Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Thursday, March 23, 2023

SoftLayer Brings Hourly Billing To Bare Metal Cloud 

For plenty of analytics and technical workloads, running on bare metal is still more desirable than running on a hypervisor-sliced cloud. SoftLayer was an early and enthusiastic provider of bare metal servers, particular to the gaming and oil and gas industries, and its expertise in deploying bare metal cloudy infrastructure is one of the reasons why IBM spent $2 billion to acquire the company in June 2014.

As it turns out, the lion’s share of SoftLayer’s capacity in its public cloud is deployed as bare metal iron, SoftLayer CTO Marc Jones, tells EnterpriseTech. The company’s techies doesn’t build servers by hand as customers place their orders for bare metal, but rather the company’s homegrown Infrastructure Management System (IMS) controller does the job. SoftLayer’s virtualized cloud uses the CloudStack cloud controller from Citrix Systems to manage the commercial-grade XenServer hypervisor (also from Citrix) that dices and slices that server infrastructure into virtual machines. The IMS tool plugs into and controls CloudStack. Jones says that most of SoftLayer’s sophisticated customers use a mix of virtualized and bare metal capacity.

The problem with bare metal provisioning is that by its very nature it takes more time to do. The current practices embodied in the IMS tool were able to spin up a bare metal server in a SoftLayer datacenter in between three or four hours. That is not fast enough for cloud-style billing, which is done on an hourly and increasingly minutely basis. In many cases, it would take longer to set up a cluster of bare metal servers than they would be used by customers if they had the option of using something other than monthly billing. But SoftLayer has honed its bare metal provisioning and can now provision a machine in about 30 minutes, and by being selective about the configurations it provides, it can also shift from monthly to hourly billing for a subset of its bare metal cloud. The idea is to make it up in volume, which is what the cloud is all about from the point of view of cloud suppliers.

Jones says that SoftLayer combed through the configurations that were the most popular among its bare metal customers and created similar configurations that it could offer at volumes and with speed in its datacenters.


As you can see, the servers that SoftLayer is deploying for this new service are based on the “Sandy Bridge” Xeon E3 and E5 v1 processors. These are soon to be about to be two generations behind the bleeding edge of Xeon technology if Intel launches the “Haswell” Xeon E5 v3 processors at Intel Developer Forum in the second week of September as most industry observers expect it to do. For most workloads, the vintage of the core is not really that much of an issue, unless you are really in need of energy savings or special features only available in the latest Xeon chips. SoftLayer is basically offering two different machines. The first one has a single four-core Xeon E3-1270 v1 processor running at 3.4 GHz is designed to be used as a development sandbox or in testing environments, says SoftLayer. It has only one SATA drive and only 8 GB of memory, but it does have a high clock frequency for testing workloads that need this more than more cores and threads. The second bare-metal machine based on the Xeon E3-1270 v3, which is a Haswell chip that clocks at 3.5 GHz, and it jacks the memory up to 32 GB and has two 400 GB solid state drives, which SoftLayer says makes it useful for bursty big data workloads and I/O intensive applications as well as for performance testing.

For heftier workloads, SoftLayer jumps up to Xeon E5 processors for the remaining two hourly billed bare metal machines. The first has two six-core Xeon E5-2620 v1 processors, which have more modest 2 GHz clock speeds and which are clearly aimed at jobs that can make use of more cores and threads. This bare metal slice has 32 GB of main memory and a four 1 TB SATA drive, and SoftLayer says this one is good for digital transcoding, product launches where capacity is needed fast, or any kind of seasonal scaling that can be anticipated. The fattest configuration in the new bare metal setups has two Xeon E5-2650 V1 processors also running at 2 GHz, which provides a total of sixteen cores. The machine has 64 GB of memory and four 1 TB disks, and is configured for online game bursting or generic number-crunching jobs as well as a being used as a caching server for Web applications.

Across all four of the new bare metal machines, it costs 10 cents per GB for outbound data usage from the nodes. Inbound data is free, as is generally the case on public clouds.

The hourly billed bare metal setups above are currently available in SoftLayer datacenters in Dallas, San Jose, Washington D.C., London, Toronto, Amsterdam, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Jones says that additional configurations will be available soon and that by the end of the year when IBM has fired up all 40 of its SoftLayer datacenters these bare metal options will be available from all 40 of the facilities. The bare metal machines can be configured with Canonical’s Ubuntu Server, Red Hat’s Enterprise Linux and its CentOS clone, and the FreeBSD variant of Unix. VMware’s ESXi hypervisor is also certified on the boxes. Jones says that SoftLayer is working on being able to deploy Windows Server 2012 onto these new bare metal slices, but that it will probably only be able to guarantee that it can deliver a Windows machine in under 60 minutes rather than in under 30 minutes with the Linux and Unix setups above.

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