How a London Startup is Building Cloud of Clouds to Challenge the Giants

In building out a global federation of small cloud providers, OnApp is in the position to challenge the likes of AWS. That's if it gets the technology right.

Jason Verge

December 5, 2014

5 Min Read
How a London Startup is Building Cloud of Clouds to Challenge the Giants
OnApp CEO Ditlev Bredahl (Source: OnApp Facebook Page)

OnApp started as a platform for hosting providers to build Infrastructure-as-a-Service offerings, later evolved to offer federated CDN, and most recently created a federated compute and storage cloud, bringing together many smaller cloud providers whose cumulative resources are presented to the user as a single, massively distributed cloud. Needless to say, the logistics of this are not simple.

Market research firm Ovum believes the London startup's ideas have huge market implications. In a non-commissioned report, Ovum states that the impact of the company’s work in terms of cloud federation is yet to be fully understood by the market.

“They’re pragmatic and not trying to run before they can walk,” said Ovum analyst Laurent Lachal. “The vision, the long-term plan, and the fact they’re creating a marketplace where supply and customer come together, I like that they have this vision."

OnApp's CDN has had good momentum and the federated compute cloud is building steam. The acquisition of SolusVM and high-profile partnerships with IBM and Interxion are early examples of positive momentum.

Enabling Cloud Resellers

Ovum believes OnApp's strategy is sound and the progress for the federated marketplace is ahead of anyone else. The marketplace is already hundreds of OnApp-based clouds strong, but it is still very early in the game, and OnApp is methodically building the foundation for its vision. Now, the company has reached a critical phase by opening up the federation to companies outside of its ecosystem (OnApp platform-based clouds).

In dedicated and shared hosting, there are traditional resellers who borrow or rent the resources and add services atop, usually hosting web pages or something simple. What the London startup is doing is reseller enablement on steroids.

Through federation, the pool of resources is worldwide. Through OnApp's platform, that pool is curated, managed, orchestrated, and billed in a single platform. Traditional resellers sold web pages, the new reseller can offer the architecture, and hence the services if they have the skill, for an entire businesses IT needs.

OnApp is also targeting the types of customers that are largely ignored by others: the small to medium regional service provider in need of an enterprise-grade cloud offering.

A Big Engineering Project

The first phase of getting a bunch of small hosting providers using its platform for IaaS offerings was successful. Phase Two was to get those same providers to sell some of their capacity in their federated market.

OnApp is just starting in the critical third phase, admittedly a tall order, according to Ovum. OnApps’ interface is available as open source GPL code under GNU. In other words, it is reaching out to everyone, making it so that all clouds, not just ones based on its platform, can hook in. This is meant to spur adoption.

The value is not the marketplace, but the work around it. It’s not just a marketplace; OnApp automates orchestration, server management, provisioning, scaling, failover, and billing, among other functions.

“It is a business platform as much as a technology platform,” said Lachal. "The marketplace will challenge the major clouds. It’s an interesting alternative, and what the market needs is alternatives.”

Modular, Composable Cloud Services

OnApp’s federation offers hundreds of possibilities across IaaS providers worldwide. Service providers have complete transparency in picking and choosing the parts when creating their IaaS offerings.

AWS made it dead simple to start a virtual machine with just a credit card number. OnApp is making it dead simple to launch a complex and flexible cloud and CDN to form the raw infrastructure of a virtual cloud service provider.

"I see quite a lot of companies happy to focus on the service and leave infrastructure to third parties," said Lachal. "It's already happened on the CDN level, and OnApp is the company most prepared to do this for compute."

An example of a provider leveraging federation is Scandinavia’s Meebox. Meebox migrated their cloud (customers on around 700 virtual servers) over to OnApp to overcome some scalability issues it was having. It can now extend geographic reach and capabilities of its services without restraint.

“Our business is built on transparency, quality and service, so while it is always painful to have to switch platforms, we simply had no choice,” said Patrick Theander, co-founder and CEO of Meebox. “…with the OnApp Federation we can help them scale out to multiple clouds around the world, or scale out with capacity in specific countries, according to the kind of applications and data they need us to manage."

Checks and Balances

While the federation is open, it's not open to everyone. OnApp does have standards in place to prevent degradation in the quality of what's in the federation.

Those in the federated marketplace offer Service Level Agreements and OnApp offers additional SLAs atop of that, based on an assessment of the IaaS. It means that while OnApp offers access to a bunch of different provider infrastructures, the London startup shares accountability with members of the federation.

The SLAs also serve to differentiate the quality of different offerings. OnApp has spent considerable time in assessing what’s listed and benchmarking their performance. The cream rises to the top.

Raw IaaS Commoditization is a Moving Train

The biggest argument lobbed against OnApp is that federated cloud essentially pushes cloud toward commoditization. But commoditization of raw cloud compute and storage resources is already happening, regardless of what OnApp does, said Lachal. The opportunity is in shaping those resources into something more useful.

Those supplying the raw infrastructure within the federation should't be apprehensive, he said. For one, it’s a way to sell unused capacity. It’s a way to extend your offering to your customers beyond what you are capable of. You pick and choose the infrastructure resources you offer to customers. The benchmarks OnApp has in place insures that the quality remains high, so while you’re among several other IaaS providers, it is a high-quality group.

“[IaaS suppliers] are often fairly small companies with small clouds,” said Lachal. “Taken individually, they are fairly simple. Altogether, that’s where the synergies develop to expand their reach and portfolio.”

What it allows them to do is expand their resources in a way that is cost effective. “Yes, there’s an element of commoditization, because it’s the name of this particular game,” he said. “As the marketplace matures, there will be more and more services available. Once service providers have the infrastructure, they need to invest more in services.

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