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'Linux for cloud' floats anti-Amazon cloud taster

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Updated How does a cloud project solve a problem like Amazon? The once genteel etailer of toasters, books and CDs has now become a byword for "cloud".

People just can't stop stuffing more of their data into Amazon's EC2 service. The number of objects held in EC2's S3 storage service grew by nearly 200 per cent in 2011 to 762 billion, compared to 156 per cent growth in the year before.

More will be mopped up more in 2012, as Amazon has made it easier and even cheaper to use S3.

Bezos's company cut its entry-level prices by 10 per cent from 1 Feb, to $0.125 for the first terabyte. In January it uncloaked the AWS Storage Gateway beta to act as a cloud-based data back-up service for companies, thereby hovering in even more.

Developers are the problem. Amazon has made it easy to test and develop apps at a very low price using open or at least familiar programming languages, tools and databases. The service couldn't be more ubiquitous: fire up a browser and it's easy to find and start EC2.

If you're the OpenStack Project hoping to challenge Amazon for the business customers putting their apps in the cloud, then one approach might be to tempt developers with a suck-it-and-see scheme for this "Linux for the cloud" effort.

OpenStack is about to open up FreeCloud, which lets you test the idea of OpenStack while running it hosted in a sandboxed environment. FreeCloud's also getting the re-branding iron run over its hyde: it's now called TryStack. The idea is TryStack lets you test OpenStack without either having to download and install the code on your own servers or – if that sounds like to much hassle – have to sign a contract with a service provider running OpenStack in their cloud before you know you'll like or need it. It's meant to tie into the Devstack Openstack development toolkit here.

With Amazon, there's no code or modules to download – the service is ready to go reducing the barriers to experimentation and producing potential future customers.

Jonathan Bryce, OpenStack project chairman and chief technology officer and founder of The Rackspace Cloud, told The Reg: "We heard from several people the are interested in using OpenStack, but don't have the sysadmins do build the KVM or networking.

"Because it's a set of services and servers you have to set up and run yourself, and if you are developer working on an application you are more used to having access to a running environment and putting code in rather than having to build that environment.

"One of the first targets that brought this need to our attention was app developers who write tools for managing clouds - companies like Cyberduck and EC2 Firefox extension. They need a functioning version of an OpenStack cloud that they can program against. To get that they'd have to install OpenStack somewhere and to that they'd need the hardware.

TryStack has been in use by about 12 customers for the last five months as FreeCloud. It was built by Rackspace and NTT using Dell servers and hosting and bandwidth from Equinox - all OpenStack Project members. TryStack runs the last release of OpenStack, called Diablo, coming with compute, object storage and Glance for doing snap shots, with dashboard and authentication.

You'd think TryStack would use stealth to attract and retain developers, but it doesn't and TryStack is purely a developer service that's not been built for long-term hosting. Not yet, at least.

TryStack users must buy into an invented currency, called Stack Dollars. Everybody gets 100,000 Stack Dollars that gives them "a couple of gigabytes for a couple of days". Stack Dollars don't have any actual monetary value, and they can be topped up. The smaller your compute instances the longer the dollars last, the larger the quicker they burn. Once your finished, your compute resources return to the pool while TryStack doesn't come with any SLAs and the service might get taken offline for upgrades Bryce said.

The OpenStackers behind TryStack really don't want you getting any ideas about hanging around. For OpenStack, however, this might be the best way to grow against Amazon. The problem is commercial operations like Dell, Rackspace, Citrix and Hewlett-Packard are either delivering or building clouds using OpenStack and so wouldn't appreciate the free competition.

Rackspace, Bryce's employer, was a instrumental in creating OpenStack and has led construction of significant portions of the code – compute and storage – that it's now deploying on its hosting servers. Rackspace just notched up its first billion-dollar year after 12 years in the biz.

HP's OpenStack cloud has been in beta since September – it's currently an Infrastructure-as-a-Service service providing compute and storage. With Citrix's CloudStack, you download either uncompiled or compiled binaries. How Citrix charges isn't clear and it still seems to relying on the Cloud.com start-up it bought last year for users to configure the code. Dell's not getting its hands dirty, and is now selling an OpenStack "solution" – blueprints and advice on setting up an OpenStack cloud running on Dell servers.

The thinking behind TryStack is that it will pique developers' interest in a cloud architecture for everybody who's not Amazon – PC and server manufacturers, service providers, software makers and others. "It's about making it easy for people to try it out ... hopefully that leads to business for all the OpenStack companies afterwards," Bryce said.

But translating that into a paying business for those with a stake in the project will be another thing altogether. With the "deploy" portion of the development cycle not available and with so many OpenStack clouds in different states of public availability, it's likely Amazon will continue to grow fat, and fast, before OpenStack starts racking up. ®

This article has been updated as we were contacted after publication to say the FreeCloud name had been changed to TryStack.

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