Regularly arrayed surface (glyco) proteins--often referred to as S layers--are a common feature of the cell envelopes of almost all archaebacteria. We have selected some examples (Halobacterium, Sulfolobus, Thermoproteus, Pyrobaculum, Staphylothermus), and we describe the structure of their surface layers as revealed primarily by electron crystallography. In spite of a considerable diversity in shapes and dimensions, some common structural features emerge from the comparison. The glycoprotein arrays are composed of oligomeric units which are anchored in the plasma membrane; extended spacer or linker domains maintain the bulk of the more or less porous surface layers at a constant distance above the membrane surface, thus creating a quasi-periplasmic compartment. Functions ascribed to surface layers, such as compartmentalization, shape maintenance and determination, and adhesion are discussed.