Andromeda: Google’s Secret Weapon To Keep Amazon And Microsoft On Their Toes

Years ago, Google figured out that users prize speed above almost everything when it comes to surfing the Web. They’re now applying that insight to courting developers, too, through a tool named Andromeda.

Google Compute Engine, the version of Google’s infrastructure it rents out to developers, is getting access to Andromeda, a set of technologies the company uses to speed up its own networking. Last week, it turned Andromeda on in two of its four Compute Engine zones.

Enter Andromeda

Andromeda’s not a product Google’s cloud customers can sign up for, and it doesn’t have APIs developers can write to directly. So, what’s the fuss about?

Google Distinguished Engineer Amin Vahdat described it in a post:

Andromeda is a Software Defined Networking (SDN)-based substrate for our network virtualization efforts. It is the orchestration point for provisioning, configuring, and managing virtual networks and in-network packet processing. 

Let’s unpack that: Increasingly, rather than setting up data centers, storage, and networks by setting up new servers, companies are using software to run existing hardware in new ways. By defining usage in software, you can  disaggregate and share expensive physical resources. In the case of software-defined networking, the resources—servers, routers, switches, and so on— are deep in the bowels of Google’s data centers, which provide the underpinnings for its cloud infrastructure. 

Network virtualization means that even though many customers are sharing the same network—both Google itself, as well as its cloud customers—they can be configured and managed independently, with their own address management, firewalls, and access control lists.

“If you choose to run your own infrastructure, you can make those investments, but it requires you to figure out how to scale this out and manage it,” says Google product manager Sunil James. “Google Cloud gives you the ability to grow your business at whatever scale you need. Andromeda is an example of the kind of thinking we have at Google in terms of how we want to make something scalable and robust, not only for Google to use, but for our customers.”

For Google customers, that means they have to make fewer tradeoffs when they move their computing to the cloud.

Google is far from alone in taking the software-defined approach to its network. Amazon and Microsoft, its archrivals in cloud computing, also use SDN. Microsoft has had 100 developers working for four years on software-defined networking features for Azure. Like Google, it uses the same SDN technologies for its own services like Xbox Live, Skype and Office 365 that it does in Azure. Amazon Web Services has had software-defined networking features like CloudFormation for years.

But while Google may be playing catch-up in rolling out SDN features to developers, it has the unique advantage of the gigantic scale of its in-house computing infrastructure, which it has honed for high-throughput performance.

Vying For Developers

Last month, Google slashed its cloud pricing. Now Andromeda gives it another weapon in the battle for developers—performance. In this case, that means the speed of data transmission.

See also: Google Launches The Cloud Price War ReadWrite Predicted In December

Even though Google just turned on Andromeda in some of its cloud last week, customers are already noticing a difference.

David Mytton, CEO of Server Density, a server- and website-monitoring service based in London, ran benchmarks comparing throughput of Google Cloud without Andromeda, Google Cloud with Andromeda, and Amazon’s EC2 service. With Andromeda, he said Google was nine times faster than Amazon. (That sounds remarkable, but it’s actually just a modest improvement, since even without Andromeda, Mytton found Google’s performance was seven times that of Amazon.)

Data throughput is only one way to benchmark cloud-computing services, and it may not matter to all customers. Still, the combination of lowered prices and high performance is compelling for some.

Mytton, who is evaluating cloud providers as he considers a move from his current provider, SoftLayer, said he is leaning toward Google due to its performance and lower cost.

“Amazon is very expensive,” he said. “You have to pay a lot of upfront costs.”

Still, there are some services he is still looking for, like “the ability to have guaranteed throughput between regions,” which Google doesn’t currently offer. The good news is that Andromeda provides a foundation to build those services in the future.

An earlier version of this story misstated the name of SoftLayer and misstated the timing of Andromeda’s launch.

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