I came upon a recent blog post by David Linthicum from InforWorld. In this article David makes a case that innovation in a hot market is too risky and that this belief leads to a market filled with me too, little box products. In particular, he is referring to the cloud market. While I cannot speak to the general application of David’s adage, I can say that it is not valid in the cloud space.

While I can agree that the VM is the basic building block of most cloud offerings, the similarities stop beyond that. The following are a few of the areas of significant differentiation in the cloud market today:

  • Pricing Models – This is the obvious one. Most vendors offer a pay-as-you-go plan and a discount for prepaid plans. Beyond this all vendors seem to differ on most of the details. As examples: the basic computing unit of Gogrid is the RAM hour, at AWS it is the number of on demand instances and Rackspace counts the Windows images with RAM, disk and network throughput. Add to this that some vendors bill by the hour and some by the minute, some bill for bandwidth and so on. You quickly see that pricing is an area of intense competition among the vendors. They all have an ideal target customer segment in mind that best fits their cloud vision and they tailor pricing models to be more competitive in this segment. Understanding what best suits your needs requires some investigation and forecasting. Most vendors offer tools to assist you in this effort.
  • Flexibility – Many cloud vendors take a one size fits most approach and design their offerings to fit the needs of the least common denominator within their target customer segment. Others like OpSource and NephoScale key on flexibility and offer RESTful APIs to allow customers to develop interfaces within their applications to manipulate their cloud. They also allow customers to select the OS and configuration of the individual servers. AWS and RackSpace lack this flexibility.
  • Networking – The networking capabilities of cloud offerings differ widely. As an example, AWS does not support dedicated servers and virtual servers on the same network. NephoScale does. This can be a major advantage for a user that needs the scalability of VMs on the front end and the predictable performance of dedicated servers for the database side. Another area where NephoScale shines is with their ability to scale beyond the IEEE 802.1q specs limitation of 4,096 VLANs/network. This creates a far more scalable, unified resource pool, rather than isolated resources in different PODs/grids offered by others. Other differences range from the customer’s ability to configure firewalls, multicast and load balancing.
  • Additional Services – Some cloud vendors like OpSource and RackSpace offer application management services beyond the basic IaaS. These vendors pride themselves on the ability to actually provide an SLA on the application performance, not just the cloud performance. NephoScale offers CloudScript which is a fully idempotent scripting environment with an IDE. It allows customers to build custom templates that deploy full environments with fully configured applications with a single click.
  • Performance – While it is true that performance is partially limited by the VM environment and underlying hardware, building the right cloud and then carefully tuning all the components to work together can make a big difference. In testing, we see as much as 3x performance difference between the fastest and slowest vendors. In addition, the ability to use dedicated and virtual servers on the same network can really improve performance. Finally, performance goes beyond just the speed of the cloud. As mentioned above NephoScale offers a powerful tool that really improves the performance of the entire project.
  • Operational Support – This is about how well the vendor’s cloud integrates with and supports the customer’s internal IT, operation and development teams. Again, vendors differ widely in this respect. By embracing the DevOps movement with its CloudScript, NephoScale  is making running their cloud easier and more predictable for their customers. OpSource adds value by assuming much of the day-to-day application management.

In short, the cloud market is not the, “me-too, little boxes,” world David describes in his post, but it is a very competitive and differentiated market made up of innovative companies, each delivering their vision of the cloud to their customers.