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2/3/2012
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SoftLayer: A New Kind Of Cloud Service

SoftLayer's customers can move data with the click of a button from virtual servers to physical and back, whenever they choose, in SoftLayer data centers.

Up and coming hosted infrastructure as a service supplier SoftLayer has improvised a way to move workloads automatically between virtual servers and bare metal servers.

That's always been possible within any given IT shop. Moving from physical to virtual, or P2V, is one of the skills that accompanied building out consolidated servers in the data center. But what SoftLayer is saying is that its customers can move data with the click of a button from virtual to physical and back, whenever they choose, in SoftLayer data centers.

As more production workloads move into the cloud, that capability could prove useful if an application suddenly departs from its steady state and needs to run on a larger, bare metal server to keep up with traffic. Database applications do better in such a setting--residing on their own large server--than on a heavily virtualized server, due to I/O issues.

SoftLayer is proposing that customers move a workload between bare metal and virtualized servers at will, depending on where it will best run. If such a service proves popular, Rackspace, the Terremark unit of Verizon Business, or Amazon may one day offer similar services.

[ Want to learn about an open source option for moving from physical server to virtual server in the OpenStack cloud? See rPath Donates Push Button OpenStack Appliance. ]

SoftLayer calls the migration ability Flex Images and accomplishes it by establishing a digital image of a given server in a library. Each image is marked to indicate whether it came from the physical or virtual world. When it's retrieved, an automated provisioning system notes which environment it came from, then asks which environment It is headed for. If necessary, it makes the conversion.

In a move from virtual to physical, the system doesn't throw away the virtual machine file. On the contrary, "The system still uses the virtual image but rips out the virtual drivers, and injects the drivers needed by the targeted physical host," said Simon West, chief marketing officer, in an interview.

One of the main differences between applications running in the virtual and bare metal worlds lies in the set of device drivers that will be used by the operating system. SoftLayer's Flex Images has figured out how to resolve device driver issues as it prepares a server image for its prospective deployment environment. In each case, the operating system that is included in the server digital snapshot is the operating system that drives the application, said Marc Jones, SoftLayer director of product innovation, in an interview.

SoftLayer stores all of customer's Flex Images in a single, unified image library, with one image serving as the root or reference model for either type of server. The migration process works only in SoftLayer data centers and is not available for its customers to use on their own premises.

In 2011, SoftLayer increased the number of servers it has under its management in 13 data centers by 30,000, bringing its total to 100,000. It provides both infrastructure as a service, starting at 10 cents per hour of virtual servers use, and managed hosting, starting at $139 per server a month. Its revenue last year was $335 million, said West, which makes SoftLayer "the largest privately held infrastructure as a service provider" with 25,000 customers.

SoftLayer is also a leading supplier of cloud services to the U.S. government, with partner Computer Technologies Consultants.

Rackspace, a public company, also comes to cloud computing from a background of having first provided managed hosting services, and it may be watching the SoftLayer experiment with interest. In one sense, what SoftLayer is doing is blurring the line between the two services and allowing a customer to go from multi-tenant, virtualized hosts to dedicated, bare metal hosts without changing accounts, even though the billing systems may still be separate. Some customers with workloads that can widely vary traffic loads may find that attractive.

According to information on its website, SoftLayer first offered Flex Images in its Dallas, San Jose, Calif., Seattle, Washington, D.C., Singapore, and Amsterdam data centers. Company officials said the service will be made available in all 13 of its worldwide data centers.

As enterprises ramp up cloud adoption, service-level agreements play a major role in ensuring quality enterprise application performance. Follow our four-step process to ensure providers live up to their end of the deal. It's all in our Cloud SLA report. (Free registration required.)

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