Why New IaaS Providers Enter at Their Own Risk

New cloud provider NephoScale announced its presence among IaaS providers earlier this week, touting itself as “an advanced cloud service for serious programmers.” But I’m afraid its message might fall upon deaf ears, as there’s little evidence the world is clamoring for another IaaS cloud. The market is arguably already saturated with choices — from Amazon Web Services to GoGrid to your local web host — and most have been honing their platforms for years. Anyone looking to break into IaaS this late in the game will have to bring a lot more to the table than just VMs.

Probably the biggest obstacle is the sheer number of IaaS players presently operating within the United States. A nowhere-near-exhaustive list includes Amazon Web Services, Rackspace, Microsoft, GoGrid, Skytap, Linode, Slicehost, OpSource, Terremark, Bluelock, Savvis and AT&T. And many of these companies are already well respected, having developed strong reputations as cloud providers, MSPs or both. Many also have multiple points of presence across the globe. To potential users concerned at all about factors like security, availability or even that their cloud provider will be operating next year, new providers have a lot to prove. Furthermore, there are numerous regional web hosts turned cloud providers that have built their cloud offerings atop platform software by ISVs such as Cloud.com, Enomaly and 3Tera.

Another big obstacle for new cloud providers to overcome is the feature and service gap. NephoScale is trying to lure developers to the cloud with a combination of on-demand virtual and dedicated physical servers, a cloud storage platform and a CloudScript API to manage all of them. It’s a respectable portfolio, and the API certainly deserves some attention, but will it be enough? By comparison, AWS has an incredible catalog of features and services at this point, as do Rackspace and GoGrid through via their partner-centric approaches. Just this week, for example, Rackspace announced it will be reselling Akamai’s CDN services. Any new IaaS provider looking to compete with these players will need to roll out new features fast and furious.

APIs are an interesting point of comparison, too. In an interview with HPC in the Cloud, NephoScale Founder and CTO Telemachus Luu explained CloudScript thusly: “Leveraging NephoScale’s CloudScript, a user can deploy an entire datacenter configuration through a single API submission (JSON post).” Although this might be a technically unique API, part of luring developers is having the best community and the broadest support. AWS’s API is already considered a de facto standard by some, having been adopted by numerous cloud projects and products, and the Rackspace-led OpenStack project — which likely will see adoption by numerous cloud providers and vendors — is attracting some of the best cloud developers around. These companies also have companies such as RightScale driving revenue by selling their own managed services that utilize cloud providers’ resources. Presently, the NephoScale API is limited to NephoScale.

Finally, there’s the question of whether IaaS clouds will even be the primary stomping grounds of skilled developers going forward. Conventional wisdom in the cloud community is that PaaS, which lets developers write applications without worrying about infrastructure-level concerns like servers and storage, is the future of cloud development. This week, PHP Fog came onto the scene, joining other language-specific (or focused, at least) PaaS clouds such as Heroku and Engine Yard (Ruby), CloudBees/Stax Networks (Java), Google App Engine (Python) and Windows Azure (.NET). Although it’s still an emerging space, the promise of PaaS is what inspired Red Hat to buy Makara, Salesforce.com to buy Heroku, and VMware to build a public PaaS environment to complement its existing Spring-based vFabric software.

I’m not arguing that Nephoscale — or any new IaaS provider trying to compete on a large scale — can’t succeed, just that it will be very difficult to do so. With on-demand VMs being all but a commodity at this point (see Enomaly’s SpotCloud, for an example of this proposition), features are what set cloud providers apart — and the existing pool has had years to build them and have plenty of money to build or buy more. New IaaS providers need to grow up fast or go PaaS.

Question of the week

Do you think there’s room in the IaaS market for new national-scale providers?