Enterprise applications are increasingly turning to Web services for the hardware and software that make their Web pages function. Many organizations go with Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) to provide these essential services in a flexible and cost-effective way, and for many, IaaS is synonymous with AWS. What is the advantage of going with Amazon Web Services (AWS) as opposed to the numerous other IaaS providers out there? After all, there is an ever growing number of AWS alternatives to choose from -- large, medium or small.
For the purposes of this article, Web services mean an IaaS provider that delivers three things: a database (or data center services), an application development infrastructure platform and the maintenance to keep everything running. It's scalable, fast, reliable and -- according to the hype -- allows operations to set up an entire system in the least amount of time possible. It's virtual IT where development teams pay service fees for access to resources via the Internet. Basically, an IaaS provider manages the data center, provides the servers and maintains the backend infrastructure used to develop applications.
In your search for an AWS alternative, and regardless of which IaaS vendor you choose, the first step is planning. Plan as if you were building a system. Work with software development engineers, testers and interface designers to build out trial systems. See what issues they find and what obstacles they run into. Next, do some basic financial planning. Predict cost estimates based on usage at both the low end and the high end so you are prepared for upswings in cost.
Planning up front and spending the time to really try out the system is the only way to know if a service provides what you need now as well as what can be anticipated in the future. Review differences in contract terms carefully. Make sure to get all SLAs (service-level agreements) in writing and that they meet your needs. After all, if the data center goes offline, application users will feel the pain of poor performance, and your business may suffer.
Unfortunately, it's outside the scope of this article to actually set up each one and test a basic system setup and then compare the results. Instead, here are the names of several leading providers to research and the reviews they are currently receiving. There are literally hundreds of companies that offer IaaS. In this article we'll cover Amazon, Microsoft and Joyent and provide some links to other useful resources.
Amazon Web Services
AWS posts its product details here. The company also offers a free trial, which is good for basic experimentation with the system and how it works. Judging by its customer base and the reviews available searching the Internet, AWS serves any type of company as long as said company wants to outsource its data. Amazon's IaaS system gives developers access to IT resources without the need to provision them internally.
Amazon claims its services are less expensive and provides more of everything. AWS has a wide variety of options that appear to be very complex. That may add to the time you need to review the cloud services vendor you choose. Variety really is a double-edged sword. It increases options, but it also increases complication and perhaps the overall cost. Still, the more options you get, the more customized you can make your service and thus your infrastructure.
AWS has a pay-as-you-consume model so fees vary based on usage. This practice sounds fair as long as customers can predict software loads so they don't get into a financial bind. Apart from the pricing, the promises are typical: speed, agility and scalability with ease of use. Reviews are generally positive overall, with some negative comments regarding complexity of configuration choices, data center downtime and price. Amazon's customer service is rated as exceptionally knowledgeable and useful.
Microsoft's Windows Azure
An alternative to AWS is Microsoft's Azure product. It offers a wide collection of building blocks for developers to create modern, scalable applications. Not only does Azure have data storage and virtual computing machines, it also offers service buses, networks, connections to data farm address verification, location data and its Bing search engine among an array of other useful utilities.
Azure does not limit consumers to Windows products, either. Azure works with open source applications as well as a variety of third-party proprietary tools. If you're already a Microsoft shop, Azure may be your best bet. Azure offers Windows, Linux or BSD machines at the same bargain rate as Linux. Not a bad deal. In Azure, Microsoft takes in -- or takes on, depending on how you look at it -- most open source technologies. You may find with Azure, Microsoft offers a better bargain with more technology flexibility. See Microsoft's website for more information.
Reviews on Azure, similar to Amazon, are largely positive. For some, the self-management portal is too complex and the variety of choices can be daunting. Complexity is not always a bad thing, though, it may give testers the cloud tools they truly need.
Joyent is another AWS alternative with an additional option that many businesses may prefer. It has customized machines and calls them appliances. The company's customized machines can often outperform most other servers when executing typical tasks such as Web page requests and data return. Joyent uses SmartOS -- a derivative of the Solaris system.
If you really loved the old Solaris system, Joyent's custom-built machines may be your best bet. Many reviews claim the Joyent system provides greater overall speed. Additionally, when focused on custom-built applications, it may take some of the pain out of the initial setup.
More information on alternatives to AWS
A further list of AWS alternatives can be found at SearchCloudComputing. The site's list of thirteen cloud providers for 2013 includes many niche players and some other major vendors that might suit your needs best. Another one that didn't make that list is Red Hat's open source hybrid cloud computing option. Finally, SearchCloudProvider presents an essential guide to comparing the OpenStack project with proprietary cloud providers.
Are you exploring the possibility of moving away from Amazon Web Services? If so, what's pushing you away from the world's largest cloud service provider. Let us know what you think.