Tips for picking an IaaS provider

Making the leap to a public cloud infrastructure requires careful planning.

As Gartner analyst Lydia Leong cautions in a recent report, the cloud infrastructure as a service (IaaS) market “is immature, the services are all unique and evolving rapidly, and vendors must be chosen with care.”

The temptation may be to first look to vendors with which you have a pre-existing relationship, but experts say you want to be sure you ask the right questions.

For example, Post-n-Track, an online healthcare transaction and information exchange based in Wethersfield, Conn., decided to move to cloud computing for scalability and flexibility.

The company found out that its managed services provider, NaviSite, was building up a cloud infrastructure, says Randy Ulloa, vice president of technology at Post-n-Track. “We immediately jumped on that potential and dug into how it was going to achieve its cloud service,” he says.

But a good working history with NaviSite didn’t make the company a shoo-in for Post-n-Track’s cloud business, Ulloa emphasizes. “It wasn’t until we understood its physical cloud architecture – the underlying CPU and storage builds and the software and management layers on top – that we could put our minds at ease and decide to take the next step with it,” he says.

When moving to IaaS, some IT executives, such as Schumacher Group CIO Doug Menefee, look first to the market leader, Amazon EC2.

While already running 85% of its business processes in the software-as-a-service (SaaS) model, Schumacher only recently ventured into cloud IaaS. The impetus was an internal data center glitch experienced over the Christmas holiday, Menefee says.

“That was a big wake up call. And recognizing the maturity level of site services like Amazon EC2, we’ve now decided to leverage external cloud service providers to provide the infrastructure for anything we don’t have to put inside our own data centers,” he says. “We don’t want to be a single point of failure for the organization.”

Managed IaaS

To some users, IaaS is about being able to carve out a private space within the public cloud infrastructure. They get similar availability, cost and scalability benefits as they do with pure IaaS, without the security concerns related to sharing infrastructure with others. Others like the idea of cloud IaaS but want some hand-holding rather than the purely self-service model.

Many enterprises, like Post-n-Track, fall into this latter category, as might be expected given IT’s comfort level with using outsourcers and hosting providers for management help, says James Staten, principal analyst with Forrester Research.

Managed IaaS comes in three forms, Staten says.

If you’re already using an IT outsourcer such as Accenture, Capgemini or IBM, going with that provider for managed IaaS can be the “cleanest, easiest and quickest” option, he says. “It already knows your systems, your applications and what SLAs you care about.”

However, you will need to make sure your outsourcer’s expertise matches up with your IaaS of choice. “A lot of these guys already have a cloud practice, managing at least the Amazon cloud. But the key thing is to make sure the company can demonstrate experience managing the cloud instance you’ll be using,” he cautions.

Managing the load

A second option is to select a traditional hosting company that has developed a cloud infrastructure and has a services arm that will help you manage the operating system, applications and anything else you’d like.

IaaS providers of this ilk include AT&T, Fujitsu, GoGrid, HP, IBM, NaviSite, Rackspace, SoftLayer, SunGard and Verizon Business, which includes Terremark.

“You’re making a decision that you’re going to use this particular cloud, and you’re not necessarily going to value portability nor are you going to value having multiple clouds,” Staten says.

“This company’s expertise is going to be limited to its cloud, but those consultants are probably the most knowledgeable about what the cloud can do, and they’ll have insider tricks because the guys who built the cloud sit right next to them,” Staten says.

The data center host-cum-cloud IaaS provider model has worked perfectly for SaaS provider Cycle30, Jim Dunlap says, company president.

When the Cycle 30 team received the go-ahead to create a subsidiary, it decided not to spend “precious capital” on building its own data centers but rather to partner with a traditional hosting company, SunGard. “And that gave us the opportunity to look at our business model and determine whether or not we could use cloud computing as a way to decrease our cost of going to market,” he says.

Its cloud theory was put to the test right off the bat, Dunlap says.

“We had the immediate need to test the process of giving SunGard our specs and systems to clone, and telling them that they’d need to turn up 25 to 50 new environments in the course of a week. And that we’d want to use that cloud computing facility for six to nine months, then we’d be done and they’d need to turn the facilities down and we’d stop paying for that infrastructure,” Dunlap says.

It worked – so much so that Cycle30 now handles all such projects via SunGard’s managed cloud service, he adds.

The third option for managed IaaS, Staten says, is pure-play cloud managers – companies such as Cloudscaling. “What you’re buying here is 100% pure expertise in the cloud. They know how to best take advantage of the cloud and what’s unique to cloud environments,” he says.

Cloud first

The difference between a Capgemini and a Cloudscaling, for example, is that the former approaches the cloud from an enterprise perspective, so manages the cloud from an operational point of view, while the latter thinks cloud first and so has an application design viewpoint.

“As a result, a pure-play cloud provider can put things in the cloud and can do things programmatically that can help you reduce your cloud bill, improve the availability of your application and recommend changes in your application design to get better cloud economics,” Staten explains.

With such a provider, for example, you could drop an application onto Amazon EC2 or other cloud and then have its consultants manage it for you. It’s not a bad way to go, he adds. “They can tweak your application and its deployment, push it across multiple geographies and do a whole bunch of other things that you don’t have a clue how to do and probably don’t even know that you could do such things in the cloud.”

Cloud IaaS services, managed or not, are becoming viable options for enterprise deployments of all sorts. They offer a nice foundational starting point in some cases, quick on and off in others and business-enabling infrastructure in others. There are caveats, of course, with the one painful lesson learned of late with the Amazon EC2 outage – have high availability and disaster recovery plans in place with your provider of choice.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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