Why a bare-metal cloud provider might be just what you need

Cloud services that provide nothing but server hardware can help solve application-migration, performance, customization and hardware-access problems.

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Cloud services, particularly infrastructure- and platform-as-a-service, are well established, but in some cases customers demand more — more control, more access to hardware, more performance, and the ability to pick their own operating environment.

In those cases, they are looking to bare-metal services, a niche that is growing quickly.

As the name implies, bare metal means no software, just CPUs, memory, and storage. Customers provide all of the software from the operating system on up. That means a dedicated CPU, full access to the hardware, and freedom to run custom operating systems.

According to a 2016 Markets and Markets report, the bare-metal cloud market is expected to grow from $871.8 million in 2016 to $4.7 billion in 2021, at an estimated compound annual growth rate of 40.1 percent.

One reason it’s still a small market is because the major providers haven’t really embraced it. Amazon is only just now starting to dip its toe in the waters with a single configuration. Microsoft, remarkably, does offer a bare-metal VMware environment but did it without the blessing or partnership of VMware. Google has no significant bare-metal offering.

IBM is the biggest of the cloud providers with an offering, through the data-center provider SoftLayer, which it acquired in 2013. Other major names supporting bare metal include Oracle and Rackspace, and just recently Chinese giant Alibaba announced plans for bare-metal support. After that, it mostly falls to tier 2 and regional providers.

But Deepak Mohan, research director for public cloud infrastructure as a service for IDC, believes that will change shortly.

“It seems like it’s a fresh wave of bare metal coming to market,” he said. “I assume everybody will have a bare-metal offering by the end of the year.”

On-prem vs. bare metal

Bare metal appeals to customers with on-premises apps that they would like to migrate out of their data centers. Jay Jubran, director of compute offering management for IBM Cloud, notes that most of IBM’s enterprise customers want to move existing apps and outsource existing apps to the cloud and continue to operate as they would on-premises using the same tools. The apps run unchanged but in IBM’s data center instead of the customer’s.

“Bare metal offers a step into the right direction, where you don’t have to change workflows and processes. And it gives you access to an environment hosted somewhere else, so you can start adopting cloud techniques,” he said.

It’s no coincidence that IBM and Oracle are two big proponents of bare-metal provisioning. They are two of the largest enterprise software companies in the world and are feeling the pinch of the cloud. One reason is that their licenses don’t allow their software to be run in a multitenant environment where an unlicensed customer's workloads wind up on the same server as IBM and Oracle workloads that are properly licensed customer.

With bare metal, organizations can move IBM DB2 or Oracle 12 to the IBM or Oracle clouds, no modifications needed, and run those big databases or other enterprise apps on IBM or Oracle’s servers rather than their own.

“If you are running a software package on-prem, you can move to the cloud with no performance tradeoffs,” said Mohan. “This becomes increasingly relevant when you go to software packages that have the necessary performance to take advantage of the performance benefits of bare metal, like analytics and high-end databases.”

Addressing cloud performance issues

Beyond app migration, there are three major selling points for bare metal provisioning: performance, hardware access, and customization. In a virtual environment, you share CPU and memory space with other customers, and performance can often vary from one instance to another.

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