Summary:

As great as shared cloud infrastructure can be, online game workloads often demand dedicated physical servers in addition to heavily virtualized, shared cloud servers. That’s where SoftLayer says it differentiates itself from other big cloud players including market leader Amazon Web Services.

Backyard_Monsters_KIXEYE

It might not be immediately obvious, but online games are a bear on data center infrastructure.  To keep players interested, games have to be fast and responsive, they are often played simultaneously by hundreds — if not thousands —  of people, and they run flashy, resource-intensive graphics. They’re a pain.

As great as shared cloud infrastructure can be, these workloads often demand dedicated physical servers in addition to heavily virtualized, shared cloud servers. That’s where SoftLayer, the Dallas-based cloud service provider, says it differentiates itself from other big cloud players including market leader Amazon Web Services. SoftLayer, as Derrick Harris reported earlier, may not be a household name, but it runs the cloud that helps run many household brands including Tumblr, Cloudant and Citrix and has backed such popular games as OMGPOP and Draw Something, which have since been acquired by Zynga, which is moving more of its internal games onto its Zcloud and off of AWS.

SoftLayer says: hybrid cloud is best for gamers

SoftLayer attacks this online gaming challenge with its own hybrid technology which pairs shared and dedicated infrastructure.

“With gaming either on mobile devices or on Facebook, it’s all about engagement. How much time can you keep players engaged and coming back and what drives all that is the data points collected by the games makers that help them refine and iterate fast,” Marc Jones, VP of product innovation for Dallas-based SoftLayer told me last week. “One driver from an infrastructure perspective is the sheer volume of data points [from user moves] which ultimately end up in a database, maybe in MySQL or one of many NoSQL options like MongoDB or Hadoop,” Jones said.

That proliferation of data points and the need for fast response drives demand for higher I/O that Jones says is only available from truly dedicated servers. “With those servers you can configure your drives, the CPU you want, the memory you want up to 10G — you can use local SSD RAID configurations if you want to get better I/OPS and better I/O,” Jones said.

Meeting the fluctuating demand of gamers

The spiky nature of demand for games is another factor that makes SoftLayer’s hybrid approach effective, added George Karidis the company’s chief strategy officer. When a game launches there is usually a spike — the size of which is hard to predict.  “The variability of game play, the time of day and when they launch means they have to leverage their virtual cloud instances and spin up and down fast.  WIth our private network you can have your cloud instances and your dedicated infrastructure all talking to each other on our private network,” Jones said. That eliminates latency.

Current SoftLayer gaming customers include Kixeye, the San Francisco game company behind Backyard Monsters, Battle Pirates and War Commander.

SoftLayer, other clouds, take aim at Amazon

SoftLayer is getting aggressive in its promotion of itself as a viable — and oftentimes less expensive — alternative to the Amazon cloud. “Our private network is completely free to these users. We only charge for outbound traffic — inbound and data center-to-data center traffic is all included. On a dollar per dollar basis we’re less expensive than Amazon when you go above their low-end compute offering,” said Jones.

Indeed, other competitors are also getting feisty in positioning themselves against Amazon. Last week, Steve Tuck, GM for Joyent, another big cloud service provider, took aim at Amazon in a blog post on Computer Business Review saying it is no longer impossible to imagine competitors (like, um Joyent perhaps?) besting Amazon at its own game, especially as the “internet of things” comes online.

According to Tuck’s post:

Once upon a time, it was easier for developers, entrepreneurs and IT managers to work with Amazon. That is no longer true today. While Amazon remains the dominant cloud provider, its customers are beginning to see cracks in the Amazon Cloud foundation.

Clearly, SoftLayer, with its 13 data centers worldwide and 100,000 servers under management, feels the same way. Paul Santinelli, general partner at VC firm North Bridge Venture Partners, who watches this space closely, agreed that Amazon is by no means invulnerable to scrappy competition.

“That space is just heating up. The frustration with Amazon on the customer side is reliability. ‘You tell me I have servers but they may not be reserved for me and they may be in a distant data center so latency is problematic.’ If you, as a customer, want dedicated instances, reliability and lower latency, it’s highly likely you’ll go to a smaller cloud provider, ” he said.

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