Saturday, August 4th, 2007

Zonbu & S3

I read Edd Dumbill’s post on the Zonbu computer with interest. The Zonbu is a small and inexpensive computer, reminiscent of the Mac Mini but running Linux. The disk is fairly small (4Gb flash) and is intended to serve more as a cache for your network storage than as your primary store.

The network store is a frontend on Amazon S3. This is interesting but confusing, because Zonbu is selling the computer at a price of $99 if you agree to a two year contract for storage at $12.95 a month (about $300 over two years).

The underlying S3 storage is pretty cheap: $0.15 per Gb-month, and $0.10/$0.18 per Gb-upload/download (discounts for higher quantities, which probably Zonbu can get but an individual user couldn’t). So if you are storing, say, 10Gb of data, and retrieving about 10Gb per month (including all the syncing, cache misses, etc), that comes to about $3 per month. Zonbu costs between $0.50 and $0.20 per Gb-month, depending on the plan, and you pay for capacity, not what you actually use (S3 only charges for what you really use). I assume there are bandwidth limits but they aren’t published.

As an aside, I was looking for backup systems for my dad a few months ago, and looked at some of the backup systems that included network storage. They were often in the range of $10-20 per month, and weren’t very high capacity. I came upon S3 Backup, which is a fairly simple Windows program to upload to S3. The price of S3 is way better than any of the other commercial solutions. The billing and account setup isn’t as simple as other systems (since it’s not intended to be), but this seems like something that should be fixed. There should be a consumer version of S3. It could make it easier for software developers to make services for people without actually having to maintain infrastructure. Or maybe more accurately, it would make this possible for open source developers, since we have no interest in being the intermediary for anything as that’s all liability with no payoff. (Or maybe it’s the opposite — only by being an intermediary can you get payoff? The economics of open source get confusing.)

Zonbu, as a device and company, appeals to me. But I can’t help but feel frustrated about the network storage pricing, even though those prices are completely reasonable (and it seems without draconian cancellation fees like mobile phones). Still there’s something about the equation that I just hate — loss leaders, unnecessarily intermediated transactions, hidden costs, and a price structure that depends on people not fully utilizing what they pay for. And I really like the S3 pricing — you pay for what you use and the pricing is completely transparent. What I like about it is that at no point is Amazon expecting you to act irrationally, and for Amazon to profit from your irrational choices. They aren’t expecting you to reserve more than you need. They aren’t going to punish you if you don’t reserve enough.

Another part of why I like S3’s structure is that Amazon (well, Amazon Web Services) owns this particular space in terms of services, and it’s not because of advertising or because they cornered the market or used proprietary anything to restrict choices or made secret business deals with anyone. They simply are providing a service with enough quality and efficiency that no one else can compete (at least at the moment). When quality and efficiency drives market choices it makes me feel all fuzzy and capitalist. This happens infrequently enough that perhaps I get a little overly excitable about resellers with different price structures.

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This is the personal site of Ian Bicking. The opinions expressed here are my own.