Rackspace is less of what we would usually think of as a web hosting company in the conventional sense, and more of a management service that provides you with a single unified interface for a plethora of different cloud hosting services. Plus, they offer their own nifty tech support to help you manage the solutions you implement on the cloud services they give you access to.
It is great to see something different and unique in the modern web hosting landscape, and there is no arguing that the way Rackspace does things is pretty special. A cloud web hosting service that provides strong first party technical support as well as a premiere quality graphical interface for managing a variety of cloud instances? Sounds great, but the specialized nature of the service Rackspace offers means that we ought to take a particularly keen look into whether you fit perfectly into Rackspace's well defined niche.
Rackspace's Best Features
If access to a diverse array of cloud platforms matters a great deal to your business then Rackspace does not disappoint. If I attempted to name them all it would take up the whole article, but let's start by saying Rackspace provides so many options it's almost dizzying. Suffice it to say, all of the major cloud providers and virtualization schemes are covered, including:
- Google Cloud
- Alibaba Cloud
- Microsoft Azure
- Office 365
- Pivotal Cloud Foundry
- Oracle Hyperion
- And so on and so on…
I think you are beginning to get the point: the cloud services you want can be managed with no problem by Rackspace. And if, for whatever reason, you encounter a need later on in your business's life cycle, do not fret: Rackspace also offers excellent dedicated hosting of their own.
But the one killer feature that really sets Rackspace apart is the high quality, beautifully document API provided by the company for customers to programmatically manage their cloud instances. I definitely recommend checking out the Rackspace Developer Docs if you have any interest in automating the way you handle your servers. If you don't want to plod through the (refreshingly well written) Rackspace API documentation, here is a screenshot from their API page documenting how to do some basic API calls in Python:
That brief chunk of code creates an entire new cloud server instance! Rackspace definitely has it's flaws (on a related note, we'll be discussing price next…) but in terms of documentation and easy, simple API access they are without the shadow of a doubt the most qualified competitor on the market as it stands today.
You might notice as you browse the Rackspace website that it does not provide a clear, blatant outline of its pricing system. After a bit of scouring I was eventually able to find the Rackspace pricing Estimate Calculator, which allows you to input a bunch of traits for your desired server and outputs a price estimate. Just to see how it worked, I tried getting an estimate the price of the company's cheapest option, a 1GB basic Linux Virtual Cloud Server. The result of this little experiment turned out to be a whopping cost of $73.36 per month!
The reason is that they charge $50 a month in service fees regardless of how big your hosting plan is. This fact alone means that if you are going for a small hosting plan, Rackspace is simply a terrible option. However, as you scale up, the extra $50 becomes increasingly negligible.
In fact, at higher price points, the $50 flat support rate becomes kind of a boon. Why? Because Rackspace support is awesome. Their engineering team goes to great lengths to help customers set up and manage their cloud solutions. And frankly, at the point where you're paying several thousands of dollars every month for hosting, the $50 for Rackspace's excellent support starts to seem like quite a bargain. But that is the point: Rackspace posits itself at every point as a service for whale-sized businesses who expect to need to scale up to massive scales and back down at least on a somewhat frequent basis.
If you are not expecting to spend lots and lots of money for a massively scalable hosting environment, Rackspace will be unnecessarily expensive for your needs. It is not even an exaggeration to conjecture that if you were to use Rackspace to host a website with stable resource usage and little technical support needs, you would be paying double to triple what would be charged at, say, a standard VPS provider.
Oh, and a quick side note. Rackspace offers an alright Affiliate Program. The payout is $50 if you can find them a customer to pay $150 or up for cloud-only hosting or Office 365, Hosted Exchange and Rackspace Email. It's no surprise that Rackspace is eager to boost sales for those products. As we'll see later in this review, Rackspace Email has not exactly been popular with customers. Also, it would seem to be the case that the hosting services they pay out to affiliate marketing partners for are subject to unannounced change at any time, so it could certainly be a good idea to keep an eye on it to see what they are looking for help with at the moment.
Customer and Technical Support
Before we jump into what customers have to say about Rackspace, I should mention something unusual about what group has a surprising amount to say about Rackspace: the company's own employees! Rackspace is a top employer of engineering talent. This is great for customers, because it means that the engineering team handling your support requests consists of only the absolute best talent. Here's a video (one of many that can be found online!) of Rackspace employees discussing their employment at the company:
Just a something to note as a definite good sign of a great hosting company! So, moving on to customer reviews and ratings, we find something rather interesting. Rackspace has a great deal of the high-star, positive reviews we would expect to find for any high end cloud service. And yet, a significant pool of aggressive 1-star reviews haunt Rackspace on every major web hosting review site. The 1-star reviews have a common theme. Let's take a look at an example:
Rackspace does an excellent job of managing access to external email, database, and cloud hosting services. However, they also provide all of those services in-house; and if the internet is to be believed, their in-house services are terrible. The great thing is that you can avoid all of these thoroughly documented in-house
Who Should Use Rackspace?
Let me start with a small list of what needs are NOT well met by Rackspace's infrastructure:
- Static Sites: If your site is a collection of static text pages (for example, a site for a local business that does not have a great deal of dynamic content), Rackspace is a terrible option for you. You will be seriously overpaying compared to a traditional shared hosting service.
- Hosting Resellers: Just buy directly from the sources that Rackspace uses. The markup expenses added on by using Rackspace as a middle man will make it hard for your service to compete in a market plagued with price wars
- Small Businesses: Note that I am not referring to startups planning for aggressive growth. If you are a traditional small business with a predictable, slow to medium growth plan, Rackspace's wild scalability and top-notch support are probably more than you really need.
Okay, so who is Rackspace perfect for? Anyone who absolutely needs all of these three things:
- Ultra scalable cloud hosting setup
- Hands-on, highly qualified technical support; and
- A well-documented, fully featured API
Rackspace would still be great for just one or two of those needs in theory. In practice, however, the premium price just cannot be justified unless you can really make a strong case that all three of those criteria describe needs you predict you will have.
Rackspace is awesome if you have lots of money and are their ideal customer. For anyone else, I would have to recommend that you just save your hard earned money by opting instead for something more affordable that can offer many of the same features (or close enough!). Most cloud hosting providers offer basically similar functionality to Rackspace, although it is of significantly inferior quality.
Here's what you should keep in mind though; for most customers that drop in quality simply will not actually affect them very much in real life, with the possible exception of Rackspace's fantastic API (which is still light-years ahead of the rest of the industry in both development maturity and documentation quality). Rackspace is a fine hosting service, just be absolutely sure you are the right customer for them before you commit to their premium rates. All in all it's a high quality, but high price, service.