Review: SoftLayer's cloud is fast and flexible

SoftLayer brings fine-grained configuration options, high performance, and interesting extras to the self-service cloud

The cloud has a way of hiding much of what we used to fret about. Servers are boxes, and boxes are meant to be interchangeable. You push the button and you log in. It's just a box, and there's no need to spend much time thinking about it because it's a commodity.

SoftLayer is one of the companies fighting the commodification of the servers, at least a bit. SoftLayer is still selling servers by the hour and offering a cloud of machines that starts up on demand, but it's also making the server purchase more like it used to be. You have plenty of options, some of which include getting a raw machine that's yours, all yours.

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Amazon and Google, for instance, started selling a few basic models. Although they've expanded the selection over the years by adding higher-powered CPUs or more RAM, the menu of choices is still pretty simple. If you get a small machine, you get a small CPU with a smaller amount of RAM and a smaller bundle of everything else. If you want more, you buy more of everything.

SoftLayer lets you shop for servers the old way. You choose how many cores you want, then choose the RAM independently. You can build a machine with 16 2GHz cores and 1GB of RAM, one core and 16GB of RAM, or any integer in between -- say, 13 cores and 7GB of RAM. The prices slide up and down, and the two parts are priced independently. Sixteen cores will cost 75 cents per hour, while only one core will cost 7 cents per hour. There are price breaks along the list and it's not exactly linear.

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.

While I had no real problem configuring several machines, SoftLayer is still working through making all of this function smoothly. I asked for MongoDB on my machine but got a message later that it wouldn't work with Ubuntu 12.04, the OS I happened to choose. There are menu items on the portal for CPanel software licenses, but I wasn't given an option to buy one. SoftLayer is clearly planning on making it easy to buy extras, but not all of the dots are connected yet.

One interesting option is a "bare metal" server, also sold by the hour or by the month. I spun up one of these with two cores running at 2GHz and 2GB of RAM at a price of 50 cents per hour. These don't run in the same seemingly endless stack of virtualization, allowing them to access the I/O channels faster. This pays off with databases and other disk-bound applications.

The performance of the "bare metal" server was often better, but not in every case. In some the results were largely the same as the "painted metal," for lack of a better term. The times were about the same for the relatively linear, single-process jobs like the Batik vector graphics rendering or the Eclipse test. These are largely computational. But other tests such as the Lucene searching or the Sunflow ray tracing sped up dramatically because the code was able to take advantage of the extra cores and the better disk I/O. The DaCapo benchmarks have an option to limit the number of threads, and when I held the bare-metal machines to one thread, the gains largely disappeared.

Your results, of course, will differ just as the results from the benchmarks do. The so-called bare-metal machines are better at handling I/O operations such as writing to disk because they don't have the hypervisor adding an extra step to the interaction with the device drivers.

An example of SoftLayer's GUI. This graph shows the CPU load during testing. There are similar graphs for the full range of server performance statistics.

MongoDB in the cloudSoftLayer is seeking to bottle this advantage in a different way. The company is creating its own bundles of bare-metal machines and installing MongoDB on them on top of CentOS. A monthly fee of $359, for instance, buys a four-core machine that's ready to run. You can also purchase a support subscription from 10gen through SoftLayer. You pay for some of this expertise from the beginning because SoftLayer designed the server package with 10gen's guidance.

The MongoDB boxes are one of many offerings; a content delivery network, load balancers, and firewalls are also available. Plus, you can store your data as objects in SoftLayer's object store, which is built using a version of the OpenStack Swift object store. The metadata for the objects are indexed, making it a bit easier to find what you're looking to get. The object store's integration with the content delivery network makes it a bit simpler to serve up the same data again and again throughout the cloud. Storage is 10 cents per gigabyte, as is outbound traffic.

There's yet another interesting feature that's hidden from these endless menus of choices. SoftLayer gives you your own private network for back-channel communications among your machines. Each server has one address for talking to the Internet at large and one for talking just to the private network. If you want to keep some servers in the background, out of view of the Wild West of the Internet, you can open up the ports on this private network. This channel makes it simpler to enforce some rules by locking out the public Internet in one swoop.

This adds up to a large collection with all the options you'll need to build out your server farm. The flexibility to pick and choose just how much memory and cores you need is much greater than SoftLayer's main cloud competitors, casting the entire process as a bit of a throwback. You're not grabbing a commodity block of computing time that's more or less the same as every other block. You're building out a server and adding extra features, all using prices that are measured by the hour or by the month. It's a welcome reminder of the flexibility the old server sales force used to offer the enterprise customer.

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