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.

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