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Summary:

Cloud-based servers simple enough to be at the beck and call of every Joe Schmo are a compelling vision, but presently not a realistic one. At this point, in fact, one could argue that the holy grail of the consumer cloud has already been realized.

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Cloud-based servers simple enough to be at the beck and call of every Joe Schmo off the street are a compelling vision, but presently not a realistic one. At this point, in fact, one could argue that the holy grail of the consumer cloud has already been realized. In the business world, it’s called software as a service, but the rest of the world just knows it as “the cloud.”

In a blog post on Thursday, Anil Dash laid out a vision that pretty much boils down to this quote: “[W]e need a consumer cloud offering. An app store for EC2 or a marketplace for Rackspace. The same one-click stores that offer us easy apps on our own local devices should let us purchase consumer-friendly apps that run on our own individual cloud servers.” It reads well, but until cloud computing prices drop far enough that individual servers cost next to nothing, the vision seems infeasible. That’s why multitenant cloud services, what Dash calls “centralized services,” are proving so popular.

Although Dash dismisses the idea of centralized services as being primarily the realm of profit-hungry platform companies such as Google and Facebook, and archaic compared with the type of edge innovation that mobile apps enable, that’s not entirely the case. The truth is that there’s a whole slew of entrepreneurs building consumer-friendly services atop cloud platforms — like almost every popular web and mobile app you can think of, including Instagram, Draw Something , Tumblr, Wordnik, Foursquare, you name it.

Yes, it’s true there isn’t yet a cloud service for every possible need a consumer could have, but new ones are popping up every day. Some of them are actually targeting the compute-intensive workloads Dash thinks aren’t profitable enough for large platform providers to build but that might require an entire virtual server. I’m thinking of Zencoder (and the host of other video-rendering services), Animoto and Aviary, but there are plenty of other examples floating about.

It’s all about cost and architecture

For a variety of reasons economic and architectural, a centralized model is just so much more efficient than having every version of an app running on its own server. A big one is that most apps don’t need the power of an entire server, which is why multitenancy works so well. There’s also the issue of OS patches and other administrative tasks that are a lot easier with centralized control and not so easy when apps are running on their own servers god-knows-where. These are among the same reason businesses love SaaS, by the way.

And then there’s the cost; applications that rely on consumers spinning up their own servers are not going to be cheap. If an app were running 24 hours a day on a standard Amazon Machine Image (a requirement if you don’t want to wait minutes for a new server to power on every time you open the app), it would cost just less than $60 a month for compute alone, not to mention charges for storage, database calls, etc. I can’t imagine a freemium model that can support than kind of cost. Multitenant SaaS providers can keep prices low and still turn a profit by taking into account peaks and valleys in usage, but I don’t see how that’s possible in a single-tenant model.

Amazon Web Services actually has an AWS Marketplace, but it consists primarily of business applications — and for good reason. While tens to hundreds of dollars a month is a relatively good deal for business software, it’s a terrible deal for consumers. That’s why multitenant, or centralized, cloud architectures work so well.

It’s also why many mobile applications have a foot in the cloud to provide a distributed datastore, but offload computing where possible to our increasingly powerful mobile phones and laptops. Such architectures also provide the added benefit of letting apps run offline but sync with the cloud backend when devices are back online.

Built right (that can be easier said than done, I know) a centralized cloud service can stay online during an outage that would knock individual servers offline and take consumers’ instances with them.

Don’t get me wrong, I completely see where Dash is coming from in wanting, essentially, a world in which consumers can buy cloud apps that mirror and perhaps outdo their PC apps in terms of features and computing power. I just don’t see it happening given the myriad advantages cloud services have as a business model. Anyone can write and host their own application in the cloud — the advent of platform as a service makes that easier than ever before — but if they build something the rest of the world might want to use, the economics of a single-tenant architecture just aren’t there yet.

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user italianestro.

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  1. Just a small nitpick, Amazon free tier allows you to run a micro instance for free during one year and after that it can be $14/month or less with reserved instances for a micro, which is fine to run a blog, wiki, CRM. A lot of BitNami users start their AWS usage that way

    1. That’s true, although Micro Instances (which Rackspace also offers) are somewhat limited in utility. The bigger question is how many apps you’re willing to pay $14 *a month* for after that year. A blog, sure, but add too many and it gets very expensive.

      After a little more thought, though, I can envision a model where on-demand dedicated servers might work, if they were connected to a persistent database and pulled a user’s info when he opened the app and fired up the server. Used only periodically, it would only cost between $.05 and $.08 cents an hour to run the server, and the wait time to spin up the instance might not be intolerable.

  2. What in the name of Steveus are end users going to do with servers? This is dumb. IaaS is for IT-centric businesses to make money with. Apps are for users to get on their phones or on their computers, like Gmail. AWS should sell Gmail? Why? AWS has an app store for vendors, you said it yourself. It’s other app is called “shopping on Amazon” and that’s a $30 billion business. I really don’t get the point of this blog post.

  3. Sandeep Todi Monday, July 2, 2012

    What’s the point of this post ? It tries to defend a case that does not need defending. The whole idea of the cloud is to de-tangle the technology for users and apps specific servers or any such idea can only make it more complex.

  4. Robert L. Greenberg Monday, July 2, 2012

    SaaS makes a lot of sense for small businesses that don’t want or can’t afford to build infrastructure. By giving a low cost point to these businesses to add redundancy, SaaS lets the little guy play with the big boys.

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