Higher performance, higher price I ended up playing around with a low-end machine that cost 12 cents per hour. The single core cost 7 cents, the 1GB of RAM cost 3 cents, and the bandwidth (100Mbps) cost 2 cents.
This system was dramatically faster on the set of basic tests I've been running: the DaCapo Java benchmarks that test raw computation and simulate some common enterprise tools, including Tomcat and Lucene. Most of the tests were two to three times faster than even the better commodity machines from Joyent Cloud and Microsoft Windows Azure that I've tested. The Tomcat test was almost 10 times faster than Amazon's EC2 small instance and about 30 to 40 percent faster than Amazon's high-CPU model. There were plenty of variations among the different tests, though. It's impossible to generalize or reduce the speed difference to a single number.
It's clear that a serious customer should take the machines out for a test-drive with production versions of their software. Each machine is surprisingly different for something that's supposed to be a commodity. The comparison should also include basic accounting because the low-end machines I used have big price differences. A low-end Joyent machine is only 3 cents an hour; a low-end Rackspace machine runs 2.2 cents an hour. The SoftLayer machine is about three to four times more expensive at 10 cents an hour.
Layering on the options The hardware is only part of the shopping process with SoftLayer. While a number of cloud providers give you just a few radio buttons of options during the configuration process, SoftLayer takes you through four pages of choices. Four extra public IP addresses are 1 cent per hour. A premium monitoring package is 6 cents per hour. You can add five different disks to your server if you like. You can add more local disk space or storage on a SAN. It's like the old days when the server salesman wanted to fill up all the bays with extras. If you want a license to run Windows, SoftLayer will toss one in for between 5 and 10 cents per hour depending upon which version of Windows you choose.