Review: HP Cloud challenges Amazon and Google

HP's OpenStack-based IaaS cloud blends openness and portability with nice proprietary extras and welcome hand-holding

Hewlett-Packard may be best known for its ubiquitous printers and laptops, but in the enterprise world, it is just as recognized for its servers. Now that the idea of the cloud is taking over, HP is joining the marketplace and renting some of its servers in the HP Cloud.

The servers are priced by the hour just like everyone else's, but though these machines may be commodities like hamburgers, there are differences, just as there are differences between Burger King and McDonald's.

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For instance, HP offers a longer list of Linux distributions for your new server slice than some of the others. You can get the classics such as Ubuntu, Debian, and CentOS in many of the best-known versions. If you know what you're going to do with the machine, you can start right up with a Bitnami distribution sporting a number of pre-installed applications like Drupal.

Not everything is on the list. Windows Server and Red Hat Enterprise Server, two operating systems offered for a bit more money by Rackspace and other clouds, aren't anywhere to be seen. This promises to be temporary. Marc Padovani, HP Cloud Services director of product management, suggests that Windows will arrive sooner rather than later. And a long list of solution partners shows that HP Cloud is embracing a broad commercial ecosystem along with the open source software.

The HP Cloud is built on OpenStack, which should be attractive for any enterprise manager worried about being locked into a cloud. Sure, all of the cloud vendors talk as if the machines are really commodities, but if it takes you several months to recode your scripts, mobility is extremely limited. HP's embrace of OpenStack is clearly a push to attract managers who want the flexibility to outgrow the HP Cloud or just move on. The wide range of Linux distributions feels like a part of that plan.

As with the other clouds, the price list for HP Cloud machines largely follows the amount of RAM. The smallest offering delivers 1GB of RAM for 4 cents per hour. This price is cut in half now during a special "public beta" promotion. By comparison, Rackspace charges 6 cents per hour for a 1GB machine.

HP starts tossing in additional virtual CPUs with more RAM. A 2GB machine comes with two virtual CPUs, not one. Some cloud providers don't speak about the number of CPUs, but this may be an advantage for certain applications.

There isn't a lockstep connection between the amount of RAM and the number of CPUs as you march down the price list, but it's roughly correlated. By the time you reach a 32GB machine, you also get eight virtual CPUs at a price of $1.28 per hour (or 64 cents during the private beta sale).

The machines toss in additional disk space. I don't know if this is as important because HP offers other ways of storing information. The virtual machines are disposable, and you shouldn't plan on doing much besides using the disk on them as a cache. You have to back up everything -- HP has a number of options for that.

Ephemeral machines and persistent storageThe traditional idea has always been to separate data storage into a Web service that stands apart from your machine. Amazon S3 pioneered the idea of creating a storage service where you can park your bags of bits. The system is meant to be independent from the compute nodes. Any computer can request copies of any bag of bits whenever it's needed.

HP has its version of Amazon S3 that it calls HP Cloud Object Storage. Like Amazon, HP provides a RESTful API for storing and retrieving files.

As part of the Web management GUI, HP also provides a Web interface for organizing these objects into containers and controlling who can see them. You can upload your files directly from here, then turn on public access. The browser computes the URL for you. It's a nice feature that makes developing and debugging a bit easier than in Amazon, for example. You're not always scrounging around for an FTP password.

HP also included a few tools that make building bigger networks easier. For instance, there's a way to predefine which ports will be open on your new machine, saving you the time of logging into each machine to run a script. HP will load up the right public keys so that you can log in quickly if needed.

The HP Cloud comes with a CDN (content delivery network) built into this object store. If you tap the right button on the Web GUI, the data in a particular container is pushed out into what looks like Akamai's network, at least judging from the URLs. The data is available via an HTTP or HTTPS URL, both nicely added to the Web interface.

The prices begin at 12 cents per gigabyte per month for basic storage and drop as you store more, although the price breaks don't start until you squirrel away at least 10 terabytes. You'll also be billed a penny per gigabyte for every 10,000 requests to store, fetch, or copy your information.

The bandwidth going into the storage cloud is free, but it will cost you to get your data out. After the first (free) gigabyte, it's 12 cents per gigabyte. If you turn on the CDN, the prices jump to 16 cents in North America and more elsewhere.

The object storage is nice, but the most intriguing feature to me is the persistent block storage, a feature that's in a private beta testing phase. The plan is to create virtual persistent disks you can mount on your virtual machines just like a real disk.

With HP Cloud Block Storage, you write to the file system and HP's machines will do the rest. You don't need to write new storage code that only works in the cloud. You just take the code that works with your software and point it toward the block storage partition. HP touts this as a way to easily move information between your instances or keep the data handy when there's no machine using it. You might put your database in the block storage and only connect it to a running instance when you need it.

MySQL as a serviceAlso in private beta is an OpenStack-optimized version of MySQL as a service. HP promises to handle the backups and replication for you. You just pay per "use." I think that offering actual MySQL as the service is better than the generic versions of SQL you get in Amazon and some other clouds. The HP Cloud's MySQL will behave like the MySQL on your test machines. It will also be portable. If you need to move your code somewhere else, it's bound to have MySQL. A proprietary SQL service just locks you in.

What happens if any of these fail? HP is offering a fair amount of security. The object store, for instance, makes three copies of every object and pushes them into different zones, each with backup power and dual Internet connections. HP Cloud handles the work for you. Some other services, such as Google's Compute Engine, leave the replication across zones up to you -- then bill you for bandwidth in between.

There is a big difference in the tone of HP's marketing. Google's literature might have been written by engineers, lawyers, or -- an even more careful and paranoid group -- engineers who went on to law school. Google's documentation continues to play up the potential failures in data centers and talks about potential failures and downtime for maintenance. It's your job to plan ahead.

HP Cloud seems more optimistic. There aren't as many options for customizing how your data is protected, and that's probably a good thing for users who just want to store their data and trust HP to replicate it three times.

If you want reassurance, you can sign a service-level agreement with HP, which offers basic terms on the HP Cloud website. If some data can't be found for a few minutes, HP will start offering service credits up to 30 percent of the bill.

HP is adding some other services to round out the product line. For starters, it has well-structured libraries of Ruby, Java, Clojure, PHP, and .Net routines, and these are finding connections in other places. There's a Drupal plug-in for dumping your Drupal data directly into HP Cloud's object store. HP is also partnering with companies such as New Relic, the makers of a performance monitoring toolkit already integrated with HP Cloud.

HP Cloud is playing catch-up. The more established players such as Amazon and Google have much more elaborate lists of options. But HP Cloud offers much of what a growing firm might want: OpenStack machines at an introductory beta price that's quite good. HP is counting on open standards and easy portability being the carrots that attract people looking for well-priced machines without any lock-in. That's a good mix.

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