Will bare-metal cloud, IBM backing push SoftLayer to next level?

Bare-metal cloud may be better than VM-based options for some workloads. SoftLayer's chief scientist explains the architectural and fiscal benefits.

As one of the founding members and chief scientist of SoftLayer Technologies, Nathan Day is always looking for technologies that can be turned into 'as a service' products for customers. But in an IaaS market overshadowed by Amazon Web Services' Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2), SoftLayer needs to stand out.

How? Two words: bare metal. And with a backing from IBM, which recently acquired SoftLayer, the company expects to stand a little taller next to AWS. 

SeachCloudComputing spoke with Nathan Day about SoftLayer's bare-metal cloud technology and how it differs from virtual machine methods like AWS's EC2, what the IBM acquisition means for the cloud market and what to watch for in the coming year.

Are there commonalities in customers choosing bare metal versus virtual machine clouds?
Nathan Day
Nathan Day: Virtual machines [VMs] are great for some things and bare-metal servers are great for some things. Sometimes those reasons are technology and sometimes those reasons are based in finance and the cost per customer.

VMs are great for high dynamic workloads where you're not really worried about performance at the individual machine layer. If you have an app that spins up and down rapidly, or very temporary workloads that must be spun up in a matter of minutes and run for a short time before you turn them off, virtualization is great.

Most customers who are putting these cloud workloads out there have two drivers that brought them to bare metal. One driver is purely financial. Most of the apps out there have a steady-state workload, which doesn't make sense for a VM that you're renting by the hour. From a financial point of view, for customers who don't need a workload spun up in a matter of minutes, bare metal is the answer for long-term apps.

When customers are sensitive to the performance of the application, you can't beat bare metal. When you're on a big multitenant, oversubscribed public cloud, what you'll find is the performance of the application varies hour to hour, day to day, minute to minute -- based on what else is going on. If you're trying to diagnose why an app is running slow and you're a sysadmin, you don't know where to start. When you're on bare-metal server -- where there's no layer of virtualization between your app and hardware, everything is consistent.

We try to take the advantages of virtualization and bring those to bare metal. Rapid provisioning time is something characteristic of the cloud and the operational model people have gotten used to. We brought a lot of that to a bare-metal server customized to a user's needs -- not just for the OS or the software -- but for the customer picking the RAID configuration of the hard drives. We can deliver that in a couple hours to a customer, which isn't as fast as a virtualization-based cloud. But in most cases, it's fast enough.

Applications don't want to run on VMs. There's no technological reason why an app runs better in virtualization than it does in bare metal. Most of them, in fact, run worse. So people go to virtualization for a lot of other reasons, but it's not for performance. It's for convenience mostly. And we're trying to bring those convenience features to bare metal. 

What does the IBM acquisition mean for SoftLayer?
Day: It means we're going to take this cloud platform that we've built to a whole new class of customers that wouldn't have been exposed to SoftLayer before. That will allow a whole new set of IBM customers to have access to our products. It also allows IBM to build other products on top of our platform. We've given them more tools in their toolbox so they can build, design and manage for their customers.

Will your products remain as two separate entities? Will there be a dominant technology between SoftLayer's CloudStack product and IBM's OpenStack cloud?
Day: SoftLayer isn't really built on CloudStack. CloudStack is a product we offer, so we've built our own platform … our own stack … to manage both the bare metal and VM. We have a product offering based around CloudStack, and if customers want to get their own private cloud, they can come to CloudStack.

IBM has definitely shown enthusiasm for OpenStack. I think these two things can coexist. At SoftLayer, we try to remain agnostic; it's kind of nice to be neutral in the whole thing. SoftLayer appreciates the use cases of both stack products. We're really providing, at its core, CPU, disk, RAM and network for our customers in different formats' we don't really care how they use these utility products.

What technology within SoftLayer and the cloud market as a whole are you excited about?
Day: One of the near-term things I'm really excited about and we've made a couple products [in] is the big data space. We've made the product offerings using Mongo and Riak -- the NoSQL products – and we feel we can help our customers use our platform to mine the data and really give them a good solid layer to build applications on top of that.

Most apps have the database layer where all the data is stored and things are queried, but the way that layer performs scale is core to most applications. With NoSQL initiatives going on, they put a lot more power in the hands of developers and application creators so now they can have data layers that scale horizontally as well as geographically. You can expect to see a few more products in the big data space soon. It really allows developers to collect more data and build a richer application and give more experience and a richer application to end users.

I'm also excited in the software-defined network [SDN] space. We built a very flexible network here at SoftLayer that allows our customers to design complex networks using our management system. But a lot of SDN products that are coming out will really enable our customers to build much more complex networks that perform because they'll be designed specifically for the customers' applications.

About the author:
Michelle Boisvert is executive site editor for SearchCloudComputing, SearchWindowsServer and SearchDataCenter. Contact her at mboisvert@techtarget.com.

This was first published in September 2013

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