a blog by Christian Snodgrass
about programming, web and game design, and everything else

Cloud Host Review – Rackspace Cloud

At work we make heavy use of two of Rackspace Cloud‘s services, Rackspace Cloud Files and Rackspace Cloud Servers.

I’ve done a lot of work using these services. I’ve come across numerous questions and problems and I’ve gotten a lot of information that isn’t readily available with talking to someone.

So, I decided to write a little review/info about Rackspace Cloud.

What We Use It For

We use Rackspace Cloud Servers to host a couple of websites that aren’t our main website. We use Cloud Files for storing large quantities of files (the projects that are campers create at camp, which we upload).

Why We Went With Rackspace Cloud

Why’d we go with Rackspace Cloud in the first place? Well, when we were looking to start using cloud services. I think I had a list of literally every cloud host I could find at the time. From there I narrowed it down to about 8 and started looking at them in detail.

We compared cost, systems, support, etc. Overall the cost of Rackspace Cloud is slightly higher than some of it’s cheaper counterparts. However, we went with Rackspace Cloud in the end for two main reasons: brand recognition and support.

Brand recognition wasn’t a huge concern, but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back between it and the runner-up.

The support is the big thing though. I can call them or use their live chat just about anytime and get a quick response and knowledgeable rep. They’ve surprised me quite a few times when they have been able to answer some of my more technical questions. If they don’t know, they will hunt down or put me in touch with an engineer who has been able to answer. I’ve been thoroughly impressed with them.

Rackspace Cloud Features

I don’t want to go too in-depth with the features they have on their website, because you can read those on their website. Here are just some of the highlights:

What They Don’t List

Now it’s time for the juicy bits.

The Server Cloud

So, when we think of a cloud we think of essentially a limitless mass of computer resources that can be distributed however we want. With Rackspace Cloud Servers, it is and isn’t like that.

It is because they have a server farm which essentially forms a cloud of physical servers, where they can drop in a virtual server wherever they want. The part that isn’t really apparent is how it isn’t. It isn’t, because each virtual server is locked into one physical server (it can’t share resources from multiple physical machines). This means it is essentially indistinguishable from a VPS.

When you resize a server it may migrate physical servers if needed, but that’s about the only sharing.

The Hard Drives

Something else that isn’t exactly “cloud-like” are the hard drives. The hard drives are RAID10, which is good. However, they are internal to the server (instead of outside of the server like what we normally think of in a cloud). They are also only standard 500GB SATA drives, which is considerably slower than something like a SAN.

Also, the size of the hard drive is directly linked to the amount of RAM you have in the server (which is also directly linked with the cost). The three can’t be scaled independently.

The API

Now for some good news. The API. The API is discussed on their website, sure. If you casually glance through the API, it looks a bit intimidating, but once you dive in it’s actually quite easy. I’ve used it for a number of projects and it works quite well.

Resizing

When we think scaling we think instantly. However, this isn’t exactly true. When you resize the server, it basically creates a new server of the appropriate size. It then copies all of the files from the first server to the second server. During this process, your first server is still up, at the original size. Once it’s done copying, it will then shut down your first server and bring up the second one. This generally leads to about 5 minutes to resize, but only about 5 seconds of downtime. It’s not super automatic, but it’s not bad. The speed of the resize is also directly proportionality to how much hard drive space you’re using, so keep your server lean and mean.

Here is a tip though that we’ve run into twice. We’ve had two servers on separate occasions run out of memory (because they were too small). This caused the server to essentially lock up (as you’d expect). We went to resize the server and… boom… it froze for like two hours because it was trying to copy the whole server with pretty much no memory to do so. Not good. However, this can be avoided. If you get an out-of-memory, shut down the server first, then resize the server and it’ll be quick again. Before you do the resize, make sure you have a reasonable amount of hard drive space too, just in case.

Conclusion

Overall, for our use, even with those sneaky negatives, I’m still a huge fan of Rackspace. It is a bit more expensive then other alternatives (and definitely too much for just a small website). But, if you’re a mid-size or large business looking for a cloud, Rackspace is great. Those negatives aren’t explicitly stated on their website, but they’ve never lied. They’ll tell you if you ask… I found all of that out through chats with them. The support can’t be beat.

Disclaimer

Just a quick disclaimer: This article was completely unsolicited. I wrote it because I have come across a few things that most people don’t seem to know and I thought would be useful. =)


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