Amazon vs. Rackspace vs. Microsoft vs. Google… battle to be #1 cloud service provider, but which one is a real fit for you?

It wouldn't be a mischaracterization to equate the cloud computing industry as one, there is such a variety of vendors gunning at one another and the industry is young enough that true winners and losers have not yet been determined.

Amazon has established itself as the early market leader, but big-name legacy IT companies are competing hard, especially on the enterprise side, and a budding crop of startups are looking to stake their claims. In its latest Magic Quadrant report, research firm Gartner lists 14 IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service) companies, but Network World looked at four of the biggest names to compare and contrast: Amazon Web Services, Rackspace (and OpenStack), Microsoft and Google.

Let’s look at them individually and evaluate.

Amazon Web Services

It's hard to find someone who doesn't agree that Amazon Web Services is the market leader in IaaS cloud computing. The company has one of the widest breadths of cloud services—including compute, storage, networking, databases, load balancers, applications and application development platforms all delivered as a cloud service. Amazon has dropped its prices 21 times since it debuted its cloud six years ago and fairly consistently fills whatever gaps it has in the size of virtual machine instances on its platform, for example, the company recently rolled out new high-memory instances.

There are some cautions on using Amazon though. Namely, its cloud has experienced three major outages in two years. The service seems to be popular in the startup community, providing the IT infrastructure for young companies and allowing them to avoid investing in expensive technology themselves.

Amazon is looking to extend its enterprise reach though. In recent months the company has made a series of announcements targeting enterprises and developers. It rolled out Glacier, a long-term storage service, while it's made updates to its Elastic application development platform and its Simple Work Flow Service, which helps developers automate applications running in Amazon's cloud.

It has expanded partnerships as well, including with private cloud company Eucalyptus, allowing customers to create hybrid clouds that span their own data center and Amazon's cloud. Amazon has also forged new agreements with BMC and F5, which add on top of the robust marketplace of software applications that are already available on Amazon's cloud.

Rackspace

Behind Amazon, the rest of the market could be described as "everyone else," but there are some leading candidates to take on Amazon in the cloud and one of the strongest is Rackspace. Powered by the OpenStack cloud computing platform, Rackspace is positioning itself as the open source alternative to Amazon, and the company's executives make no shame in aiming critiques directly at its chief competitor.

Rackspace is attempting to build a cloud that can scale to just about anyone's needs, says financial analyst Pat Walravens, and he believes with the OpenStack backing the size of deals that Rackspace is able to land will only continue to increase.

"If Amazon is going for scale, cost and breadth of services, Rackspace is going for its services, including what it calls its fanatical support for customers," says Forrester analyst Dave Bartonelli. "They're really trying to make the play that they're the safer enterprise choice and with OpenStack, they want to be known as the non-Amazon."

An open source architecture may give customers additional freedom to move workloads among OpenStack-powered clouds, although Gartner has disputed the significance of that. One Rackspace strength is its ability to roll out the latest and greatest OpenStack features.

There is a view by some though that Rackspace has married itself to OpenStack, perhaps to its own detriment. As the Gartner report on OpenStack states, OpenStack can be successful independently of Rackspace's success now that the company has ceded control of the project to a foundation. Overall, Bartonelli says Rackspace's involvement in OpenStack is positive for the company and will only help to position it as a leading alternative to Amazon.

Microsoft

Microsoft owns a lot of back office IT operations for enterprises between Office, Exchange and SharePoint. Because of this the company already has in the enterprise market, Microsoft has an opportunity to extend those customers into its cloud. Microsoft has been more aggressive than ever in recent months about encouraging customers and partners to join its cloud. Earlier this year the company rolled out on-demand Windows and Linux-based virtual machines and cloud storage to accompany its platform as a service as well.

Combined with the release of Windows Server 2012 and Windows System Server this year, Microsoft is also making a play for powering private clouds behind a company's firewall. "Amazon doesn't have as strong of a play in the hybrid cloud conversation," Bartonelli says, which—combined with Microsoft's strong relationships with a large number of enterprise IT shops—could be an advantage for the company moving forward.

Google

If anyone can compete with Amazon on scale, it's Google, says George Reese, founder of enStratus, a cloud management company. Amazon may have the largest scale in the industry, which Rackspace is attempting to match. But Reese says Google has a lot of data centers that are optimized for massive scaling, which is heavy artillery in cloud battles.

Google's play thus far has been focused on application development and hosting. It got into the game with Google App Engine, a development platform, and has since like Microsoft expanded into the infrastructure-as-a-service space with Google Compute Engine, giving customers an on-demand virtual machine and storage service. It also has a consumer cloud-facing service in Google Drive, seen as a competitor to Microsoft's SkyDrive.

"Google's not trying to displace Microsoft or Windows developers, nor are they necessarily trying to displace Rackspace," Barontelli says. "They're really going directly after Amazon on pricing and capacity saying 'Hey, we've got scale too.'"

But Amazon's been in the cloud game longer than Google, and both companies suffer from a lack of perceived support for users. But the strengths of Google's platform, and its activities in the startup community, could make it a viable competitor in the cloud market.

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