French Web Host Builds ARM-Powered Bare Metal Cloud
Online.net Labs has become the first company to build an Infrastructure-as-a-Service cloud powered by ARM servers.

French Web Host Builds ARM-Powered Bare Metal Cloud

Online.net Labs designs cloud hardware and software from scratch

PARIS - The French government’s 2012 decision to give upward of €280 million to two companies so they could build cloud computing infrastructure that would keep French data within the country’s borders quite predictably upset a lot of people.

The government had hand-picked two firms, backed by massive IT vendors and telcos, and gave them a substantial financial advantage on the public’s dime. Everybody from smaller hosting firms like Ikoula to giants like IBM went on record complaining that the government was giving Cloudwatt (backed by Orange and Thales) and Numergy (backed by Bull and SFR) an unfair leg up.

Yann Leger, vice president of cloud computing at Online.net Labs, was disappointed not only because competition was getting a government handout but also because Numergy and Cloudwatt had a chance to do something really innovative with the money but instead came up with solutions that in his view were quite underwhelming technologically.

Over the past 2.5 years or so, a small team at Online, hosting services division of Iliad, one of France’s largest telcos, has been busy building a cloud almost entirely from scratch, both hardware and software. They didn’t want to use OpenStack (the option Numergy and Cloudwatt went with), figuring it would take them just as long to create their own cloud architecture as it would to understand OpenStack and adjust it to their needs, Leger said.

World’s First ARM Server Cloud

The cloud came online in October, running on thousands of tiny servers powered by ARM processors. Online is the first ever service provider to build a commercial Infrastructure-as-a-Service offering using ARM chips (at least the first ever to admit it publicly).

There have been rumors earlier this year that Amazon Web Services was eyeing the architecture, but they have not been confirmed, and AWS indicated continued wholehearted support of Intel by announcing last week that its upcoming EC2 instances would run on custom Intel Xeon chips. Chinese Internet giant Baidu built a cloud storage service using ARM-powered servers, but Online is the first to offer an ARM server cloud where users can spin up and spin down servers and pay for what they use.

Yann Leger, vice president of cloud computing at Online.net Labs, pointing at a network switch powering the company's cloud.

Yann Leger, vice president of cloud computing at Online.net Labs, pointing at a network switch powering the company's cloud.

Online chose ARM chips because they consume less power than traditional x86 processors. U.K.-based ARM Holdings licenses its architecture to chip makers. It was originally designed for smartphones (most smartphones in existence are powered by ARM chips) and embedded devices, but more than a handful of companies have been making ARM chips for servers, targeting users who are conscious of their energy consumption or going after applications that need a high degree of processor customization.

Leger’s team went with the Armada XP chip by Marvell, a semiconductor company based in Bermuda. Baidu's storage cloud runs on the same chips. The Online team chose a 32-bit chip for its cloud because it is cheaper than the 64-bit ARM chips a company called Applied Micro started shipping earlier this year, Leger explained. Applied Micro’s X-Gene is quite expensive at the moment, and he and his colleagues are waiting for AMD to release the next generation of its ARM SoCs, which they may consider for a future version of their cloud hardware.

A 3,500-Node Cloud in Four Racks

One of Online’s servers easily fits in the palm of a hand, and about 900 of them fit in a standard data center rack. Leger calls a single unit of deployment a “platform.” A single platform includes 3,500 servers in 12 chassis sitting in four racks, plus one rack with electrical transformers, converting three-phase power to 48V to feed to the dual electrical feeds that supply power to the chassis.

A single Online cloud server fits in the palm of a hand.

A single Online cloud server fits in the palm of a hand.

Iliad-made chassis are filled with blades, each blade supplying 18 servers. In the back of each blade is a storage drive. A platform has 80 ARM servers that handle management tasks, such as APIs, DNS, monitoring, and traffic metering.

There are 10 standard x86 servers that also handle management tasks, including boot. Another set of standard x86 servers supports AWS S3-compatible object storage.

Bare-Metal Cloud for Scale-Out Applications

Leger said Online’s cloud will work fine for any workload that scales horizontally, which can mean any web frontend for example. The cloud wouldn’t work too well for something like an Oracle database, which scales vertically. The architecture is distributed, so you can spin up as many servers as you need.

The cloud isn’t virtualized. Users spin up “bare-metal” servers.

A single Iliad-made chassis carries about 900 Online cloud servers.

A single Iliad-made chassis carries close to 300 Online cloud servers.

Early this month, when we visited Online’s offices and data centers in Paris, about 2,000 users had signed up to try the cloud. The company planned to launch the service into general availability later in November, at which point 7,000 nodes would be deployed, Leger said.

Online has not disclosed pricing yet, but he said the rates would be comparable with DigitalOcean and much lower than AWS. And it will, at some point in the future, be compatible with OpenStack, but only because Leger’s team wants to make it easy for users to move their applications from OpenStack clouds to Online’s.

Room to Grow

The cloud currently lives in a 10 megawatt Iliad data center on the outskirts of Paris. The company has another data center in the suburbs and is in the process of building out a third one in the city proper.

If the new cloud offering is met with a lot of demand, there is room to grow the infrastructure within Online’s existing footprint, but the hardware can be in any data center. Leger anticipates the company’s ability to supply enough servers to keep up with demand to be a bigger issue than data center capacity.

“If we have that problem, we will be happy to solve it,” he said.

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