Last year, as business boomed and lucrative customers kept coming through the door, software maker InQuira decided to increase its IT footprint. InQuira uses natural language processing (NLP) technology and partners with big data and business process frameworks like SAP to make sense out of the ever-expanding morass of company data.
The company runs Apple's tech support call centers, self-service support site and the so-called "Genius Bars" in Apple stores, for instance. Nokia, Honda, Axis and 3M are also customers. But Nav Chakravarti, vice president of solutions at InQuira, said the company hit a point in 2009 where its old model of software sales and demos was untenable. He said requisitioning real servers and sometimes delivering product by hand for customers to play with was expensive and slow.
"We had engineers shipping laptops overseas," he said.
Chakravarti wanted a tidy solution to this and looked toward building a sales and demo infrastructure that customers could use online. He said he was partly hampered by InQuira's extensive existing IT. "The challenge, of course, was that we had not virtualized our infrastructure," he said.
Chakravarti found an answer in the cloud. He went to Skytap, a cloud infrastructure provider focused on virtual lab-type environments. Chakravarti said the major calculation was on cost, and he found the cloud model favorable from the beginning. For one thing, it was much easier to start paying a bill than ask for a giant wad of cash for new servers: "It was a lot easier for us. That fixed cost upfront was a lot harder for me to get approval for."
Finding the value in certain cloud services
Investing capital is sometimes a good bet over buying a service, but not in this case. Chakravarti said he was well aware that cloud costs over an extended period, say five years, would be higher than running his own infrastructure, but his needs were moderate enough that simply ditching IT operations alone made it worth the price.
"I would have had to pay an admin $100,000 every year," he said, on top of buying servers. InQuira's current hosting bill with Skytap might go as high as $200,000 this year, he added, so he's still in bargain territory.
Chakravarti said that his Skytap footprint is around 120 virtual CPU cores and 20 TB of storage; he started with 48 cores in January of 2009. He added that the service has become the virtual point of contact for customers, and he uses it for demos, training, and experimentation.
Recent features from Skytap, like administrative control groups and quotas for users, help keep the bills under control, a worry for Chakravarti. He said users had a tendency to let the gigabytes pile up; they needed a reminder to clean up the virtual environments they controlled.
"That's where implementing the quotas and groups become useful," he said.
Chakravarti sees the value of a service like Skytap in management and control features; he said more basic infrastructure services like Amazon Web Services looked cheaper but fared poorly when you factored in management and operations. He also said there was a clear demarcation for cloud computing's utility in his case; he wasn't about to suggest it taking over other IT operations. InQuira has its own dedicated hosting arm that won't be on a public cloud anytime soon, for instance, and the Skytap environment is well segregated from internal IT.
Other cloud vendors are also making hay in this area. For instance, startup CloudShare provides the same sort of customer-friendly virtual lab environments and integrates with Salesforce.com, a twist Skytap does not include. It's clear that, for a certain set of uses, cloud computing is starting to come of age.
Carl Brooks is the Technology Writer for SearchCloudComputing.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.