Free clouds! Piston latest to jump on 'freemium' bandwagon

Move follows Red Hat, Rackspace and VMware in releasing free or low-cost options for their cloud computing platforms

Piston Cloud Computing -- which bills itself as the OpenStack enterprise company -- is the latest cloud vendor to offer a free or low-cost version of its software for customer trials and proofs of concepts.

And it begs the question: Why are cloud providers going cheap?

"We've spent a lot of time talking to analysts, customers, and most folks are in the 'we want to try before we buy phase,'" says Piston CEO Joshua McKenty, who is also one of the co-founders of the OpenStack movement.

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Piston Wednesday released Airframe, which is a light and free version of its private cloud software based on OpenStack code. The biggest differences between the free and enterprise-class versions is that Airframe doesn't allow for automatic scaling of the service and it doesn't provide for high availability. That means when Piston updates the software -- new OpenStack code is being released about every six months now -- the free version has to be shut down for those updates to kick in, whereas the enterprise version allows for a rolling update. Also, in the free version, to scale up and add virtual machines, that requires re-engineering the system from scratch instead of just plugging and playing in the enterprise version. McKenty says he doesn't think the free version of the software will bite into sales of the priced product; instead, he's hoping it will be a lead-generation tool.

Piston's announcement follows news from Rackspace and VMware last week, which on the same day announced free and low-cost versions of their cloud software, respectively. Rackspace announced a free tier of its OpenStack-powered private cloud system while VMware offered an easy-sign-up trial for its vCloud public cloud storage service. Earlier this month Red Hat announced a preview edition of its OpenStack infrastructure-as-a-service software, which it plans to make generally available through a supported edition sometime next year. Rackspace, Red Hat and Piston have all now released free distributions of OpenStack, which is a free, open source project in and of itself.

The moves are classic examples of the "freemium" model many Web 2.0 companies employ nowadays, says Krishnan Subramanian, principal analyst at Rishidot Research. "Give away stuff that doesn't impact your bottom line, get them hooked to your platform and then monetize," he describes as the rationale by these vendors. "As the players in OpenStack ecosystem fend off Amazon Web Services, Microsoft and Google on one side and VMware and other large traditional companies on the other, these giveaways are essential for market adoption. They need to make their [OpenStack-based] products easy and seamless to install but also build a community around their own company."

Network World staff writer Brandon Butler covers cloud computing and social collaboration. He can be reached at and found on Twitter at @BButlerNWW.


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