Bare Metal: The Cloud Is Not Always Virtual

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A new approach can dish out bare-metal hardware on demand – and the standards are emerging to support it, says Peter Judge

Rackspace’s OnMetal servers sound like a contradiction in terms. They are “cloud” servers, but they aren’t virtualised. They offer customer their own bare-metal, dedicated hardware.

That hardware consists of servers built specially for Rackspace by Taiwanese manufacturer Quanta, using specifications from the Open Compute Project – which Rackspace co-founded with Facebook.

Seriously – bare-metal cloud?

The servers are designed for specific tasks, and use an open specification. That in itself is important. But bare-metal cloud? WhatCloud Computing - Datacenter 2 © Fernando Madeira - Fotolia on earth is that?

It’s been a mantra for a long time that the public cloud is based on virtualisation. By virtualising the hardware, cloud providers can set up new customers quickly and support multiple tenants efficiently, spinning up virtual servers as required and aggregating loads onto non-specific hardware.

But mid-to-large cloud customers have started complaining lately, about “noisy neighbours”.  If you share a machine with another virtualised tenant, it can hog the resources when it launches a complex process.

Providers have also started to realise that virtualisation adds a layer of software – the hypervisor – which consumes resources of its own.

But what would a bare metal cloud server look like? What would it run? The answer, it seems, is coming from OpenStack.

Ironic is a bare metal provisioning system. It’s not actually ironic at all. It aims to let service providers dish out bare metal servers with great flexibility, and Rackspace is bringing it into actual use.

So if you are a Rackspace customer, what do you put on your bare-metal server? If you then virtualise it and clog it up with your own virtual machines, what have you gained?

The answer may well be to use containers. They share resources at the application level, putting multiple apps on the same host OS, each in a separate fenced-off ‘container’, not a whole virtual machine.

The lead standard here is Docker, and it’s got support from Red Hat, Google and others. A new Linux version for containers called CoreOs has emerged, and is among the options Rackspace is offering.

So we have flexibility on a lot of levels. Open hardware, with the Group Hug standard allowing a choice of processors, and Ironic allowing them to be deployed more flexibly. Docker allowing containers instead of whole virtual machines and CoreOS supporting that.

Rackspace is trying to find a niche to distinguish its services from the cloud giants like Amazon Web Services. If it can’t do that, it might as well follow the path it engaged Morgan Stanley to investigate – of merger with larger players.

OnMetal is a new kind of cloud service, and it could be a very interesting move – for Rackspace and its customers.

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A version of this article appeared in Green Data Center News

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