A company tailor-made for cloud computing, New Tech Networks, part of KnowledgeWorks since 2009, sells Software as a Service (SaaS) to 41 schools around the U.S. Its "project" platform provides students and teachers with a way to create scholastic exercises and manage them, similar to office collaboration. New Tech Network has 8,500 users and is expanding rapidly, the company claims.
"We currently have about 40 high schools, and this year, we're expanding to 66," said Matt Barcus, chief technology officer at New Tech Network.
He said that, along with the new users, New Tech was shifting its IT infrastructure from managed hosting to a cloud service (albeit within the same provider, SunGard) as part of a major IT overhaul.
Barcus said New Tech started in the late 90s at one school in a traditional database-driven IT format. Fueled by a Gates Foundation grant, the educational tool began to catch on, but the original developers couldn't make it scale. They hired a consultancy to build a Java-based web interface, built on IBM WebSphere with a DB2 back-end database.
"That proved very expensive to maintain," said Barcus, especially as the number of users increased. He said adding computing power to his managed servers was grueling but declined to break out the costs.
"It's been difficult to keep up," he added. "Usually we have to add processors, add memory, and of course, in that type of environment, it takes a while. You've got to order the stuff, you've got to have a tech on-site, it's a long process and it's an expensive process."
But now, Barcus said that New Tech has completely revamped its platform to do away with the need for its IBM hardware money pit.
The new software is based on PHP and Drupal and does away with the need for New Tech to pay IBM for its software or more hardware. He said that cost was one of the major motivators for switching; the other was keeping up with the times. Right now, his virtualized VMware development environment and his IBM production servers are different animals. Once New Tech switches over to SunGard's cloud service, he said that mismatch will go away and make test and development much easier.
Why stick with SunGard?
New Tech decided to use SunGard again, even as the company decommissioned its current managed IBM hosting at SunGard, because of familiarity and a good technology match. New Tech develops with VMware, and SunGard's cloud is based on vBlock, a pre-integrated virtualized hosting environment based on EMC storage area networking (SAN), Cisco's Unified Computing System (Cisco UCS) servers and VMware. That provides a so-called "cloud-in-a-box."
"It's on very similar environments, so as we're doing performance testing, we really know what we're going to get when we go live," he said.
Barcus said that SunGard wasn't offering a pay-as-you go type Amazon environment yet; the pricing model was subscription-based, but there were key differences, chiefly elasticity and investment.
"[It] will eliminate our need to make capital expenditures on additional servers to expand our system," he said.
He said that bringing on the expected 25% increase in users meant marginal changes to their bill, instead of expensive physical plant upgrades, and he expects to have 22 virtual machines deployed to support his operation when it goes live.
SunGard's vBlock-based service a good match
Satish Hemachandran, director of product management for SunGard Availability Services, said SunGard had developed an in-house management portal on top of its vBlock installation for users that integrates with VMware management capabilities but was more than simple access to a vSphere console.
"That includes a Web-based portal platform that customers can use to monitor utilization levels and manage that infrastructure, as well, and apply policies to it," he said.
Hemachandran said the major differences between this and SunGard's traditional managed services were the ease of use and accessibility for users and the underlying virtualized infrastructure. He said SunGard turned to vBlock instead of trying to develop its own cloud service, like Amazon, because SunGard wanted to get to market quickly and wanted the "best in class" halo that comes with Cisco/EMC/VMware name brand recognition.
He said SunGard was working on making billing more like those of public cloud services.
"We are definitely working on a way to provide usage pricing and elastic pricing," Hemachandran said.
But the jury is still out on whether this will be true public cloud pricing like Amazon Web Services (AWS). SunGard's competitors are all over the map right now in this blurry no man's land between public cloud services and highly accessible, fully virtualized hosting environments that customers can treat like cloud after paying the entry fee.
Many cloud providers, like SoftLayer, BlueLock Cloud Hosting or Rackspace, offer exactly this kind of service. They are more than happy to present VMware and call it cloud computing, but it's a far cry from AWS.
Carl Brooks is the Technology Writer at SearchCloudComputing.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.