Server management tools shed light on data center issues
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"Go ahead," whisper the inner voices, "build a cloud." It's agile, scalable, Web-centric and affordable. It's everything IT needs today. The CEO, who couldn't find a cloud if he went outside and looked straight up, needs one! But how do you get started? Choices abound, even after you strike off the products and services masquerading as cloud computing. Forget about outsourced IT services, forget Software as a Service (SaaS), and forget hosting; dedicated, virtual, or otherwise.
True cloud computing means infrastructure. More than ever, firms are turning to, or in some cases completing, the journey of making their server farms, applications and data into standardized, automated, self-provisioning environments that, for all intents and purposes, mirror what services like Amazon Web Services deliver. There now seem to be two distinct approaches shaking out.
Some are starting with cloud platforms, a one-size-fits-all management and provisioning platform like Eucalyptus, Abiquo and others (there's a fleet of startups now that offer this, including VMware's vCloud Director). Others are sticking with traditional IT resource management firms, like CA, BMC or IBM, which offer a host of software products all the way from hardware provisioning to middleware and application management tools to achieve the goal of cloud. The split appears to be largely over how complex the IT environment is.
Edmunds.com chooses systems management
"We've hitched a ride with BMC for this," said Phillip Potloff, CIO of Edmunds.com, Inc.
Edmunds was founded in 1966 to track car prices, and it ended up being an early pioneer on disseminating consumer information over the Internet. It runs some of the world's largest and most trafficked websites, including Edmunds.com, one of the top 500 websites in the U.S. Potloff said that Edmunds, a long time customer of BMC, began a serious transition to private cloud three years ago.
For every tool we got from BMC, we have six that we wrote in-house.
Phillip Potloff, CIO of Edmunds.com, Inc.,
"We needed a homogeneous environiment to develop, build and get into production at very large scale," he said. That meant reorganizing everything from infrastructure and provisioning automation, which Potloff called a relatively straightforward technical problem, to standardizing and cataloguing applications and processes on top of that infrastructure. Potloff said that what Edmunds now had was essentially, a "grid with solutions on top of it."
"A lot of people talk about spinning up and deploying servers, but we've taken it all the way up to where we have code and data available for users in prepackaged containers," he said.
Potloff said the end result of three years' work with BMC's orchestration and management tools was that the entire organization knew exactly what to expect from every part of their stack, from test and development all the way through publishing to line of business servers. That's the real benefit for Edmunds, and the reason Potloff went through a complete revamp of its complex, massive Web operations-agility. "It used to take a room full of people to publish our code; now it only takes one person," he said. It also happens in one day, as opposed to weeks.
Potloff said that he followed projects like Eucalyptus and other cloud platforms and cloud managers but didn't see much functional difference between them and BMC's provisioning tools, since the application end was far more important to him.
Beverage maker chooses new cloud platform
But Edmunds is an info-centric business, with 400 workers delivering for its audience of millions. Goods providers' IT needs are more cut and dried.
For beverage maker Pernod Ricard's Australian operations, consolidation of a traditional IT data center was the goal. Pernod Ricard has 3000 staff in sales, transport and logistics at its winemaking operations throughout the region. Governance manager Chris Rixon said real estate and looming re-investment costs finally provoked his operations into private cloud.
"We were looking at maybe [$1] million in new costs," he said, to upgrade an on-premises IT operation when Pernod terminated the lease for their headquarters and moved to a newer more modern building.
Part of Rixon's headaches included finding power and cooling, but outsourcing the physical infrastructure meant finding a new way to manage it. He started with Novell's Platespin orchestration tools and is now experimenting with Novell's new Cloud Manager product. "So yeah, it's all based on scripts now," he said.
For Rixon, the chief benefit to a cloud platform is reducing the scripting and automation he has to do by hand, and letting the Cloud Manager software that runs in or near your virtualized environment manage everything from networking to provisioning and monitoring.
He said that the move from a roomful of servers to a few dedicated hosts in someone else's facility took about six months of planning and three months to execute, a startling rate at which to completely turn over an IT shop. Rixon said most of the heartburn was negotiating with application vendors over getting support for virtualized versions of traditional software, something Novell was instrumental in.
"There was a lot of legwork, to go to our vendors and get them to say, yes we will support that virtualized," he said. But that wasn't all.
"It's a bit of a sideways jump for us; we're a Microsoft shop and we switched to SUSE Linux, so we had to get trained on that ... It was a big shift but it's been okay," he said.
Rixon said he now runs 50 virtual servers in his private cloud to support his users and operations, and the benefit is simply ease of management and flexibility. He also noted the rapid pace of change in the marketplace, as now the things he's doing are interesting but not surprising; in 2008, when he started the shift, the idea was a tough sell. "I had to go and sell it to corporate before we could even get started… there were a lot of shaking heads [in 2008]."
The next step is public cloud
Now that Pernod Ricard is comfortable with the concept, Chris Rixon says that the biggest benefit is the flexibility to work with all sorts of different services and eventually shift to a public Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) when the time comes.
"We'll now look at all of that, from CRM to cloud email, in the future, possibly up to Amazon or services like it," he said.
Edmunds.com's Phillip Potloff is of the same mind, despite his vastly more complicated IT needs. He said public cloud had the economics right but maturity was lacking. He said Edmunds.com already puts workloads on Amazon "opportunistically" for small projects, but it was waiting for better tools and integration before making any major shifts. The level of customization remains so high, Potloff said, that even working with a soup-to-nuts vendor like BMC is a starting point, not a full solution.
"For every tool we got from BMC, we have six that we wrote in-house," he said.
Mary Johnston Turner, research director for system management software for IDC, said that focusing on application-centric automation and provisioning was crucial to kick-starting a cloud project.
There was a lot of legwork, to go to our vendors and get them to say, yes we will support that virtualized.
Chris Rixon, governance manager at Pernod Ricard,
Turner said that infrastructure automation was not the true definition of a cloud; that would be the delivery of specific capabilities, controlled by the end user. It's important to distinguish it from traditional automated deployment.
According to Turner, case studies like Edmunds.com and Pernod Ricard were perfect examples of what will drive cloud adoption.
"You have to be in a new buildout, a green field, that people aren't going to argue about, or you need to be in a rationalization push," she said.
That's the state of the market right now. Cloud computing has finally caught fire in the enterprise precisely because there are a range of options; complicated, multi-headed beasts like BMC and standalone products like Novell Cloud Manager. Managed service providers and hosters remain the mainstay of private cloud customers, but enterprises are learning that they can solve their problems one at a time and get ready for the next generation of IT.
Carl Brooks is the Technology Writer at SearchCloudComputing.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.