Is Metal As A Service The Next Big Thing For The Cloud?

Guest Author: This week’s blog was brought to us by Graeme Caldwell — Graeme works as an inbound marketer for InterWorx, a revolutionary web hosting control panel for hosts who need scalability and reliability. Follow InterWorx on Twitter at @interworx, Like them on Facebook and check out their blog, http://www.interworx.com/community.

We’re accustomed to thinking of cloud platforms as being irrevocably tied to virtualization. Virtualization — the software representation of hardware — is what has allowed us to build infrastructure and software platforms of exquisite controllability and almost limitless flexibility. In fact, if we’re to believe the cloud’s foundational myth — which is probably just that, a myth — the cloud came about as a way to put virtualization to use in soaking up underutilized server resources.

But really the cloud is not so much tied to a particular technology as it is a set of capabilities: on-demand scaling, fast deployment, API control, metered pricing, and so on. You can have the cloud and its service modalities, including Infrastructure-as-a-Service, without the virtualization layer so long as you have an alternative technology that provides many of the same capabilities — or at least enough of them that they  fulfill the needs of the market while offering a benefit that existing technologies don’t.

Over the last few years we’ve seen the rise of containers, particularly Docker, as a replacement of hypervisor virtualization. Containers are great as a replacement for or improvement to Platform-as-a-service products, but they can’t really replace Infrastructure-as-a-service. A technology that can replace IaaS in many of its most important roles for a large segment of the user base, and especially for those building private clouds, is the bare metal cloud, which can be used to provide Metal-as-a-service functionality.

Bare metal clouds are probably best thought of as an enhancement of traditional server clusters. A cluster controller takes care of scalability — new servers can be added to the cluster at will. API control exists in much the same way as with virtualized Infrastructure-as-a-service. As for on-demand pricing, that’s really a function of the way platforms are designed and sold rather than any specific technology, but it’s not essential for most purposes where long-term hardware stability is more important that fast elastic scaling.

The most important point of superiority where bare metal clouds are concerned is performance. As the name suggests, operating systems or applications run directly on the bare metal without a virtualization layer, or in light-weight containers that offer easy deployment and migration without the overhead of virtualization.

In short, for most applications short of massive scaling on very short timeframes, bare metal clouds and metal-as-a-service offerings are likely to be a superior solution for companies who need to extract optimal performance from their hardware without sacrificing flexibility.

Metal-as-a-service has until now largely been associated with Canonical’s offering of the same name, but the concept has a much wider application and vendors are entering the bare metal arena both from the direction of virtualized cloud providers like IBM and more traditional server management and clustering solution providers like InterWorx. Companies like France’s Online Labs are leveraging low-powered ARM server clusters to provide Metal-as-a-service platforms.

Virtualization has always been a stop-gap technology: one that provides capabilities we need, but at a cost in performance and in complexity. The move back to bare metal without sacrificing performance is one that will pick up speed in the years to come.

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