The convenience of not coping
There’s a lot to be said for the ability to get a server for less than the price of a stick of chewing gum.
But convenience has a price, and it’s sufficient that shared hosters, blog hosters, and other folks who make their daily pittance from infrastructure-plus-a-little-extra aren’t especially threatened by cloud infrastructure services.
For instance, I pay for WordPress to host a blog because, while I am readily capable of managing a cloud server and everything necessary to run WordPress, I don’t want to deal with it. I have better things to do with my time.
Small businesses will continue to use traditional shared hosting or even some control-panel-based VPS offerings, despite the much-inferior price-to-resource ratios compared to raw cloud servers, because of the convenience of not having to cope with administration.
The reason why cloud servers are not a significant cost savings for most enterprises (when running continuously, not burst or one-time capacity), is because administration is still a tremendous burden. It’s why PaaS offerings will gain more and more traction over time, as the platforms mature, but also why those companies that crack the code to really automating systems administration will win over time.
I was pondering this equation while contemplating the downtime of a host that I use for some personal stuff; they’ve got a multi-hour maintenance downtime this weekend. My solution to this was simple: write a script that would, shortly before shutdown time, automatically shut down my application, provision a 1.5-cent-an-hour cloud server over on Rackspace, copy the data over, and fire up the application on its new home. (Note: This was just a couple of lines of code, taking moments to type.) The only thing I couldn’t automate was the DNS changeover, since I use GoDaddy for primary DNS and they don’t have an API available for ordinary customers. But conveniently: failover, without having to disrupt my Saturday.
But I realized that I was paying, on a resource-unit equivalent, tremendously more for my regular hosting than I would for a cloud server. Mostly, I’m paying for the convenience of not thinking — for not having to deal with making sure the OS is hardened, pay attention to security advisories, patch, upgrade, watch my logs, etc. I can probably afford the crude way of not thinking for a couple of hours — blindly shutting down all ports, pretty much — but I’m not comfortable with that approach for more than an afternoon.
This is, by the way, also a key difference between the small-business folks who have one or two servers, and the larger IT organizations with dozens, hundreds, or thousands of servers. The fewer you’ve got, the less efficient your labor leverage is. The guy with the largest scale doesn’t necessarily win on cost-efficiency, but there’s definitely an advantage to getting to enough scale.