Friday, October 22, 2010

2 cents/hr is cheap, but free is even better!

You know things are getting hot when vendors start offering solutions for the rock bottom price of just 2 cents/hr! That was Amazon's announcement just 1 month ago, when they made available 'Micro' sized server instances. These instances provide on-demand access to an x32 or x64 613 MB server, which is usually enough power for a small web site to run effectively.

At 2 cents/hr it's a bit difficult to recoup running costs for a server. That's $175 per year, which is not insignificant, but also not a great profit after accounting for service costs, datacenter charges and billing overheads. Some reasons why Amazon decided to take this path (all, of-course, just my personal viewpoints):
  • Spare capacity is spare capacity. Amazon is selling off any available CPU resource in their datacenter. No matter how small it is, selling it off still generates an income.
  • 2 cents/hr is a very attractive price point for startups. Even my own business, LabSlice, will benefit handsomely from such low costs, as our service spins up 100's of instances per week. A small cost change benefits us and our customers.
  • Google offers their AppEngine cloud service for free for low utilization projects. Amazon isn't quite offering a free solution as a competitor, but... (see below).
  • Micro instances may be a stepping stone to use of Amazon's automatic scaling services. Instead of buying a large box, users may now buy a Micro instance and implement automatic scalability. It's a win-win for Amazon and the user: Amazon sells more services and the customer gets a pricing point that is very tightly coupled to the actual use of the application.
Now, what could be better than a 2 cent/hr billing rate? As a special deal, Amazon is offering free usage of Micro instances for a full year for any registrations that occur before 1 November.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Choosing your cloud

The pointy haired boss at your company will inevitably want you to look at cloud. But what most bosses don't realize is that it's not a simple "forklift operation" of moving existing code to a new platform. Choosing the right cloud can be a challenge with factors such as cost, platform selection, language availability, scalability and automation coming into play. Below is a quick primer to help you choose between the leading cloud providers:

Google AppEngine

Google is a great choice for startups and in many ways they are building a cloud that can run the next Facebook or Twitter on their dedicated platform. Their business model highlights this. They offer 500 MB of cloud storage and up to 5 million page views per month for free. They also geared AppEngine towards the hacker's choice of Java and Python, run code on an abstracted platform layer (real developers don't want to touch the underlying OS) and provide automated scaling controls.

Historically Google has excelled at targeting their products at individuals and SMBs, and it seems they are heading in a similar direction with AppEngine. If you are a small company with smart developers then you will likely want the low-cost, hacker-oriented and highly-automated (whew!) solution offered by AppEngine. If you're an Enterprise then you will more than likely be concerned about lock-in, skills availability (.NET is the most readily available dev platform in large enterprises today) and lack of fine grained control.

Microsoft Azure

Microsoft is offering a similar product to Google AppEngine, obviously geared towards the Microsoft community of Visual Studio developers. Web applications that currently run on the .NET/IIS7/SQL Server stack can be easily migrated to the Azure cloud, which comprises solely of a cluster of virtualized Windows 2008 servers. Developers familiar with the Microsoft development stack should have no problem moving to the cloud. As with AppEngine, the Microsoft solution offers scalability automation and abstraction from the underlying platform.

While Microsoft Azure can be tweaked to run non-Microsoft technologies (such as PHP), it is still very much oriented towards the Microsoft technology stack.  Google AppEngine and Microsoft Azure may not end up as direct competitors --- they can likely carve out a market that splits users into "hacker startups and SMBs" for Google AppEngine and "enterprise users" for Microsoft Azure.

Amazon EC2

Amazon is the granddaddy of cloud computing, offering a mature and stable cloud solution that has been active for almost 5 years. The Amazon solution differs greatly from that provides by Google and Microsoft. They selling on-demand, virtual slices of a computing infrastructure (Infrastructure as a Service), rather than an underlying development platform (Platform as a Service). That makes Amazon EC2 very similar to running an application within your own datacenter. You can use any operating system and development language that you like, with full console access to configure and manage your box.

The Amazon EC2 cloud is the easiest to get started with and probably the closest to how your company currently runs its environment. There's very little lock-in, as Amazon is only selling you computing time on a box and some peripheral technologies to aid in scalability and monitoring of the environment.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Microsoft SEO toolkit to help your startup

It's difficult trying to get the word out about your new startup. There are the usual methods of getting link-backs, writing blog content and doing search engine optimization (SEO). I just came across the free SEO Toolkit from Microsoft. The toolkit is an IIS plugin, but in practice can be used to scan any website for SEO improvement recommendations.

I'm not too sure of the value of this toolkit, but here are some of the recommendations it made for the LabSlice website:
  • Multiple 'title' tags: We erroneously created multiple title tags for each page, one for the page content and another automatically generated in our master page layout. Having multiple title tags can confuse the search engine as to the actual website's intent.
  • Brand name in the title: The MS SEO tool recommended that we remove the word 'LabSlice' as the first word in the title. Apparently search engines heavily weight the first word or two in the title, and therefore it's not a good idea to waste such words on the company's brand name.
  • Multiple 'h1' tags per page: I have read about this SEO issue before, but apparently not all our pages adhered to this SEO recommendation. Use only a single h1 tag per page to highlight to the search engine exactly what's important in your content.
Was the SEO Toolkit from Microsoft useful? It's hard to say, but I guess that it also can't hurt. Give it a shot on your website.

The Microsoft SEO toolkit is added as an IIS7 plugin that manages site analysis, sitemaps and robots.txt.