If the cartoonists are right, heaven is located in a cloud where everyone wears white robes, every machine is lightning quick, everything you do works perfectly, and every action is accompanied by angels playing lyres. The current sales pitch for the enterprise cloud isn't much different, except for the robes and the music. The cloud providers have an infinite number of machines, and they're just waiting to run your code perfectly.
The sales pitch is seductive because the cloud offers many advantages. There are no utility bills to pay, no server room staff who want the night off, and no crazy tax issues for amortizing the cost of the machines over N years. You give them your credit card, and you get root on a machine, often within minutes.
To test out the options available to anyone looking for a server, I rented some machines on Amazon EC2, Google Compute Engine, and Microsoft Windows Azure and took them out for a spin. The good news is that many of the promises have been fulfilled. If you click the right buttons and fill out the right Web forms, you can have root on a machine in a few minutes, sometimes even faster. All of them make it dead simple to get the basic goods: a Linux distro running what you need.
At first glance, the options seem close to identical. You can choose from many of the same distributions, and from a wide range of machine configuration options. But if you start poking around, you'll find differences — including differences in performance and cost. The machines may seem like commodities, but they're not. This became more and more evident once the machines started churning through my benchmarks.
Fast cloud, slow cloud
I tested small, medium, and large machine instances on Amazon EC2, Google Compute Engine, and Microsoft Windows Azure using the open source DaCapo benchmarks, a collection of 14 common Java programs bundled into one easy-to-start JAR. It's a diverse set of real-world applications that will exercise a machine in a variety different ways. Some of the tests will stress CPU, others will stress RAM, and still others will stress both. Some of the tests will take advantage of multiple threads. No machine configuration will be ideal for all of them.
Some of the benchmarks in the collection will be very familiar to server users. The Tomcat test, for instance, starts up the popular Web server and asks it to assemble some Web pages. The Luindex and Lusearch tests will put Lucene, the common indexing and search tool, through its paces. Another test, Avrora, will simulate some microcontrollers. Although this task may be useful only for chip designers, it still tests the raw CPU capacity of the machine.