Are multiple cloud APIs bad?

Rackspace has recently launched a community portal called Cloud Tools, showcasing third-party tools that support Rackspace’s cloud compute and storage services. The tools are divided into “featured” and “community”. Featured tools are ones that Rackspace has looked at and believes deserve highlighting; they’re not necessarily commercial projects, but Rackspace does have formal relationships with the developers. Community tools are fro any random joe out there who’d like to be listed. The featured tools get a lot more bells and whistles.

While this is a good move for Rackspace, it’s not ground-breaking stuff, although the portal is notable for a design that seems more consumer-friendly (by contrast with Amazon’s highly text-dense, spartan partner listings). Rather, what’s interesting is Rackspace’s ongoing (successful) efforts to encourage an ecosystem to develop around its cloud APIs, and the broader question of cloud API standardization, “de facto” standards, and similar issues.

There are no small number of cloud advocates out there that believe that rapid standardization in the industry would be advantageous, and that Amazon’s S3 and EC2 APIs, as the APIs with the greatest current adoption and broadest tools support, should be adopted as a de facto standard. Indeed, some cloud-enablement packages, like Eucalyptus, have adopted Amazon’s APIs — and will probably run into API dilemmas as they evolve, as private cloud implementations will be different than public ones, leading to inherent API differences, and a commitment to API compatibility means that you don’t fully control your own feature roadmap. There’s something to be said for compatibility, certainly. Compatibility drives commoditization, which would theoretically lower prices and deliver benefits to end-users.

However, I believe that it’s too early in the market to seek commoditization. Universal commitment to a particular API at this point clamps standardized functionality within a least-common-denominator range, and it restricts the implementation possibilities, to the detriment of innovation. As long as there is rapid innovation and the market continues to offer a slew of new features — something which I anticipate will continue at least through the end of 2011 and likely beyond — standardization is going to be of highly limited benefit.

Rackspace’s API is different than Amazon’s because Rackspace has taken some different fundamental approaches, especially with regard to the network. For another example of significant API differences, compare EMC’s Atmos API to Amazon’s S3 API. Storage is a pretty simple thing, but there are nevertheless meaningful differences in the APIs, reflecting EMC’s different philosophy and approach. (As a sideline, you might find William Vambenepe’s comparison of public cloud APIs in the context of REST, to be an interesting read.)

Everyone can agree on a certain set of core cloud concepts, and I expect that we’ll see libraries that provide unified API access to different underlying clouds; for instance, libcloud (for Python) is the beginning of one such effort. And, of course, third parties like RightScale specialize in providing unified interfaces to multiple clouds.

One thing to keep in mind: Most of the cloud APIs to date are really easy to work with. This means that if you have a tool that supports one API, it’s not terribly hard or time-consuming to make it support another API, assuming that you’re confining yourself to basic functionality.

There’s certainly something to be said in favor of other cloud providers offering an API compatibility layer for basic EC2 and S3 functionality, to satisfy customer demand for such. This also seems to be the kind of thing that’s readily executed as a third-party library, though.

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Posted on August 27, 2009, in Infrastructure and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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