Cloud Computing Dispels the Fog of FUD
Published 09:05, 29 October 08
One of the anomalies of the currently-fashionable cloud computing is that people tend not to talk about the underlying operating system – presumably because they tend to think the cloud *is* the operating system.
The fact is that both of the main cloud computing systems – from Amazon and Google – have been running on GNU/Linux. In other words, not only is open source running vast swathes of the Internet, but now it's holding up nearly all the clouds, too.
Actually, that was the situation until 23 October, when Amazon announced that it would be adding cloudified Windows Server alongside GNU/Linux:
Amazon EC2 running Microsoft Windows Server 2003 is a fast and dependable environment for deploying applications using the Microsoft Web Platform, including ASP.NET, ASP.NET AJAX, Silverlight, and Internet Information Server (IIS). Amazon EC2 enables you to run any compatible Windows-based solution on AWS’ high-performance, reliable, cost-effective, cloud computing platform.
Common Windows use cases include website and web-service hosting, high-performance computing (HPC) and data processing, media transcoding, distributed testing, ASP.NET application hosting, and any other application requiring Windows software. Amazon EC2 also now supports the SQL Server Express and SQL Server Standard databases, and makes those offerings available to customers on an hourly basis.
Using Amazon EC2 with Windows Server is similar to using Amazon EC2 with any other operating system. Amazon EC2 running Windows will provide seamless integration with existing Amazon EC2 features like Amazon Elastic Block Store (EBS) and Elastic Ips.
Amazon's decision to launch at this time was doubtless driven by the knowledge that Microsoft was about to unveil its own cloud computing initiative, which finally turned up this week:
Today, during a keynote speech at the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference 2008 (PDC2008), Ray Ozzie, Microsoft Corp.’s chief software architect, announced Windows Azure, the cloud-based service foundation underlying its Azure Services Platform, and highlighted this platform’s role in delivering a software plus services approach to computing.
The Azure Services Platform is an industry-leading move by Microsoft to help developers build the next generation of applications that will span from the cloud to the enterprise datacenter and deliver compelling new experiences across the PC, Web and phone.
The rather fetchingly, if paradoxically, named “Azure” is one of the most important launches in the company's history: Microsoft famously missed the boat on the Internet, and paid the price for some years afterwards. It is obviously keen not to do the same with cloud computing, just in case it turns into the next Big Thing.
But Microsoft has a very complex balancing act to perform: providing people with just enough incentives to move to its own cloud computing platform, rather than those of its rivals, without cutting the legs off its highly-profitable “on-premises” solutions, aka boring old software packages.
The details are still emerging, so it's still too early to tell whether Microsoft's approach will achieve the necessary equilibrium; but I think something important has already emerged - an aspect of cloud computing that so far has not been much remarked upon.
One of the unanswered questions about Azure is pricing. Microsoft has another delicate balancing act to perform here. Since it doesn't need to pay itself licensing fees, it could easily undercut rivals like Amazon, which presumably has to pay Microsoft *something* for the privilege of running its code.
But if Microsoft chose to destroy the thrid-party Windows cloud computing sector, it would (a) pique the interest of anti-trust investigators around the world, and (b) simply force players like Amazon to push its GNU/Linux cloud even harder – neither of which is particularly desirable from Seattle's point of view. So I would guess that it will price its offerings at around those of Amazon, using the fact that you will be running your Windows apps on the Windows mother-ship as the hook to pull in customers to its own service.
But irrespective of whether Microsoft does price in this way, Amazon's own cloud platform pricing already reveals a terrible truth. For much of the heated arguments about the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) of Windows vs. GNU/Linux has really involved comparing apples and oranges: it was hard to get a really fair comparison, taking into account *all* the relevant factors.
Cloud computing provides exactly that comparison. Amazon, for example, offers the choice of computing on GNU/Linux or on Windows, in a way that means you don't need to worry about all those purported “extra” costs that free software imposes in terms of staff, training etc.: Amazon handles them all - that's part of the point about cloud computing. This means that the price you pay Amazon for its cloud computing service represents the real, essential costs of running GNU/Linux and Windows (plus some small mark-up).
So what do we find? The cost per hour for a GNU/Linux system is $0.10 for a small system. $0.125 for Windows: 25% more expensive. For a large system, the costs are $0.40 and $0.50 respectively, making Windows 20% more expensive. For Extra Large, the costs are $0.80 and $1.00, a 25% increase.
That's for “standard instances”; if you want “High CPU Instances”, the premium you pay for both a Medium or Extra Large Windows system is 50% extra over the price for running GNU/Linux. Not only is Windows more expensive across the board, but the disparity becomes worse the more power you need: Windows obviously does not scale very well in the cloud.
As I've said, Microsoft can easily match any GNU/Linux price that Amazon or any else offers, but that's besides the point. The fact is, according to a hard-headed, independent view of the relative cost of GNU/Linux and Windows in the cloud, there is a premium of between 20% and 50% for the Microsoft solution.
However successful Microsoft may be in performing its various balancing acts in the cloud, one thing is certain: it can no longer hide the elevated costs of Windows compared to GNU/Linux in the fog of its FUD.