniscule” is only possible in comparison to the dominant players. It’s common to find that many of these competitors also run dozens of data centers around the globe and these data centers also have enough racks of machines to serve as a set for a modern digital version of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” They’re just not gargantuan.

It turns out that raw size isn’t always the most attractive option for developers. The machine instances are pretty much commodity hardware running commodity operating systems and the software can migrate in search of a better option. The cloud companies are competing on user interfaces, sophisticated features, speed, and sometimes even the one seemingly certain advantage of bigness, price.

The broader cloud marketplace is being nurtured by the growth of the microservices architecture. Developers who split their workload into N different parts don’t need to limit themselves to one cloud. Yes, keeping software running in the same data center makes sense when continuous streams of packets are flying hither and yon, but it’s often possible to break an application up into many loosely linked chunks of code that swap messages occasionally and don’t require the fastest possible responses. Background processing and analysis are easy to move to a different cloud if there’s a good reason. If you’re careful about creating the architecture for your system, you might even place each microservice on a different cloud. 

All of this means that the battle for cloud computing is not limited to the biggest. Here are a dozen or so relatively tiny entrants that offer compelling reasons to look at their stacks. They are all intriguing, but they are far from the only options out there. It’s a surprisingly large and diverse market when you look beyond the biggest competitors. 

Wasabi

Wasabi does one thing: It stores your data in Amazon S3-like buckets. To get you to notice, the company has set the price very low. It claims “one-fifth the cost and up to 6x the speed.” Wasabi targets people who need off-site backups from either their on-premises operations or another cloud. There’s only one price and the company doesn’t charge for extras like when data leaves its network. Wasabi will never be as fast as a storage solution in the rack next to the processing machine, but there’s plenty of archival opportunities that don’t need that.

Vultr

It’s probably not worth the time to parse the symbolism behind the name. Perhaps it’s meant to refer to the birds who live off the scraps of others. If so, Vultr the cloud computing company does that by offering rock-bottom priced instances for just $2.50 per month, billed by the hour. This machine comes with only 512 KB of RAM, making it appropriate for a static web server, but you can get larger machines at prices that are proportional.

It’s a mistake, though, to read too much into the name. The company has expanded its product line to include bare metal servers that come without a virtualization layer getting in the way. There are also dedicated machines, which can reduce the threats from sharing the same box as attackers. Vultr offers its machines in 16 data centers around the world with more on the way.

The interface is flexible but limited and basic, offering not much more than the command line. If you want your server to run a script when it boots, there’s a nice input field for you to type the script. But at prices as low as $2.50 a month, it’s a mistake to get too demanding.

UpCloud

The highlight of UpCloud is the persistent disk storage that, the company claims, offers “faster than SSD” performance. Perhaps even 50 percent faster on both startup and sustained performance. You’ll have to test your applications to be sure because the speedup will vary based upon the mix of computation and data fetching.

  Many other parts of UpCloud are familiar. There is a nice API, a collection of standard templates, and data centers in seven cities around the world including two near the company’s headquarters in Helsinki. UpCloud offers public cloud hosting, a private option, and some software layers to create a hybrid mix. Software-defined networks will be here soon.

The basic instances start at $5 for 1 GB of RAM and 25 GB of storage and move upwards in price in a way that’s about the same as the competition. UpCloud is not necessarily offering something cheaper. It’s offering faster disk access. 

Packet

Packet may be relatively tiny but it specializes in servers that are full-featured and they run your applications on “bare metal.” That means your IO and storage operations won’t be slogging through endless virtualization layers. (At least until you add your own layers through excessive containerization, but that’s on you.)  

You’ll pay more for Packet’s machines but you’ll get soooo much more. The c1.large.arm machine comes with 128 GB of RAM and 32 cores that are all yours. The price is $1 an hour, which adds up over the 672 hours in a month. There are smaller machines like one with 8 GB of RAM and four cores that costs only seven cents an hour. These aren’t for goofing around or experimentation. They’re suitable for those bigger compute projects that you spin up from time to time. 

One nice feature is the spot pricing market where you put in bids for the hardware. Some of the prices when the demand slows seem to be more than 50% cheaper than list. Packet also offers a RESTful API, 18 data centers around the globe, and plenty of options for building out hybrid clouds with on-premises versions of the company’s provisioning, security, and management software. 

Linode

Another cloud provider that offers small, flexible root access to Linux machines is Linode, whose prices start as low as $5 per month. Linode supports 10 major Linux distributions in nine data centers around the world, with a tenth data center in the works in Mumbai.

If you want to install particular services, Linode’s user community shares a big collection of startup scripts that will install the right software and customize the configuration. These scripts cover most of the major applications like WordPress, Plesk, proxy servers, OpenVPN, and LAMP stacks. You can also create your own scripts that build upon them.

Hidora

If you’re deploying web applications using some of the standard models (Node.js, PHP, Java), Hidora offers a PaaS (platform as a service) to suit. The company argues that its flexible scaling delivers superior performance at a better price. Services like load balancing, backups, and free outbound bandwidth can be rolled into the bundle.

Hidora is a good example of how the old shared hosting model can be expanded and updated to support a modern microservices architecture. If you want root access, the company offers a virtual private Ssrver, but you can also just deploy Docker containers to its Kubernetes clusters.

Hidora keeps its servers in Switzerland and ensures that they’re governed by Swiss data protection laws.

DigitalOcean

DigitalOcean  is popular with developers because it has streamlined the process of starting up, resizing, and tearing down virtual machines, which DigitalOcean calls “droplets.” After finding some success, the company has expanded recently with more managed services for PostgreSQL databases, data buckets, and Kubernetes clusters. Droplets are billed by the hour, but the number of hours billed in the month is capped at 672, the number of hours in four weeks, so the price will be the same in all months. Prices are set in multiples of $5 to add a bit more simplicity to the bill. DigitalOcean has 12 data centers in eight cities around the globe.

Shared hosting

The original cloud was populated by shared web servers. You rented out an account on a LAMP machine, uploaded your HTML, JavaScript, and PHP, and paid by the month. It was a simpler and easier time. Although they wouldn’t give you root access, sometimes they would let you use Telnet.

Many of the companies that specialized in these offers (IONOS, A2, BlueHost, HostGator, InMotion) have been branching out slowly into the cloud server business, providing virtual private servers, offering dedicated servers, and sometimes deploying the “cloud” word. The billing is usually by the month with generous discounts for locking in for as long as three years.

The shared hosting companies don’t seem too interested in the customers who spin up and tear down machines every few hours just to meet a spike in demand. Still, they are a flexible option that can be useful for small, dedicated projects.

Antsle

The smallest cloud provider can be you. Antsle makes a fan-less server that can sit on your desktop and create Gentoo Linux instances through the company’s own “cloud hosting” dashboard. It’s a tiny and quiet little friend that offers most of the flexibility and features of a cloud, but it’s all in a box that works right alongside you. The CPU power is limited by what you purchase. You trade off the ability to spin up huge workloads for the peace of mind that comes with controlling the physical security and keeping everything in sight.

Already have a machine sitting around? Antsle also is working on a closed beta for a version of its software that supports other hardware. Or you can also use the same interface and software in a bare-metal server Antsle hosts for you.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.