Rackspace gives world the servers Google and Amazon keep secret

New OnMetal service pairs Open Compute Project hardware with CoreOS software for OPEN CLOUD NIRVANA

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Troubled hosting company Rackspace has brewed up a life-saving potion based around the secret technologies developed by some of the web's giants.

That project, "OnMetal Servers", gives customers the option of renting dedicated hardware from Rackspace based on designs similar to the secret servers operated by Google and Amazon, along with support for modern software built for distributed applications. This follows Rackspace's cofounding of the OpenStack project, which was another attempt to democratize the technology used by the web giants.

The OnMetal servers are tweaked versions of the gear published by the Open Compute Project, a Facebook-led initiative to let companies build and buy hardware in the same way as the megaclouds – that is, strip components down to the bare minimum and build them with an Asian supplier, such as Quanta. It's likely that OCP servers share a lot in common with the secret servers built by Amazon and Google, as the emphasis on low cost of operation, low capital outlay, and commodity gear means the designs all tend toward a similar chassis format and board layout. This became clear earlier this year when Microsoft donated its own secret server designs to the OCP project and we discovered few differences between them and existing OCP designs.

Because the servers are dedicated and not virtualized, customers don't have to pay the performance tax that comes when you run software on top of a hypervisor, allowing them to make use of the powerful hardware through a reasonably broad API, while leaving the tough management and maintenance to Rackspace. It also protects them from the "noisy neighbor" problem, which happens when another virtualized tenant on a machine starts performing a complex task and gains a greater share of underlying resources.

The company also claims that the servers "can typically be provisionedin under a minute," which seems like a subtle dig at IBM-acquisition SoftLayer whose dedicated servers take longer to get up and running.

Meanwhile, the software being served up on them includes CoreOS, a radical new "distributed operating system" that uses Docker-based Linux containers rather than VMs as its fundamental-unit IT resource. CoreOS bears similarities to some of the complex internal systems built at places like Facebook, Google, and Amazon with one crucial difference: it's open source.

Rackspace's decision to offer the OnMetal product, then, is analogous to Prometheus taking the fire from the Gods and giving it to the common people, after which Prometheus was then pecked incessantly by a raven under the gaze of an unforgiving sun. Rackspace is being pummeled by a stock market that is disappointed in its performance against the cloud gods of Amazon, Google, and Microsoft.

"OnMetal servers are single-tenant, bare-metal servers provisioned via the same OpenStack API as our cloud," the company explained in a blog post. "We've made them 100 percent solid-state with external cooling, leading to increased mean time between failures (MTBF)."

Initially, the servers will be available in three variants: High CPU, High RAM, and High I/O. High CPU packs in 20 Intel Xeon cores, 32GB of RAM and a 10Gbit connection, and no storage. High RAM has 12 cores, 512GB of RAM, and no storage. High I/O has 20 cores, 128GB of RAM, and a whopping 3.2TB of PCIe Flash via an LSI Express card.

Pricing is yet to be announced. "It should be comparably lower than someone running in a colocation [facility]," Rackspace's director of product strategy, Ev Kontsevoy, told El Reg.

As Rackspace prides itself on its "fanatical service", a lot of the work in rolling out the product has revolved less around the basic technology, and more about teaching the company's own people about its amazing capabilities.

"It's not a technical problem; it's about making something part of your portfolio – architecting the peopleware," explained Kontsevoy [With tongue planted firmly in cheek.—Ed]. "First we need to sign contracts, make sure legal is comfortable with license terms, [figure out] what do we do when we get questions about CoreOS, [and] finally when customer asks our salesforce the difference between CoreOS and Ubuntu, they need to say intelligent things to them."

Like Google, then, Rackspace feels that its best route to attacking Amazon and growing its customer base is to be as transparent as possible. This is an area where Amazon is weak and other companies have the opportunity to be strong. It seems that another side effect of the rise of the cloud – besides deflationary pricing for rentable IT gear – is increasing openness from proprietary companies.

The servers will be available from Rackspace's Northern Virginia data center next month, and keen customers can sign up for an early access program here. We hope Rackspace is able to crack the code to growing its business before Morgan Stanley helps it sell itself or partner-up with someone. ®

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