What is SoftLayer, and what did IBM, EMC and AT&T see in them?

It has a fraction of the market share compared to Amazon, but IBM sees something special

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So why were so many giants circling this company? Because it has a fairly sizable infrastructure – about the same size as Rackspace – IBM will spare itself years and millions of dollars in data center construction, plus a few home grown specialties thrown in.

SoftLayer has its own homegrown cloud controller, called CloudLayer, and uses the XenServer hypervisor as its server virtualization layer. Its full-featured API provides customers with 1,600 function calls to 200 different services, like automatic server deployment, reboots and reloads, security scans and monitoring. It's fully SOAP- and XML-RPC-compliant and has documentation, libraries and support for customers building custom apps to use the API.

While most of the data centers are built on aisles of rack-mounted servers, the company also uses modular pod designs in some data centers as well. Up to 5,000 servers in a pod can be wired together through 10 Gigabit Ethernet to function as a single unit.

Dare to go bare

When Amazon began offering its cloud services late last decade, they did everything based on a virtual compute environment, but a virtual machine is not the best place to run every workload out there, said Bay.

"Virtualization is about manageability. The workloads themselves would prefer to not be on a VM because there is performance degradation. Public clouds like Amazon are subject to high performance variability. So if you have a lot of high compute requirements, you don't want to run it on a VM, you'd run it on the physical server bare metal itself," he said.

"What SoftLayer has tried to do is give our customers the power to manage and configure their own compute environments," said Bay. "This emphasis was put on making bare metal provisioning with all the right features so customers can make the right decision based on technology and not features."

"Bare metal is single tenant and designable. You can customize to customer needs. In a purely virtual multitenant cloud, the customer is limited to hardware pre-deployed and the configurations [the provider] decides to productize within that cloud," adds Duke Skarda, CTO of SoftLayer.

Customers can go configure a system from one core to 16, 1GB of memory to 256GB, and any kind of mix of storage, using SAS and SATA HDDs and SSD drives. With Amazon you have less customization, said Skarda. "We let customer design a box for what they need and know they will get everything they need out of that box," he said.

It was the bare metal offerings that drew Bump Technologies, the developer of software that lets you bump two devices, like smartphones, and exchange personal information. Will Moss, server lead at Bump, said the company's early experience with a virtualized environment wasn't up to speed.

"We wanted something that was real hardware. Once we moved into storing blocks of data and wanting reasonable performance, it made more sense to pay for real hardware rather than paying Amazon for some sort of virtual offering, and we didn't want to have to deal with buying our own racks of servers," he said.

With a managed hosting provider, the experience was "fine but not exceptional." But the company saw a major performance gain when it moved to SoftLayer. "For our database, it was major. They were willing to rack up a server of 24 early SSD. For a startup growing quickly they've been nice," said Moss.

The future

Those bare metal offerings will be a competitive advantage in the future, said King. He notes that a recent IDC report suggests that by 2016, private clouds would represent over 78% of cloud deployments with hybrid accounting for 12% and public clouds just 10%, while at a Dell analyst event last week, the company noted another study that said by 2016, the market for private cloud would be 68%.

"In both these scenarios, SoftLayer's bare metal offerings would seem to be positioned pretty well. That doesn't mean there won't be pressure from AWS and Azure but they're engaged in a bloody game of cutthroat pricing that SoftLayer may prefer to avoid anyway," said King.

Jones said that this year, the firm would focus more on Big Data service offerings to make it easier for customers to make it easier to map their problem space "into our world." SoftLayer is doing that through partnerships with Nosql database providers.

Again, a non-virtual environment is key. "The common factor with Big Data offerings is a lot of times a lot of memory and network I/O and disk I/O are what's needed to get optimal performance. We've had a lot of customers who came from other cloud providers where they tried to deploy large Big Data implementations and they start well, but once they get to a certain workload they hit a wall and performance trails off," he said.

Of course, this discussion was held prior to the IBM acquisition. But King thinks that won't change. With IBM behind it, SoftLayer service levels of support for managing dedicated systems for customers should play well, he added. "IBM's announcement said it will 'support and enrich' SoftLayer with various cloud, analytics and Big Data offerings, but I also believe the deal will create opportunities to leverage System z mainframes, Power and System x solutions. In fact, that's clearly within IBM's conception of enterprise cloud being, by necessity, a heterogeneous, multi-platform environment," said King.

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