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IBM SoftLayer IaaS stands up to AWS with free support, networking

IBM's SoftLayer IaaS offers low-cost networking and free support, tempting some customers away from AWS.

Amid reports that IBM will restructure to refocus its cloud computing strategy, it's worth taking a close look at how its current cloud offerings stack up against its biggest competitor -- AWS.

IBM finds itself among large technology companies that struggle to revamp themselves for the cloud era, according to David Linthicum, senior vice president for cloud consultancy Cloud Technology Partners, based in Boston, Mass.

"The biggest hindrance to IBM is who they are -- they sell hardware and software," Linthicum said. "And so every cloud service that they sell is going to, in essence, cannibalize their existing base."

Oracle and HP have the same problem, and HP recently split in two to better compete in the cloud computing space. Similar drastic action by IBM may be warranted to change an entrenched legacy culture, Linthicum said.

Still, IBM's Softlayer IaaS offerings warrant consideration.

"IBM SoftLayer does some things well and some things cheaper," Linthicum said. "And if people say, 'should we consider them?' I say 'sure. Why not?' If you need a bare-metal cloud, you don't want to pay for network traffic, those sorts of things, they seem to rise to the top.”

Bare-metal performance, free support, free data transfer challenge AWS

IBM SoftLayer IaaS, which offers access to bare-metal servers, performs well, and its networking and support options beat Amazon's on cost, according to benchmark tests performed by CloudHarmony, a company based in Laguna Beach, Calif. that conducts independent benchmark tests on cloud service providers' server instances.

CloudHarmony found that IBM's E3-1270 bare-metal cloud server, with eight CPU cores and 32 GB memory, achieves a network throughput consistent with its advertised 1 Gbps rate per port, at 1088.60 Mbps median throughput in multiple tests. This is just a few Mbps faster than Amazon's comparable m3.2xlarge server, which contains eight virtual CPUs and 30 GB memory and performed at 1028.15 Mbps. The E3-1270 server also edges out the m3.2xlarge in storage read IOPS, coming in at 48,230 read IOPS and 26,891 write IOPS, as compared with 26,913 read IOPS and 30,347 IOPS for the m3.2xlarge.

The performance of IBM's bare-metal servers enticed a data analytics company, Flow Corp., to switch from Amazon Web Services (AWS) to IBM SoftLayer for its software as a service in 2013.

"We were dealing with a real-time platform…which requires really performant network layers and really performant storage layers, which were things we couldn't really achieve [in AWS at the time]," said Tom Luczak, CTO for Flow, based in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Flow Corp. counts IBM among customers for its products, as well as a business partner helping to promote its software sales, and got its start on SoftLayer with IBM's startup incubator program, which offered some free capacity. The company now pays for IaaS as it has expanded beyond the scope of the incubator program.

The biggest hindrance to IBM is who they are.
David LinthicumSVP, Cloud Technology Partners

It's similar to the deal Amazon struck with IMS Health, a multi-billion-dollar healthcare software maker that ditched Azure to sign on the dotted line with AWS as its exclusive IaaS provider, and it shows two can play at the enterprise partnership game.

Other areas where IBM SoftLayer ups the ante for AWS are free data transfer between regions, as well as free 24/7 phone support with failed hardware replacement within two hours of a problem diagnosis. While 24/7 customer service is included in AWS's Basic support package, getting guaranteed response times below 12 hours requires at least $49 per month for Developer level support.

 A 20 TB free quota on outbound Internet traffic is also available for some of IBM SoftLayer's bare-metal servers when they are rented monthly, and there's no charge for data transfer between regions. By contrast, AWS charges one cent per GB of data transfer between availability zones for many of its services, and two cents per GB for traffic between regions.

AWS, however, offers a free tier that is much more generous than IBM SoftLayer, and includes free compute time; the first GB of data transfer is also free for the first year with Amazon. Aside from free network traffic and 24/7 support, IBM SoftLayer doesn't offer a free tier of resources to non-incubator customers.

Where AWS has reserved instances, IBM offers the option of renting bare-metal servers by the month, which is less expensive than its hourly offering. For a single-processor bare-metal server, for example, the on-demand rate is $0.465 per hour, or $334.80 per month, as opposed to an advertised monthly price of $159.

AWS has a much wider variety of pricing options, but SoftLayer doesn't intend to race to the bottom in a price war with Amazon, according to its CEO, Lance Crosby.

"We're here to be cost-effective for the value, but it is not our mission to be the low price leader," he said in an interview with Modern Infrastructure last May.

Finally, SoftLayer's service level agreement (SLA) pledges uptime of 100% for its public network, private network, customer portal and HVAC in its data center. This is higher than AWS's SLA of 99.95% monthly uptime, but AWS offers an SLA around the uptime of its Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) instances and Elastic Block Store (EBS) service. SoftLayer offers no guarantees of uptime for its instances.

SoftLayer gotchas: Provisioning time, DNS options

IBM SoftLayer IaaS is not without its drawbacks. Provisioning time for SoftLayer's bare-metal servers can far exceed the advertised delivery time of two to four hours. 

For Eric Swayne, director of product and strategy for MutualMind, a Dallas-based SaaS social analytics platform provider, that provisioning time has been seven hours in some cases.

This hasn't been a huge issue for Swayne's company so far, but it's something they're keeping an eye on, he said.

"We may have some outliers like that but it's definitely not typical of our service," said Marc Jones, CTO of SoftLayer, when asked about Swayne's experience.

DNS is an area where IBM SoftLayer could do better in keeping up with AWS, according to Flow Corp.'s Luczak.

"I would love to see more of the elastic health checks that you see in Amazon and Route 53, and the ease of use and robustness of Route 53," Luczak said. "I know SoftLayer will get there…for me, a guy who does DevOps at times, that would be a killer."

Customers like Swayne and Luczak rave about SoftLayer's bare-metal performance, but an AWS user who has evaluated SoftLayer came away with a different impression.

"The virtualization penalties Amazon has on CPU performance are actually pretty small," said Joe Emison, founder and chief technology officer at Asheville, N.C.'s BuildFax, which maintains a national database of 150 million building permits for insurance providers based on AWS, and finds the C3 line of compute-optimized instances from AWS a good fit for his performance needs. "Amazon is also going to give you that server in two minutes."

Another SoftLayer claim to fame -- its integration with OpenStack and focus on the hybrid cloud -- is lost on Emison, as well; he uses an OpenStack private cloud with his AWS deployment, linked by RightScale's software.

Beth Pariseau is senior news writer for SearchAWS. Write to her at [email protected] or follow @PariseauTT on Twitter.

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