SoftLayer is a huge IaaS provider. SoftLayer runs 13 data centers serving 21,000 customers in 140 countries. Before it was bought by IBM, SoftLayer was the largest privately held IaaS provider on the planet. I recently had a chance to speak to their chief scientist Nathan Day about the things that set SoftLayer apart from the big daddy of IaaS, Amazon Web Services.

It’s not the virtual machine rental

You can sign up for SoftLayer’s Cloudlayer free trial and play with one of their virtual servers for a month. It’s not the offer of free stuff that sets SoftLayer apart and it’s certainly not the virtual compute service – all the big cloud IaaS providers offer virtual machines to their customers. IaaS customers love the convenience of virtual servers even more than they love free stuff.

Day agrees. “There are lots of convenience factors when it comes to being able to say, ‘hey I need a running operating system, and I need it in a matter of minutes’. That’s why Amazon’s had so much success.”  Day pointed out there is a  price to pay for this convenience: “The virtual machine, by abstracting away the disk, the RAM and the CPU – there’s an overhead there, there’s a tax, there’s a performance penalty in doing so.”

Virtual machines have their limitations – there are some things you shouldn’t virtualize. Public virtual machine clouds are great for batch work, but if you want to perform, you can’t beat bare metal.

It’s the bare metal IaaS

The technically literate customers who use SoftLayer know what they want. Day said, “If they want the convenience of buying a virtual machine from us, fine, like they do at Amazon – but if they do want to go a little deeper, if they do want to design hardware, specifically, we let them do that”.

That’s right. SoftLayer offers both a virtual cloud service and bare metal servers. And it’s the bare metal that sets them apart from AWS and most other cloud providers. They figured out a way to quickly provision dedicated hardware to their customers and built their business around it.

And the customer portal

SoftLayer offers a web-based self-service control panel like AWS and so many other IaaS vendors. The big difference with the Softlayer control panel is it lets you design a bare metal cluster. If you know the technology you want, SoftLayer will deliver your configuration in a couple hours.

Day expanded on the customization available.  “[Customers] come to us and say, ‘you know what, I want the latest generation of Intel processors and I want six cores in a single proc, and I want two drives and RAID1’.  They get to specify exactly how much RAM is in there and we do full transparency when it comes to even showing how many sticks of RAM we use… They really get to design their own server.”

Since SoftLayer offer hardware, the order form includes a range of installable software, in addition to the more usual IaaS packaged services – operating systems, hypervisors, database servers, and so on. Customers create a configuration of hardware, networking, and software that works best for their applications.

And the three networks

The thirteen Softlayer data centers are all connected by a Softlayer-owned network. A machine in one data center in one country can talk to a machine in another data center in another country over a private network. Day says this global network “allows our customers who do have those geographic needs to still have a secure, reliable interconnection that doesn’t traverse the Internet at large, that does traverse our private network”.

The AWS network is also private (for the network administrators out there, both have a 10 address). Internet clients can get to Amazon’s machines because Amazon uses NAT (Network Address Translation) behind the scenes.  Unlike AWS, the SoftLayer private interface leads only to the private network. A SoftLayer machine has an extra interface connected to the Internet.  

There is also a third network for OOB (Out-Of-Band) management. The SoftLayer YouTube videos show fat bundles of cables connecting machines to these three networks.

Who wants to rent IaaS from SoftLayer?

Both AWS and SoftLayer appeal to the organization that doesn’t want on-premise machines but does want the advantages of IaaS. A new customer who is happy with virtualization and multi-tenancy will probably get their cluster of virtual machines from Amazon rather than SoftLayer, because that’s what everyone else does.

A customer who wants dedicated hardware will get their cluster of physical machines from SoftLayer – Amazon don’t do bare metal. Managing dedicated hardware requires more cash and technical skill than virtual IaaS, so SoftLayer’s service may appeal more to the enterprise than to the individual.

SoftLayer provides the IT department with everything normally found in the enterprise computer room, wrapped up in self-service automated IaaS goodness.  That’s what sets it apart from Amazon.