Review: Joyent Cloud is built for speed

Joyent's very smart SmartOS proves that some cloud servers are better than others

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.

But the reasons for choosing SmartOS have little to do with your fond memories of the '90s and the heady days of Sparc chips. Many continue to believe that Solaris is a great choice for an enterprise server, especially one with multiple cores. The file system, ZFS, offers a better transactional system that only locks in the disk changes when the data is completely written. The OS also offers a feature to segregate users, called "zones," that dramatically lowers the resource requirements behind the good fences that make good neighbors.

If you choose a Joyent SmartOS server from the cloud, you get all these features and a few more like DTrace, a debugging tool that can help you pinpoint what's slowing down your software. DTrace will let you watch the latency of writes to disk and make sure you're getting your money's worth from the platform.

Turning Solaris into a cloud operating system has paid off. Joyent emphasizes that its virtualization technology is so tightly integrated with SmartOS that SmartOS guests are connected directly to the device drivers of the machine. There's no virtualization layer in between.

Joyent's virtualization tool also boasts a few other neat tricks. You can, for instance, resize your virtual machine without rebooting it -- assuming the underlying server has room to spare. Joyent also promises that the virtual machine can use the extra capacity temporarily in a burst mode.

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