Rackspace was one of the first players in the cloud arena. The company recognised early that enterprises wanted faster, simpler ways to spin up and spin down servers. If the bosses are going to be fickle and impulsive, there will always be a market for companies that make it easy for the people curating the data to pivot. If the corporate vision is going to morph, the IT shops will want a way to morph with it.

At Rackspace, the meaning of "cloud" has always been a bit simpler and more straightforward, and the philosophy a bit more open and pragmatic, than at other cloud providers. While some of the others spun elaborate metaphors, abstracted away the old files, and portrayed the opaqueness of their mechanism as a feature, Rackspace sold real instances that felt more like real computers. From the beginning, Rackspace's cloud was just a fast way to buy extra machines for an hour, then turn them off.

Lately the company has been adding new products and features to create what it calls the Next Gen cloud. You can still access the First Gen cloud and use the original cloud software, but it won't offer all of the new features such as better data storage, public IPv6 support, and the ability to change a server's metadata.

Rackspace Cloud - The next generation

While there are many new features, Rackspace is still largely selling machines (virtual machines, to be more precise), but now you can glue them together in a few additional ways. The data can be squirreled away in either block storage or containers, two abstractions that aren't permanently glued to the servers. For MySQL users, Rackspace has built a stripped-down and tuned machine image that delivers better performance. The company has also provided off-the-shelf load balancers and backup; adding these features has become much simpler.

Rackspace has also upgraded the machine choices and in one sense lowered the price. The First Gen cloud offered (and still offers) old, anemic machines with just 256MB of RAM and a monthly cost of $10.95, but that bargain-basement offering is gone from the Next Gen cloud. The low-end machines in the Next Gen cloud now come with 512MB of RAM, 20GB of disk space, one virtual CPU, and a monthly cost of $16.06. Bargain users are grousing about the increased cost of running very lightly taxed machines, but those using the larger machines will see prices dropping. A first-generation machine with 512MB of RAM costs $0.03 per hour, while a second-generation machine with 512MB of RAM costs only $0.022 cents per hour.

You're not just paying for RAM with the next generation. The larger, more-expensive machines with 2GB of RAM or more now come with additional virtual CPUs that go along with the extra storage. By the time you're purchasing 30GB of RAM for $876.60 per month, Rackspace is tossing in eight virtual CPUs with the package. You get more power for your money too.

Rackspace Cloud

From CentOS to Ubuntu, all of the usual suspects are available for creating a Linux or BSD machine.

The biggest change in the second generation is the file storage that can now live separately from your servers. In the past, the instances were more like real boxes. If you wanted to get the data on and off the machines, it was up to you. Now Rackspace offers storage blocks that are configured separately from your virtual machine. They're mounted like an external disk drive, and you can use them to read and write data apart from your server image.

The block storage API is pretty transparent. After I pushed the button to create the block storage and attach it to my server, I needed to partition, format, and mount the space using the operating system. It's like attaching a storage device to your own physical machine. You get to push the buttons yourself.

Rackspace also offers a very fast SSD option if you want to pay for a bit more speed. The old-fashioned SATA storage is $0.15 per gigabyte per month, while the solid-state storage is $0.70 per gigabyte per month. If you need only a small amount of fast storage, it's a good choice.

There are hints that Rackspace is embracing some of the more amorphous visions for the cloud. If your data needs to reach a wide audience, you can have a slice of Akamai's Content Distribution Network called CloudFiles. You store your data in CloudFiles and Akamai will deliver it faster. Storage is $0.10 per gigabyte per month, while outgoing bandwidth is $0.18 per gigabyte.