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Rackspace Cloud Guru Says Service Trumps Technology

Jonathan Bryce opens up about the Amazon outage, OpenStack, and how he's come to be a cloud veteran at age 29.

Jonathan Bryce founded one of the first cloud systems. He and a partner left their jobs at Rackspace in 2005 and launched their cloud business, Mosso, the following year. Though they were outside Rackspace, the ties remained strong. Bryce's older brother, who recruited him initially, still worked there, and Mosso's cloud functioned on Rackspace servers.

In 2009, with Mosso beginning to be viewed as an alternative to Amazon's EC2, Bryce was brought back in house as a Rackspace employee, now in charge of what had been rebranded the Rackspace Cloud.

InformationWeek editor-at-large Charles Babcock caught up with Bryce May 9 at Interop 2011 in Las Vegas, a UBM TechWeb event, to ask about operating a cloud architecture and the recent Amazon outage. Bryce refused to attack a competitor. Perhaps he was remembering the time in 2007 when a vehicle crash took out a transformer that controlled about half the power supply to Mosso. That and other experiences make him, at 29, a veteran cloud operator. Rackspace now operates 65,000 servers worldwide, though that number includes its managed hosting business.

InformationWeek: When did you get started in the data center services business?

Bryce: I started at Rackspace early on. My brother was one of the first dozen employees. He knew I liked computers. I did online operations, customer service, technical support, trouble ticketing, customer portal, everything we did facing the customer.

InformationWeek: How did you move into cloud computing?

Bryce: I was one of the founders of Mosso, with a co-worker, Todd Morey in 2005. Todd was graphic designer. We liked to build websites together. We did it in our spare time. We tried to push the envelope (and they knew how to host applications on Rackspace). We had access to free servers. We had started Mosso as a business outside of Rackspace and launched it in 2006. Then we rolled it into Rackspace.

InformationWeek: How did you pick a name like Mosso?

Bryce: Have you ever tried to name something? was taken. We went through thousands of names. We had to pick a name the night before (launch). We didn't like any names. We arrived at the name Mosso in desperation. Mosso is an Italian word in music, meaning play faster with more passion.

InformationWeek: Why did you start Mosso as a company outside of Rackspace?

Bryce: We knew it was new technology, that there would be problems. This was in 2005. We functioned as a Rackspace customer with a separate brand (even though Mosso servers were in a Rackspace data center). That kept things simple.

InformationWeek: How did that work out, going back inside?

Bryce: We started with the Cloud Sites application hosting system, then [added] the CloudFiles storage system. You have to do it in a cost effective way. Store cloud files at 15 cents a GB. That was our second product. We were going to add a virtual server system. Then Rackspace acquired Slicehost, a company in St. Louis with a bunch of software like EC2--server start/stop, assign IPs; the stuff you need to do was all done. [It was] virtual servers versus physical servers at Rackspace.

InformationWeek: You said you knew there were problems with new technology. What did you think of the Amazon outage?

Bryce: Obviously it was something painful to customers. Everyone who uses technology realizes that technology fails. Anyone who runs anything like this will have issues. It's important how you communicate to customers so they are informed, so they can design systems that will survive ... In the long term, the Amazon outage will have no impact.

InformationWeek: Could that happen at Rackspace, a two- or three-day outage?

Bryce: Could it happen to Rackspace? The honest answer is, it's the same kind of technology, so who knows. We've had outages before. We set systems up so they are isolated, but they are also very complex, and things go wrong. Amazon Web Services' track record is very good. It was a dramatic outage that impacted a lot of people. But these big outages contribute a smaller portion of the total of lifetime downtime.

If you go through all the details, it was a random failure that cascaded. You think you've architected the system so that it protects itself. But even RAID arrays can go down on the managed hosting side.

InformationWeek: So you think there'll be little slowing of the momentum toward cloud?

Bryce: We're very early in the evolution of the cloud. Over the decades, these first couple of years of churn and arms race will mean very little. In the cloud, you need a trusted partner. That's why we have customers who have been with us over a decade. It's all about people.

We're very focused on making IT departments more effective. Our brand is about support and service. When their technology fails, one of us picks up the phone after two rings.

Amazon has taken a more technology-centric approach to it. You piece together highly reliable, scalable cloud. They see it as a technology problem solved through software and systems. The big difference between us is people and service versus technology. At the end of the day, the customer wants to know he has direct access to someone.

InformationWeek: What's your commitment to OpenStack?

Bryce: OpenStack is an open source project launched last June with NASA. We took NASA Nebula and Rackspace software and kicked off this initiative. Companies have signed on like gangbusters--Citrix, Cisco have full-time developers working on OpenStack, paid for by companies with skin in the game. Five hundred people attended the design summit [in April]. We had 24 contributors originally from NASA and Rackspace. Now there's a couple hundred developers. That's translating into real software development. We get thousands of code submissions, 1,200 features added since we launched. It's taken off more than we thought or dreamed it could.

InformationWeek: How does that help Rackspace? What's in it for you?

Bryce: It helps Rackspace get better software for the cloud. Canonical, by widely distributing OpenStack (as an Ubuntu foundation technology), gets others to hammer on it early and make the software better. It makes the software better in our Rackspace proprietary world. We've put together a community of collaborators.

InformationWeek: Any other involvement with OpenStack?

Bryce: We launched a Rackspace Cloud Builders department in February. We can help people deploy OpenStack. That can be in your data center or ours. We've been to Edmonton, Alberta, to implement OpenStack.

InformationWeek: Rackspace does OpenStack consulting?

Bryce: Businesses like to have someone they can rely on. The way OpenStack comes to be a force to be reckoned with is to be like the Microsoft desktop--used everywhere. That would be great. That would give it a large footprint and drive the ecosystem. Government has hundreds and thousands of OpenStack users. The ecosystem will provide OpenStack monitoring and management tools to add value. It makes sense for OpenStack too. Already several companies--startups--are getting going, focused completely on OpenStack. We're starting to see the vision ... (build your company in the cloud based on a widely used API set and software).

Two to three years ago, we hadn't thought of open sourcing the Rackspace cloud software. The technology will continue to advance. Core features that everybody needs will get base-lined. We'll have new products, new technology. It's hard to predict what it will look like.

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