RightScale makes EC2 a better fit for SaaS

The founder of RightScale, a start-up that automates the running of cloud computing on EC2, formerly ran the massive multi-tenant infrastructure at Citrix Online. His advice to SaaS vendors today is to go for a smaller, hybrid architecture.

Amazon.com CTO Dr Werner Vogels' presentation at SIIA's OnDemand Summit (see my previous posting) was punctuated by a demonstration performed by Thorsten von Eicken, CTO of RightScale, a start-up that provides a platform to manage cloud computing on EC2. Von Eicken has an impeccable SaaS pedigree, having been chief architect at ExpertCity, subsequently Citrix Online after the provider of the popular GoToMyPC service became part of Citrix Systems. But he's had his fill of running massive multi-tenant data centers. "I'm not going back the five data centers I had in my previous job," he said at the end of the demonstration.

RightScale CTO Thorsten Von Eicken
The RightScale service, which itself runs on the Amazon.com platform, automates the process of setting up and managing prepackaged server clusters on the EC2 service — making the raw Amazon.com technology much more accessible to non-technical users. Von Eicken actually went through the process of launching a cluster live on stage during the keynote. A typical cluster includes a web server with front-end load-balancing and a mySQL master-slave configuration that provides for redundant failover and has persistent backup to Amazon's S3 storage service. The service will automatically deploy new instances in response to preset triggers such as spikes in traffic or CPU utilization.

RightScale says its service obviates the need to take on extra staff to run a website. "The technical skills to start a web-based company have really gone down," Von Eicken told me in an interview the day before his keynote appearance. "A lot of startups don't have a sysadmin, and they don't want to have a sysadmin."

With little promotion to date, RightScale already has 2500 users of its free developer edition and twenty paying customers, including Eclipse toolkit developer Genuitech, which uses the service to run its download site, online video production site Animoto, and Business Objects, which uses RightScale to manage an online test-drive of Crystal Reports implemented as a virtual appliance.

RightScale's premium service costs $500 per month plus a $2500 setup fee for up to twenty simultaneous server instances, with additional servers costing 33% on top of EC2's charge. Recently appointed CEO Michael Crandell told me that the RightScale-Amazon combination becomes a cheaper option than using a hosting service such as Rackspace once a deployment reaches four servers or more — plus the added benefit of built-in scalability and Amazon.com's newly introduced SLA. "We think it's disruptive," he said.

Other vendors may well dispute the economics. Ilya Baimetov, director of technology at SWSoft, which makes the widely used Virtuozzo virtual private server (VPS) hosting technology, recently claimed that "Virtuozzo-based VPSes are an order of magnitude cheaper" than EC2. But he conceded that a major difference in EC2 is the ability "to create new instances via API calls." This is indeed a vital difference, enabling Business Objects, for example, to put up its Crystal Reports virtual appliance test-drive without having to forecast takeup in advance. The RightScale software takes care of server provisioning, bringing instances online as needed, and then taking them down as soon as they're no longer required. Another interesting twist is that Von Eicken told me RightScale is looking at other platforms besides EC2, so that ultimately RightScale users may even have the option of switching transparently from one hosting provider to another. That would really open up the competitive landscape.

There is a debate to be had, however, as to how far such deployments advance vendors along the journey to SaaS. The Crystal Reports implementation is a test drive of an rPath virtual appliance instance, so although it's provided as a service, each instance is single-tenant, dedicated to an individual customer. There are often commercial imperatives that make such a choice a pragmatic option for an ISV, and last week I took part in a webinar with rPath and one of its customers, KnowledgeTree, which has used the technology (also hosted on EC2) to introduce a SaaS offering [disclosure: this was a paid engagement]. By adopting this shortcut to SaaS, KnowledgeTree has been able to bring its SaaS offering to market in just six months, something it couldn't have done had it decided to rearchitect the application to be multi-tenant, which would have taken much longer (and may have proven prohibitively costly).

More controversially, Von Eicken argues against attempting to build huge multi-tenant instances in the manner of Salesforce.com or his former employer Citrix Online. "What I prefer nowadays is a more hybrid approach where you deploy small clusters serving say 100 customers each," he said at the OnDemand Summit. That's similar to the approach taken by NetSuite, so it has SaaS credentials, but is it too much of a compromise of the multi-tenant ideal? There's no easy answer to that question — the debate will continue.