A couple of years ago, the team behind Online Labs started a long ambitious project — instead of building a virtual cloud hosting infrastructure that competes directly with Amazon Web Services, DigitalOcean and other VPS providers, it designed its own hardware for its cloud solution. Online Labs managed to squeeze 912 separate computers in a single server rack. But the best part is that the company also kept the best of both worlds — dedicated servers with the flexibility of virtualization.
“We started this project two and half years ago, and we designed our own hardware from scratch as we couldn’t find what we wanted on the market at the time,” VP of Product Yann Léger told me in a phone interview. “We used an ARM architecture because we wanted a scalable physical cloud.”
When you start a server on Online Labs, it takes about 30 seconds. Yet, the company isn’t just launching a virtual machine on an already running server, it is actually booting an ARM server just for you.
There are many advantages to using dedicated hardware. For example, you won’t share your CPU with other users and end up with disappointing performances. Behind the scene, Online Labs uses the same ARM v7 systems on a chip that you would find in your smartphone. On one chip, you will find four different cores that are very thermal efficient. It’s less powerful than a dedicated Xeon server, but it is also very appealing for many developers.
Each server comes with 2GB of RAM, a 20 GB SSD, and a 1 Gbit/s network interface. You can add more storage and integrate with Amazon S3. And of course, you can start multiple servers in a few minutes if you need more resources.
Now, there are some limitations. First, as these servers use an ARM architecture, you can’t use x86 binaries and operating systems. For now, the company provides the usual suspects when it comes to distributions, Ubuntu, Debian, Gentoo, etc. You can also run Docker. Popular runtimes already have an ARM variant, but more obscure binaries might need some work. Some of Online Labs’ engineers are porting these binaries themselves.
For now, there is only one type of server. If you want more computing power, the only solution is to start a new server and balance the load. It’s not ideal, and the team is already working on more powerful hardware with more RAM. All the servers are hosted in Iliad’s data center in Paris, but a second data center based in the U.S. is in the works.
The true innovation behind Online Labs is how flexible it is. Just like when you use a VPS, you can make a snapshot, load an image and more. You can even move your public IP address from one machine to another.
Another interesting part, Online Labs is not based on OpenStack, everything was developed internally. The team also developed an API to manage your servers.
There are countless of little details that show how polished Online Labs already is. It’s a new take on cloud hosting, and a very different one. The team recently launched a public preview to try the infrastructure. More than 100,000 servers are already running.
“When it comes to pricing, we should be competitive with other cloud hosting solutions providing the same performance,” Léger said.
There is still a long way to go to take care of every developer’s needs. For example, DigitalOcean now has many data centers around the world and a wide range of configurations. But Online Labs is definitely a promising alternative.