It sounds like an oxymoron, but some cloud providers offer bare-metal servers -- and some organizations consider them an appealing alternative to shared infrastructure.
Cloud service providers that offer bare-metal servers include IBM's SoftLayer Technologies Inc., Rackspace Hosting Inc. and Internap Network Services Corp. While bare-metal servers stem from a traditional managed hosting business for these vendors, newer offerings have a single interface for managing cloud and bare-metal assets, and they allow for more flexibility with bare-metal servers than was traditionally available in hosting environments.
Other providers are going to have to duplicate SoftLayer's bare-metal capabilities if they want to compete in the enterprise.
CEO, Flow Search
"Just a few days ago, I said we needed a bigger RAID 10 array because our database size is increasing, and in about four hours I had a completely new database server," said Hrishi Dixit, chief technology officer (CTO) of LearnVest Inc., a financial planning services startup based in New York, which uses Internap's Agile Hosting service for both bare-metal servers and cloud computing.
"In the old days, this would've taken a few weeks."
Users of bare-metal services say there's a performance advantage to dedicated hardware resources. Because of this, relational databases are good candidates for bare-metal servers.
"Cloud is really best suited for things that you need to flexibly scale horizontally," Dixit said. "It doesn't make sense to make [the database] a cloud instance, because we know it's always going to be a part of our stack … we know we're going to need our masters and our replication slaves no matter what, and that's typically not something you scale by flipping a switch."
Bare-metal servers are also useful in big data and real-time analytics environments. Hosted marketing software provider HubSpot Inc., based in Cambridge, Mass., has more physical servers hosted in Rackspace's data center (about 160) than virtual ones (about 60) to perform big data queries.
"In the public cloud, it gets really expensive because you end up having to throw so much capacity at the problem in order to get predictable performance," said HubSpot CIO Jim O'Neill. "In a dedicated environment, you give these big data jobs full access to a fairly large server or a commodity large server, and it's just made a world of difference."
Bare-metal cloud niche: Performance and compliance
Information streaming company Flow Search Corp. needed bare-metal performance to perform real-time analytics on clickstream information, so it switched from an Amazon Web Services cloud deployment to IBM SoftLayer's service late last year.
"You can't get enterprise performance in a consumer cloud -- we're talking milliseconds and in-memory processes," said Eric Alterman, CEO of the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based company. "Other providers are going to have to duplicate SoftLayer's bare-metal capabilities if they want to compete in the enterprise."
Even Web servers are candidates for bare-metal services. Sprout Social, a social media management startup based in Chicago, moved its database servers to bare metal within the Rackspace cloud about three years ago, but Sprout's CTO, Aaron Rankin, said solid-state drives have improved disk performance to the point where database servers can live in Rackspace's cloud again.
Meanwhile, Sprout is considering moving eight Web servers to bare metal for more consistent CPU performance.
"Some of our servers have erratic CPU performance," Rankin said. "We'd rather just have the peace of mind of knowing that the whole machine is ours and knowing exactly what the hardware is."
Compliance is another reason to go bare metal in the cloud, LearnVest's Dixit said. Having an "air gap" between dedicated bare-metal servers and shared cloud computing infrastructure makes it easier to pass Securities and Exchange Commission audits in cloud environments, he said.
Users can also realize cost benefits by using bare-metal servers. Bare-metal servers cost Dixit a flat $900 per month, which is often less than what cloud-based servers accrue in usage-based charges.
Despite the emergence of bare-metal servers as platforms for new applications, some industry watchers are skeptical that bare metal will ultimately be more than a stepping stone into fully virtualized cloud environments.
"It's probably going to remain niche because there aren't that many applications that actually do need to touch and control the hardware directly," said James Staten, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc. based in Cambridge, Mass.