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A few months back I began using Amazon’s S3 (Simple Storage Service) to store a number of miscellaneous files – predominantly screenshots and files I wanted to share quickly – in the “cloud.”  At the time, I had been searching for a robust and cost-effective method for storing such files, and had been looking at a number of solutions.  What ultimately lead me to go with Amazon S3 was the fact that they had more or less innovated the cloud storage industry as we know it today, and had a very well-polished product.  Amazon’s good name didn’t hurt either.

However, more and more recently have been looking at alternative cloud hosting solutions.  Don’t get me wrong; S3 is great and I have yet to have a single issue with it thus far.  But S3 is by no stretch of the imagination the only cloud hosting provider on the market today.  So, out of curiosity, I recently decided to give a competing product – the RackSpace CloudFiles platform – a whirl.

Part of RackSpace’s growing “cloud” product line, CloudFiles (previously known as Mosso) is simply an alternative file storage platform that allows users to store and share raw fives.  Like S3, CloudFiles stores simple files and does not offer PHP or database support like you would see with a traditional web hosting service.  However, after giving CloudFiles a try, I think it’s safe to say that S3 and CloudFiles are two entirely unique products.

Upon first signing up for an account, I was pleased to find that RackSpace offered a very clean and well-organized web-based interface.  Unlike Amazon Web Services where billing, API access information, and support mechanisms were outside of the main administrative console, CloudFiles had everything readily accessible from one portal.  For me, this lead to an amazingly smooth learning curve, as everything I needed was just mouse-click away in a logical place.

After poking around a bit, one of the first things that I decided to do was create a “container” to store my files and uploads in; the equivalent to a “bucket” in Amazon S3.  Similarly to S3, creating a container only took but a couple of clicks.  However, one of the things that I immediately noticed with CloudFiles was that a user such as you or me could name a container whatever he or she wanted.  Coming from Amazon S3 where all container names were shared in a public namespace and available on a first-come-first-serve basis, it was refreshing to name my containers in a method that made sense to me instead of having to search for an available name, this was definitely a refreshing and welcome improvement.

As far as content distribution goes, RackSpace allows all containers to be made public at the discretion of the owner.  However, while Amazon S3 forced users to choose one data center location for a given bucket to be located in, CloudFiles distributes content using a CDN (content delivery network) powered by Akamai – one of the largest content distribution services out there.  What this essentially means is that CloudFiles content is cached on a number of edge servers strategically placed throughout the world, ensuring rapid content delivery to all user no matter their geographical location.  While Amazon Web Services offers the “CloudFront” CDN as an add-on to S3, I found it to be much simpler to implement CDN service with CloudFiles simply because it was the built-in option.

As far as pricing goes with CloudFiles, I personally find them to be a bit more expensive than the S3 service that I was using.  Having said this, S3 offers a “reduced redundancy storage“, which allows users to store non-essential files at a lower price while sacrificing a certain level of guaranteed redundancy.  For what I was storing (mostly screenshots and temporary files), this option saved me a bit of money.  However, with CloudFiles not offering this type of route, it does leave their cost of service a bit higher.

However, when comparing S3 and CloudFiles head-to-head, CloudFiles seems to be more cost-effective; especially considering that you are taking advantage of a CDN service, which would be a separate add-on with Amazon Web Services.  Moreover, RackSpace recently changed their pricing structure with CloudFiles and eliminated all per-item upload and download fees; leaving their pricing to be a simple matter of bandwidth (up and down) and storage used, making their pricing much clearer for end-users.

As I touched upon earlier, the support ticket system is built right into the main CloudFiles manager.  While getting in contact with Amazon Web Services seemed out of the option, I have had insanely rapid support with RackSpace.  In fact, all of my questions have been answered within a matter of minutes after posting them, and the answers have always been clear and well-written.

With all of this in mind, however, there are still a couple of disappointments that I have with CloudFiles.  First and foremost, the web-based manager, despite being amazingly well tied-together, lacks the ability to browse nested folders within containers.  That is, all objects – regardless of their “directory”, show up in the same view.  For me this isn’t all that big of a deal, however I can see where it could be a deal breaker for others.  This aside, the only thing that is lacking with CloudFiles is the fact that one cannot use their own URL or subdomain for their content.  While S3 allowed for buckets (when configured correctly) to be CNAME‘d (e.g. I could have a public URL of “grabs.mikemansell.me” instead of “grabs.mikemansell.me.s3.amazonaws.com”), this is a feature that CloudFiles has yet to implement.

Even with these few complaints, I am confident that CloudFiles will improve vastly over the next few months because of their new partnership with Akamai.  In fact, it is my understanding that CloudFiles will be implementing CNAME support over the next few months.  With these new developments, I am confident that CloudFiles will become a much more appealing service for individuals and businesses alike, and will definitely give Amazon S3 a run for its money.


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