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Coders howl over Google's App Engine price hike (natch)

Spotlight on 'lock-in'

Google's decision to increase the price of its App Engine has sparked the inevitable.

On Wednesday, as it announced that App Engine will officially lose its "preview" tag in the second half of September, Google also rolled out a tool that lets existing users calculate how much they'll pay under the service's new pricing setup. Predictably, many developers are rather peeved at what they're seeing. Google is essentially raising prices in an effort to turn the service into a sustainable business.

Unloading their anger on the official Google App Engine mailing list, some developers have vowed to move their applications to competing services. But others have pointed out that because of the service's unique design, such a move would itself be quite costly.

Complaints are what you expect after a price hike. But this to-move-or-not-to-move conundrum has led some to question the long-term health of the service, which includes some unique APIs and uses a data model that may not easily translate to other platforms. "What has always been the biggest concern about App Engine? Lock-in. You're at the mercy of Google," writes one user.

"App Engine is finished not because we're all going to move off to [Amazon's] EC2," he continued, "but because people who are considering using App Engine will see exactly what has gone on here with the pricing, think about the lock-in argument against GAE, and decide not to use GAE."

This developer wasn't immediately available to discuss the situation, but his post sums things up with a welcome degree of equanimity. And his views are being echoed by others.

"Any cost savings I might hypothetically get from moving to another platform would be wiped out by several orders of magnitude on the cost of the port. I'm also not at all convinced another platform would actually be cheaper, looking at the whole picture. I'm just depressed that the margins on my business have gotten that much thinner," he laments. "What I am highly concerned about is the message this sends to new customers. I don't know, maybe that's not valid. It is beta, after all."

What he means is that it will soon cease to be a beta. Google App Engine first appeared in the spring of 2008, offering third-party developers a means of running applications atop Google's famously distributed back-end infrastructure. Next month, after three years of real-world testing, it will emerge from this preview stage.

At the same time, Google will completely revamp the way the service is priced. It will still offer a free version of the service for those who can keep their usage under certain quotas, but these quotas will be lower. And with larger applications, the company will begin charging according to how long a virtual instance runs rather than merely charging for CPU time. In essence, Google realized that the old model didn't cover its costs.

"When App Engine runs your code it creates an Instance. This is a maximum amount of CPU and Memory that can be used for running a set of your code," the company said earlier this year. "Even if the CPU is not currently working due to waiting for responses, the instance is still resident and considered 'in use' so, essentially, it still costs Google money.

"Under the current model, apps that have high latency (or in other words stay resident for long periods of time without doing anything) are not able to scale because it would be cost-prohibitive to Google. So, this change is designed to allow developers to run any sort of application they would like but pay for all of the resources that are being used."

Google first revealed the pricing changes in May, during its annual Google I/O developer conference, so coders had some time to adjust to the idea. But some feel they were mislead about how high the price hike would be.

"There was a big uproar when Google announced the change, and what they basically said was: 'It won't be that bad. We'll release a tool that lets you see what the [pricing] difference will be. Wait for the tool'," says Ugorji Nwoke, a former Oracle engineer who quit his job a year ago to build an application atop Google App Engine. "So we waited. But now they've released this tool only two weeks before the prices change."

Nwoke tells us this isn't enough time to move an application elsewhere, especially when you consider that Google's service is built in a way that doesn't easily translate to other platforms.

Google says it's trying to address any complaints over the pricing changes. "We announced in May at Google I/O that we would be making changes to App Engine when it exits preview in the second half of this year," the company said in a statement sent to The Register. "One of the changes was around pricing. Yesterday we notified users that the changes would be happening in September. We understand that these changes will have an impact on our users and we’re working closely with them to answer their questions."

And it should be noted that after developers complained about the pricing changes in May, Google made a few changes to the plan that will – at least in some respects – reduce the increase.

It's unclear how many applications are actually running App Engine. But Google says it serves more than a billion and a half page views a day, and 100,000 coders access the online console each month. This isn't a huge number. But the point is that these coders – or at least some of these coders – represent what could happen to others in the future.

The argument holds a certain amount of water. But we would add that outside of Google, two separate projects are working on open source platforms that mimic the App Engine APIs. Both are in the early stages, but the promise is that these will eventually let you move App Engine apps into your own data center.

So, yes, Google App Engine was in beta. And perhaps the best policy is to wait for a web service to emerge from beta before putting your business on it. The good news is that the App Engine beta tag comes off shortly. But there are other things that must emerge from beta as well. ®

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