The sales pitch for servers in the cloud has always leaned on the word "commodity." You push a button, and voilà, a root password is yours within minutes. The machines in the cloud may not be exactly what you would order if you were filling out a P.O. for your own metal box, but they're probably close enough. The number of options may not be great, but you can choose among enough standard sizes and enough standard operating systems to get approach the ideal. In return for limiting your options, you can click a few buttons and run a machine in less than 180 seconds.
Joyent is a commodity cloud provider, but with a twist. Joyent Cloud offers many of the same basic machine options and standard distro choices you'll find on Amazon and other clouds, but you can also try what Joyent has waiting behind door number two. In addition to Linux and Windows VMs, the company builds custom machines with not-as-common operating systems and calls them appliances. If you decide to go with Joyent's machines, you might find they can be dramatically faster than the commodity server next door, at least when performing standard tasks like answering requests for basic Web pages or data from a database.
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The not-so-secret sauce that Joyent is pitching is called SmartOS. You may know it as Illumos or more likely as Solaris, its most prominent name. Around the time that Sun merged with Oracle, a number of engineers from the Solaris team decamped for Joyent. They forked some code from the OpenSolaris project, called it SmartOS, and began renting cloud servers running the new operating system. The name changes aren't sticking very well because the SmartOS documentation will occasionally refer to the operating system as Solaris. But it's not worth getting caught up in the name. If you liked Solaris and mourned the death of Sun, this is your chance to keep the flame for just a few cents an hour. Nostalgia has never been cheaper.