Okay, the cloud (or grid or whatever they’re calling it now) isn’t exactly a lie, but at least on a retail level, it hasn’t held up to the hype.

This is not going to be an overly technical article, mostly because I’m tired. I expect to get some nasty comments because I’m not citing specifics. Luckily for me, I have a thick skin. It’s more of a lament than anything else. I don’t even have the energy for a full-blown rant.

The grid/cloud – I’ll call it the groud for now – promises so much, and yet always seems to fall short, regardless of the provider.

I switched over to Rackspace Cloud Sites in January of last year. My motivation was not to get onto the zomgweb2point0cloudbbq, but it was the first Rackspace product that fit within my budget, and they had such a good reputation in the industry, it was worth a shot.

Overall, the service has been alright. MySQL failures about once a week on average, more often on bad weeks. They usually don’t last long, but they’re frequent enough to make me reconsider recommending them to the company I work for for hosting client projects. The “could not find a suitable node” problems are far less prevelant now than when I frst signed up, but many of my sites still seem sluggish, specifically WordPress sites. I have heard the same about sites running some of the other large open source projects, but I don’t run Joomla or Drupal, so I can’t speak to that.

By all accounts, Rackspace is a fantastic hosting company with spectacularly reliable service. Except for their cloud product. MySQL performance has consistently been poor and the source of performance bottlenecks. Their control panel doesn’t let you break down CPU usage (which directly impacts your monthly bill) by account, by script, by anything at all, actually, so your monthly bill ends up being somewhat of a mystery.

To their credit, their team has worked with me personally to try to isolate any performance issues that could be optimized, but without one-on-one hand-holding, it’s a bit of a black box. Alarmingly, if your CPU usage starts to trend over what is covered by your monthly allotment covered in your fee, they don’t even email you to give you a heads up. You just get a lovely surprise at the beginning of your next billing cycle.

My first month on their cloud, my hosting bill was more than twice the then-$100 monthly fee, based on my CPU overages, and I hadn’t received a single email. In fact, I don’t receive any billing emails at all. The only way I know how much I’ve paid for hosting is by looking at my bill. (I want to say in the beginning they did email me a warning or an invoice, but I haven’t received one in many months.) The funny thing is, I’d pay $200 a month if I’m getting what I need.

I started investigating Media Temple’s grid hosting, since I had heard so many good things about them. Unlike Rackspace Cloud Sites, they offer SSH and Subversion access and several features that are closer to a more traditional virtual hosting environment, with the cloud’s promise of scalability and performance. Another attractive feature they offer is the ability to add a MySQL container that takes your MySQL off the shared environment, so you have far more resources available to your database – a great idea for database-heavy applications. It seemed like the perfect solution.

Upon further investigation, colleagues who have tried Media Temple’s Grid Hosting services have largely been disappointed. Like Mosso/Rackspace Cloud, they are far more stable now than they were, but the same problems seem to come up. Latency (even with the MySQL container in many cases) and poor MySQL performance are cited thousands of times in forum posts and reviews. Media Temple, like Rackspace, is a well-respected company whose image is being tarnished by the inability for the cloud to live up to the promises.

I fully understand that every single hosting company on the planet is going to have negative comments and reviews – any company that doesn’t is probably too good to be true. I also fully understand that most people only post comments and reviews when they’re pissed off, which can color the perception of onlookers. There have been positive reviews of both companies’ groud products, just not that many.

Part of my frustration comes from how these two companies (and I would assume many others) address the complaints of latency. When confronted with benchmarks, their answer is always that you can improve performance by optimizing your site. Obviously, you should always strive to optimize your site, that’s a no-brainer. But the reality seems to be that (for example) a barebones WordPress install with zero plugins and stock theme consistently runs significantly slower in the groud environment – at least with these two vendors – and their response to customers pointing this out is that they have to optimize.

I’m sorry, but that’s bullshit. If you’re promising scalability, you should be able to match the performance that any run-of-the-mill virtual host can provide at the very least. Scalability and performance is THE selling point for groud hosting, and yet that seems to be the area that all of the big providers fall woefully short with. If you’re offering groud and you don’t have performance/scalability, what the fuck is the point, exactly? And the kicker is that for a lot of the big guys, you can’t even GET a non-groud account these days. Everybody drank the fucking kool-aid.

Before you jump down my throat and tell me to get a VPS or dedicated server, let me stop you right there. I had one. I had one for years, starting with a dedicated server at a hosting company 12 years ago, to the one I bought the hardware for we built that shit from the ground up. But I’m a busy person, and I just don’t have the time to be a sysadmin and a developer, an information architect, a commuter, an activist, and all of the other things that I do. I specifically switched off my dedicated server to release myself from the headache that comes with to maintain a server.

I am a firm believer that unlike, say a designer, you cannot be a good sysadmin if you’re only part-time. There’s too much to stay on top of, too many security issues, too many patches. Security itself is a full-time job and the bad guys still manage to get into even reasonably well-secured servers. So I’m not about to be a part-time sysadmin.

All of the large name companies with the best reputations offer more expensive dedicated/VPS servers, or cloud – nothing in between anymore. Everyone’s version of “managed” services is now the groud. There are others that still offer traditional virtual hosting, but they’re not the kinds of companies that instill confidence with clients – or they charge by website, which quickly adds up when you have as many as I do. I ask my colleagues who they’re using, and invariably they’re unhappy with their hosting company, or they’re using a service/package that isn’t the right fit.

I’m just tired of having to do this research again every few years. I want to be in a hosting environment that I love and that I can recommend to everyone I meet, and I have never, not once in 15 years, been there. I’m exhausted by the disappointment, and by never managing to find the right fit. I don’t know the guys at Media Temple that well yet. I know the guys at Rackspace very well – I’m sure they have bullseyes with my face all over their office. I adore the people at Rackspace and so desperately want this to work, but every time it seems to stabilize to the point where I could recommend them to my company as an option, MySQL goes down again. It’s 2010 – how am I still in the same situation I was in a decade ago? How is there nothing for the customer who needs a managed environment that scales well and doesn’t have $1000 to throw at a managed dedicated server? It’s either ghetto or enterprise, nothing in between. Has no one fllled that hole? FILL MY HOLE!

Now then, with that off my chest, let the snipe-bashing commence…. Tell me I’m lazy for not managing my own server. Tell me I’m cheap for not wanting to spend half a mortgage payment on a server that hosts 95% very low traffic static sites and 5% high traffic sites. I know I’m not the only one in this situation. I suspect I’m just one of the first to say it out loud, since the cloud is the in-thing right now.

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I’m a tech geek/dev/infosec-nerd/scuba diver/blacksmith/sword-fighter/crime fighter/ENTP/warcrafter/activist. I'm the CTO at Mass Mosaic and the CEO of Grokability, Inc. in San Diego, CA. Tweet at me @snipeyhead or read more...

  • Ok, I’ll start off. Personally, I’m undecided. On one side, I like the idea of just being able to load an app onto the cloud and it just work (albeit with one or two tweaks). On the other hand, I really don’t like the black box idea. I like to know what’s running and to try my hand at tweaking things to get that last little bit of performance out.

    I’m on Slicehost (owned by Rackspace nowadays) and I love it. I have daily and weekly backups schedules for an extra $5 a month and before I run anything new I always make sure I take a quick snapshot before I try something new… just in case. Restoring from backups takes about a minute because they just snapshot the system. Easy

  • Love the post. I’ve found the ‘promise’ of cloud housing to be so much bullshit. Doesn’t ‘cloud’ imply multiple servers? Doesn’t ‘multiple servers’ imply redundancy? Doesn’t ‘redundancy’ imply a site should never go down? And that’s obviously hardly been the case. This, combined with the slower performance you mentioned, makes cloud hosting a non-starter as far as I’m concerned.

  • The only way to go is colocation. Limit the “outsourcing” to the REALLY expensive stuff (power, cooling & network infrastructure) and build you own “cloud” with you own servers. Servers are cheap, and quite literally disposable. Fill a rack with 40 of them, virtualize the stack of ’em, and presto, you are a in the cloud, AND in control. Best of all, you’ll be spending less.

    “Cloud Computing” as it is being sold today is, and always will be a shared resource. Your shit is mixed up with everybody else’s shit. Scalability is only really there when nobody else’s shit is scaling with yours. Unless you’re running on EC2 it isn’t really “cloud computing” anyway… it is just shared web hosting with buzzword compliance.

    Then again, I’ve told you so before.

    –some random guy named chuck

  • You mentioned VPS and dedicated servers, but you seem to have ignored, or perhaps you are unaware of, managed VPS and managed dedicated servers. You get the best of both worlds. The power, flexibility, and control of a VPS or Dedicated, without the headaches of maintaining security or upgrades. There’s a lot of options if you browse through the Web Hosting Talk forums, an awesome resource when I needed to find a server. I ended up choosing Servint who have been fantastic, taking calls personally at 3 in the morning, no offshore call centers, the actual onsite technicians themselves. I have no affiliation with them and just have been thrilled with their service.

    Btw, I used the Media Temple Grid Service to during the production phase of a Drupal website I’m building, wanting to save money. You are absolutely right, it was a hog. When I switched it over the Servint’s VPS, it was like my site on steroids. The only place I see Grid or Cloud services being useful is strictly storage of static files.

  • Sorry the extra followup, but I do also want to mention that Media Temple’s tech support team was fantastic as well, but no amount of good tech support could make up for all of the issues that randomly arose due to their grid service.

  • Wut

    I gotta say you have accurately depicted the situation but it’s an eternal catch-22. No one is going to be able to give you the kind of environment that you can give yourself. So far it seems like you either take the lumps of ‘regular’ hosting, deal with the scalability issues in the cloud or build a goldilocks solution you have to manage yourself.

  • Fred Fnord

    I prefer the term ‘grud’. It seems to convey my feelings admirably.

  • lomifeh

    I've been using MT for a about three months now. Their grid, for me, has been ok from a stability and performance perspective. I am not running hugely busy sites mind you but they seem OK so far. One thing about them is they have been very good at communication with me.

    Regarding the cloud, it's nothing new. It's cluster computing with a new name. It has all the same issues potentially. That is why I smirk when people mentiong “the cloud.” The other thing that one must remember is that you need to still drive this cloud somehow. That means lots of engineering and investment. If a company does not want to do that then the cloud is more like a monsoon.

    On a sidenote, MT just released this info in the last 24 hours: http://weblog.mediatemple.net/weblog/category/s

  • Heya Larry – Yeah, I knew you'd chime in here πŸ™‚ The blog post you linked to is actually 404, but I did read something on their status earlier about a shit-ton of wordpress sites on their server getting attacked.

    Nope, the cloud is nothing new – which is why it's so fucking infuriating that they still haven't gotten it right. Overwhelmingly, MySQL (and the failure to make it scale well) seems to be the bottleneck. Most people on MT with static sites are head over heels happy with their service (with the exception of some of their email issues). What kills me is that this cloud bandwagon is really hurting big player hosting companies' reputations. They wanted to be frst to market with this retail-level product, and their customers are paying for it.

    I'm back to looking at managed dedicated servers. We have The Planet at work. It's okay, but it uses Cpanel (which I hate.) We've also experienced some outages with them recently. I know every server has issues occasionally, but I was looking into LiquidWeb. Still researching.

    • I’m right where you are. Feeling lied to and disillusioned by the cloud. The first day I went to Rackspace Cloud, I did a benchmark comparing the performance of my crappy shared host (with Cpanel, yay!). I almost demanded my money back that day, but I decided to give them a fair shake.

      I wish I had the option to switch back, but I have bitter memories of a hugely successful website being derailed because it outgrew a dedicated server, and I wasn’t prepared to scale. I’m praying that the cloud can at least make good on the promise that it will continue serving pages when a site gets more traffic than a dedicated server could handle…

      For the time being, I’m crossing my fingers that Rackspace will give us better security tools — this year would be nice.

  • lomifeh

    Huh, they removed the link. Yeah, if I do anything serious I'd move to a dedicated setup I think. But I don't have a site that needs that at this time. Let me know how they are.

  • Hey Chuck – good to see you here πŸ™‚ I totally grok what you're saying, but as I said, I just don't have the resources to build my own at this point. I work full-time (not as a sysadmin), commute 4.5 hours a day, run a non-profit org, and in the four and a half minutes I have left every day, try to get a little sleep.

  • Hi Henry – I am aware of managed VPS/managed dedicated hosting – that's the direction I'm looking for my own server environment. Always such mixed reviews, it's hard to cut through who is just being a whiner, whose needs are totally different than mine, etc. I'm checking out LiquidWeb right now. I hate that they use Cpanel, but they do offer Plesk as well, so that's something I guess. Unfortunately, for all the add-ons I'd want, it starts to get pricey but I'll find way. The bigger issue is that for my company, our clients want to see an impressive list f big name brands that also use the hosting company.

  • Oh god yes – I've been begging RS for security tools for a year. Did you read my open letter to RS? Oy.
    http://www.snipe.net/2010/01/an-open-letter-to-

  • Hah! Too true πŸ˜€

  • Definitely a challenge. I've been trying Slicehost and Linode and having generally positive experiences. Slicehost so far seems to be avoiding the issues of the Rackspace cloud, maybe because they were such a mature offering when Rackspace acquired them. Anyway, they're both very affordable as compared with managed hosting. But yes, you have to build from the ground up. Forget control panels, we're talking installing Apache, PHP, MySQL, Postfix and so on. Both have pretty excellent documentation and their support desks are quite responsive, especially when you consider what you're paying.

  • Sure – and I like Slicehost for some things. Not for hosting all of my sites and/or client sites though. As I mentioned, I was setting up CentOS the other day (including apache, php, mysql, etc.) The problem is not getting up and running – the problem is that other than barebones configurations, it requires a lot more work to secure a server you've built from scratch. Which is fine, if you have the time to invest. I don't.

  • totally agree. Proof is in the marketing. #1 reason Rack Space gives you to buy in is “40,000+ Cloud Customers”

  • I went with rackspace cloud sites for the same reasons you mention moving to the cloud. But I could never get my web app to work in their modified medium trust environment (windows os), and since I couldn't access IIS logs directly, I was forced to make a change, wait up to 24 hours for them to respond, make another change, wait up to 24 hours, and so on. Finally, i just moved to an amazon ec2 instance, even though it does mean more sys admin work.

  • The zomgweb2point0cloudbbq crowd are either paid to promote or they don't understand the full picture about the driving force behind why its there, usually because they were influenced by the crowd who're paid to promote.

    πŸ˜€

    In concept it's super amazing, in reality it's yet to prove itself as an industry norm.

    It is what it is…

  • Qwertyftw

    Definitely sounds like you need you hole filled. Good luck with that