Major League Gaming, the largest professional video game league in the world, found a way to use both traditional hosting and cloud computing services to meet its unusual IT necessities.
The company, with roughly 4.5 million users a month, has traditional business needs -- financial apps, office apps, productivity apps -- along with the less traditional business of managing a booming online community that needs hefty website operations. It puts on massive real-world events with thousands of participants several times a year. It also hosts interactive, massively multiplayer tournaments on its own infrastructure, something that several times a year, for several days, can spike capacity by 15 times or more. CTO Brian Corrigan says the company has already gone virtual, in part to address that massive elastic need.
I think, for us, this was the only cost-effective option.
Brian Corrigan, CTO of Major League Gaming,
"Just from a cost perspective, virtual machines make a lot of sense for us," Corrigan said.
The company runs its in-game infrastructure on Terremark and its website business on Rackspace. Corrigan said the company still has applications, including its major databases, running on physical hardware; partly for performance, partly because it would cost more to re-engineer them than it does to run them on dedicated machines.
"Our first plan was to use virtual machines for databases," he said, "but it was too slow."
Corrigan's company, Agora Games, was acquired by Major League Gaming (MLG) for its interactive gaming platforms about 18 months ago. Tasked with developing and operating MLG's systems, he immediately ran into scaling concerns.
"I was calling my [hosting provider's] account rep and saying, 'We are going to have some problems.' We have all these physical machines and six days a year they're getting blown up," he said.
Corrigan said they couldn't solve the issue. During heavy traffic periods, 30-second response times were normal (and painful), and while cloud seemed like the perfect answer, questions about security made it impossible.
He wanted to put MLG's online platform into the cloud, but security policies made using a commingled network with public-facing IP addresses, like Amazon Web Services or Rackspace Cloud, a non-starter. And at that time, neither Rackspace nor Terremark were set up to deliver a pay-as-you-go, hosted private cloud environment.
Hybrid Rackspace service saves the day
Corrigan joined a beta for a new Rackspace service called Cloud Connect, which ties a separated, segregated implementation of Rackspace Cloud into the firewall appliances of dedicated customers. Rackspace says that this is possible because it has largely standardized on Cisco and F5 devices, meaning the company has designed a system to connect its cloud to the ground. Corrigan said it was serendipitous; his other solution was simply to invest in spare capacity, which wouldn't have amortized for a very long time.
"I think, for us, this was the only cost-effective option," Corrigan said. "It really just worked out well that Rackspace was doing this at the same time we were looking into it." He added that he would have cheerfully looked at a solution from Amazon or any alternate cloud provider, but nothing fit the bill. In the future, he noted, it'll be pretty easy to move his infrastructure around if that changes, something he appreciates about cloud computing.
What MLG got is not quite as freewheeling as the public cloud option: Corrigan gets extra capacity and a custom billing plan, but it's not as instant or anonymous when he wants to make changes. MLG still has hands-on control of most of its infrastructure, however, and a way to pay by the drink rather than buy the whole bottle.
Now equipped with a hybrid cloud he can actually use, Corrigan plans to push ahead with automation. He uses free tools like libcloud and Chef to simplify operations. Chef lets an administrator create templates of preconfigured servers and application stacks (known as "recipes") that will launch on cue, and libcloud is a unified application programming interface library that allows users to write instructions once for all infrastructure needs. It's a homebrew cloud management platform that is similar to RightScale's offering, only free and not public.
After preconfigured templates and automated machine starts, Corrigan wants to make his cloud smarter. Right now, in order to scale, Corrigan will go into Chef and ask it to launch, say, 20 servers instead of 10 when conditions demand.
"What I'd like it to look like in six months is that the Web system looks at the load and automatically changes that 10 to 20," he said. This kind of appetite for IT automation is an indicator that, in certain sectors, cloud is clearly the right answer.
Carl Brooks is the Senior Technology Writer for SearchCloudComputing.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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