The (temporary?) transformation of hosters
Classically, hosting companies have been integrators of technology, not developers of technology. Yet the cloud world is increasingly pushing hosting companies into being software developers — companies who create competitive advantage in significant part by creating software which is used to deliver capabilities to customers.
I’ve heard the cloud IaaS business compared to the colocation market of the 1990s — the idea that you build big warehouses full of computers and you rent that compute capacity to people, comparable conceptually to renting data center space. People who hold this view tend to say things like, “Why doesn’t company X build a giant data center, buy a lot of computers, and rent them? Won’t the guy who can spend the most money building data centers win?” This view is, bluntly, completely and utterly wrong.
IaaS is functionally becoming a software business right now, one that is driven by the ability to develop software in order to introduce new features and capabilities, and to drive quality and efficiency. IaaS might not always be a software business; it might eventually be a service-and-support business that is enabled by third-party software. (This would be a reasonable view if you think that VMware’s vCloud is going to own the world, for instance.) And you can get some interesting dissonances when you’ve got some competitors in a market who are high-value software businesses vs. other folks who are mostly commodity infrastructure providers enabled by software (the CDN market is a great example of this). But for the next couple of years at least, it’s going to be increasingly a software business in its core dynamics; you can kind of think of it as a SaaS business in which the service delivered happens to be infrastructure.
To illustrate, let’s talk about Rackspace. Specifically, let’s talk about Rackspace vs. Amazon.
Amazon is an e-commerce company, with formidable retail operations skills embedded in its DNA, but it is also a software company, with more than a decade of experience under its belt in rolling out a continuous stream of software enhancements and using software to drive competitive advantage.
Amazon, in the cloud IaaS part of its Web Services division, is in the business of delivering highly automated IT infrastructure to customers. Custom-written software drives their entire infrastructure, all the way down to their network devices. Software provides the value-added enhancements that they deliver on top of the raw compute and storage, from the spot pricing marketplace to auto-scaling to the partially-automated MySQL management provided by the RDS service. Amazon’s success and market leadership depends on consistently rolling out new and enhanced features, functions, capabilities. It can develop and release software on such aggressive schedules that it can afford to be almost entirely tactical in its approach to the market, prioritizing whatever customers and prospects are demanding right now.
Rackspace, on the other hand, is a managed hosting company, built around a deep culture of customer service. Like all managed hosters, they’re imperfect, but on the whole, they are the gold standard of service, and customer service is one of the key differentiators in managed hosting, driving Rackspace’s very rapid growth over the last five years. Rackspace has not traditionally been a technology leader; historically, it’s been a reasonably fast follower implementing mainstream technologies in use by its target customers, but people, not engineering, has been its competitive advantage.
And now, Rackspace is going head to head with Amazon on cloud IaaS. It has made a series of acquisitions aimed at acquiring developers and software technology, including Slicehost, JungleDisk, and Webmail.us. (JungleDisk is almost purely a software company, in fact; it makes money by selling software licenses.) Even if they emphasize other competitive differentiation, like customer support, they’re still in direct competition with Amazon on pure functionality. Can Rackspace obtain the competencies it will need to be a software leader?
And in related questions: Can the other hosters who eschew the VMware vCloud route manage to drive the featureset and innovation they’ll need competitively? Will vCloud be inexpensive enough and useful enough to be widely adopted by hosters, and if it is, how much will it commoditize this market? What does this new emphasis upon true development, not just integration, do to hosters and to the market as a whole? (I’ve been thinking about this a lot, lately, although I suspect it’ll go into a real research note rather than a blog post.)