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February 27, 2013updated 19 Aug 2016 9:27am

Q&A: Can you find performance in the cloud?

I sat down with SoftLayer's EMEA chief Jonathan Wisler, to hear how the cloud hosting firm differentiates itself, and why a hybrid approach in the cloud could be the future.


Jonathan Wisler

Jonathan Wisler, SoftLayer.

What does a typical SoftLayer data centre look like?

We use a pod system to build data centres – everything arrives in a container and we can be up and running in two to three weeks. All the configurations are the same globally, which means customers can move their workloads to where they want them. We had one customer that started in one of our US data centres and moved their data to the Netherlands, for example.

And what hardware, software and networking have you standardised on?

All the hardware is Super Micro Computer, with whom we have a strong partnership. Networking is Cisco, Infinera and Juniper. Customers can choose their preferred virtualisation: we support Citrix, VMware, Microsoft Hyper-V and Parallels.

There are loads of cloud firms out there, how is SoftLayer different?

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Our focus is really on customers who value performance, which is one of the reasons that we offer the option of a bare metal server [in which a virtual machine is installed directly on hardware rather than on top of a host operating system]. We can offer companies a dedicated server that is completely dedicated to their workload – it doesn’t need to share networking, RAID cards and so on. But there’s still all the automation you need, for example being able to remotely reboot. More and more companies are looking for very high performance cloud computing capabilities.

Our differentiator is that we can offer a dedicated server or a virtual server: we offer a hybrid approach with a high level of automation. We almost never need to physically touch the box.

From what you’ve said it sounds like you specialise in infrastructure as a service (IaaS)?

That’s right, we don’t go up the deployment stack to the applications. We don’t want to compete with our own reseller customers, who are doing things like hosting games, or WordPress, or domain registrations. We offer the technology stack – the data centre, operating system and deployment stack, then there’s basically our API [application programming interface]. We deliberately made that decision so that we can support resellers.

What proportion of your sales are direct rather than to resellers?

We don’t publish that information and it varies depending on the region. We have some very large resellers such as [web hosting firm] Midphase, but we have 20,000 end customers altogether, from large resellers to organisations that only need half a server.

Can you say what your revenue is or growth rate?

We last made a figure public for annual 2011, in which total sales were about $300m, and with a very good growth clip. We now have over 100,000 physical servers. For example in the Netherlands we have the capacity for two pods. One has come online already and the other will be coming online soon. We’re also looking at building more data centres in other regions.

When I speak with CIOs at CBR dinners the biggest concern around cloud is over security.

Some of that concern is real and some of it is perceived. We provide customers with a range of options, but because we are not really playing at the application layer it is for the customer to decide what security they want to apply. Although our servers are in the cloud, your own servers in your own data centre are still attached to a network so there’s not that much difference. We also lease physical firewall appliances to put next to a server if customers want that.

Another concern is around service levels. What can you offer there?

We offer 100% network uptime. Uptime is higher than if a customer had hosted it themselves, and we ensure that if there is any downtime that we share their pain and give money back. But all our data centres have twin 20 Gigabit pipes and we use four main carriers – it’s pretty foolproof.

And if something does go wrong, can customers get their data back easily?

Absolutely. Customers pay by the hour or per month usually, and if they want to they can download their data and we’ll simply wipe the server and resell it.

Can you give me an example of a customer that has particularly high performance needs?

One of our customers, Struq, does advertising personalization. They have very high performance needs, high I/O requirements. They use information from cookies or personal profiles to match adverts, send it out to auction and personalize an advert, all in under two milliseconds. I don’t know if they even called it Big Data but it is that sort of performance that they need.

If I wanted cloud hosting why wouldn’t I just go to Amazon?

We have the same level of automation as Amazon but they only offer virtual hosting – we can also offer a dedicated private cloud. The other thing is transparency, which I think is becoming more and more important. With us you know specifically where your data sits. If you come into one of our data centres I can point to ‘your’ server.

When people talk about hybrid cloud I usually think about people having some on-premise and potentially bursting out into the cloud when they need additional capacity. Is that something that you can offer today?

We’re working on it. We’re working with Citrix on CloudPlatform [a Citrix cloud environment based on the open source Apache CloudStack project]. It’ll be like a virtual server farm on top of our server farm. And Citrix CloudBridge extends someone’s private cloud to a public cloud, which is exactly as you describe. We’ll work with VMware on this too – I think Citrix and VMware are furthest ahead with this. As with most things we may support both, but we’ll let the market decide on that. But I think generally, the future architecture of enterprise IT will look like that.

What will be new for SoftLayer in 2013?

Well we’re looking to build more data centres in APAC, the US and Europe. We recently announced that we can preconfigure MongoDB [the database from 10gen] which will be really valuable for companies doing Big Data.

Doesn’t that take you up towards the application layer that you said you were deliberately avoiding?

Actually we think in this case it enables the resellers to add new products and services. It takes one step out of the process for them. And we’re always working to improve our automation and innovation. That’s at our core, and we’ll always be doing that.


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