Over the past few years, “utility computing” has gained significant traction amongst enterprises as a resource-effective alternative to traditional in-house data centre computing. A new Elastic Infrastructure Service (EIS) from Q9 extends the utility model right down to the bare-metal hardware level, building on the strengths of existing infrastructure-on-demand services while shoring-up the weaknesses. EIS offers dedicated, bare-metal servers, combined with a fully transparent, customer-configurable network, and eliminates the need for IT departments to acquire, connect and configure their own IT infrastructure.
Utility Model Offers Significant Value
The conventional definition widely known within the IT industry is that “utility computing” (a.k.a. “on-demand computing”) is a service-provisioning model in which a service provider makes computing resources and/or infrastructure management available to a customer as needed, and charges them based on actual usage rather than a flat rate.
The word “utility” is used as an analogy to traditional public utilities such as electricity, water, natural gas and telephone long distance. These services are always there when required – you simply tap into them as needed – and they are typically charged for based on usage rather than on a flat rate. This approach, sometimes known as “pay-per-use” or “metered services”, has become common in enterprise computing, particularly at the data centre level.
Like other types of on-demand computing such as grid computing, desktop computing and cloud computing, the utility model is designed to:
- Maximize the efficient use of resources;
- Minimize associated management effort and costs;
- Reduce the amount of capital investment required;
- Provide quick initial provisioning and startup;
- Scale rapidly in response to increased requirements;
- Protect against technology obsolescence;
- Free-up IT staff to focus on higher-value tasks
- Deliver needed functionality, performance and availability; and more
EIS is a true hardware utility model upon which Q9 customers can build a wide range of IT environments, including private clouds, without a long-term commitment or capital investment. Unlike conventional Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) solutions, where customers typically consume virtual machines, EIS offers dedicated, bare-metal servers and a configurable network, which can be deployed independently, or paired with Q9’s Elastic Storage Service to create a complete, robust environment.
EIS Closes Software/Hardware Gap
“From a software efficiency and flexibility perspective, cloud computing, for example, has the amazing ability for users to be able to quickly and easily scale resources up or down – spin-up a virtual machine or take one down in a matter of seconds,” exclaims Nabeel Sherif, Director of Product Management at Q9, quickly adding that beneath the software layer, however, someone still gets stuck with the traditional hardware procurement model. This not only means having to acquire, configure, deploy and support the hardware, but also planning what hardware might be needed for the next few years. If too much is purchased, it just sits idle, tying up capital; and if not enough hardware is purchased, then more may subsequently be needed, which is time-consuming, often taking weeks or even months to acquire and deploy. Nothing efficient about this!
Even in a data centre co-location scenario, it’s still your own organization that has to go out and acquire, install, configure and manage all the physical assets. This is not only time-consuming but unless you really understand the dynamics of your business, you will likely end up carrying some amount of hardware excess or shortfall at all times. This may not be a very flexible model. And if a managed services provider offers to take care of all the hardware for you, they tend to want to provide more than just the hardware (at higher cost, of course); and even if they are providing entirely custom hardware, you may be stuck with some type of term commitment (typically 1-3 years) since the provider is going out and capitalizing all those assets for you. A managed services approach is likely to be less flexible in terms of scaling up or down, and it tends to be a bit slow to scale and a bit more expensive.
“To close this ‘efficiency & flexibility gap’ between what today’s software allows and what yesterday’s hardware procurement model requires, Q9’s Elastic Infrastructure Service provides a physical-layer platform like it is a utility or commodity – standardized components, rapid deployment, highly configurable, month-to-month billing,” offers Sherif. In so doing, EIS removes from customers all the hassles, delays and capital costs that are typically part of hardware procurement and provisioning processes.
The LEGO® Building Block for Robust IT Environments
One can build a lot of different things with a relatively small number of different shapes of standard Lego blocks. And so it is with EIS. Q9 uses standardized servers, combined with a flexible, transparent network and size- and performance-configurable storage components, making it broadly applicable and readily available on an as-needed basis. This combination is also flexible in the sense that users aren’t being driven to use a particular software platform.
Servers can be deployed as true bare-metal or with a number of common OS and hypervisor platforms pre-installed, including:
- CentOS 7.1
- ESXi 5.5 & 6.0
- Windows Server 2012 R2 Standard
- RHEL 7.0
“The EIS platform has been architected so customers can build many different solutions on top of it, enabling it to be a true ‘infrastructure-as-a-utility’ entry point for numerous use-case scenarios,” states Sherif, who offers the following examples. For small to medium-size enterprises wanting to build private clouds, EIS eliminates the need to plan, acquire, configure and manage the physical layer, allowing them instead to focus on their core business applications and optimizing their software stack.
Or for companies currently co-located at Q9 that are invested in VMware and running vCentre and have a bunch of servers running ESXi, an EIS subscription allows them to seamlessly connect from their existing environment to the EIS environment, where they can easily access additional physical assets. The EIS assets are transparent with respect to the customer’s network, and can be delivered with ESXi installed so customers can quickly bring additional resources into their private cloud. And ultimately, they can give these resources back if the need is project-based or they have varying and unpredictable workloads. Another group of companies that can benefit from an EIS-style platform is boutique Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) providers whose primary focus and value is in their software. Such firms are often focused on just a few large customers and, depending on whether they add or lose a customer (which could represent a significant percentage of their overall business), may have quite variable needs.
However, they still want to be able to control their customers’ experience and may have performance commitments or data-residency requirements they may not be able to meet by using a large public cloud. EIS provides a solution for these firms that need hardware that scales with their business but aren’t big enough to have buying power, don’t want to tie up precious capital and simply don’t want to be in the hardware game. Smaller ISVs (Independent Software Vendors) can also take advantage of an EIS platform, such as when pitching Proofs of Concept (PoC) to prospective customers, for example. The ISV can use an EIS infrastructure solution to obtain the resources to run a short-term PoC without having to make any capital investment. If the customer chooses to move forward following the PoC, the solution can simply be left in place, running on the Q9 EIS hardware, and the ‘keys’ passed to the customer, who can interconnect it seamlessly to their existing infrastructure. But if the customer chooses not to move forward, the ISV can simply return the EIS resources and pay only for the time they were used. “A real motivation behind EIS is as a building block with which to build greater things. In fact, in the very near future, Q9 will itself be consuming its own EIS resources to build and launch cloud and private cloud offerings,” reports Sherif.
EIS Evolving toward Full Automation Mirroring Software Goals at the Hardware Layer
“We have tried to solve this problem with EIS, giving customers a platform that allows them to mirror at the physical layer what they are hoping to achieve with all that next-generation virtualization and cloud software,” says Sherif, who concludes by saying that, “At the end of the day, the only reason to do all these things is to deliver applications, and the physical layer is increasingly a commodity and virtualization has so-abstracted the hardware that it is just ‘widgets’ waiting to be consumed. We have just tried to solve the problem of rightsizing, rapidly and cost-effectively, the number of widgets required.”
However, today’s approach to hardware procurement is antiquated – buy a ‘thing’, wait for the thing, install the thing, if you don’t need the thing yet, it just sits there until you do, and if you need more things, you start the process all over. The way you procure and install the physical layer is simply not in concert with the way you expect to achieve the goals of flexibility, scalability and efficiency with today’s software platforms. People are increasingly building highly virtualized, cloud-type architectures, even for their internal IT environments; but even with all the scalability, flexibility and efficiency that come with operating in a virtual realm, it still needs to be back-stopped by a physical layer that is flexible and can scale easily.
“We hope to hand this over to customers soon so they can go in and do their own network configuration, add assets and remove assets through the user interface, much like you do in the virtual world, but here you would be adding true physical resources on which you can run whatever software platform you wish,” states Sherif, who explains that over time, the plan is to open up those APIs so that machines can do the same thing customers are doing in terms of deploying and configuring assets. When a customer does something at the virtual level, such as deploy another Virtual Machine (VM), they simply set policies that trickle down so that if more physical assets are needed, their environment automatically asks the EIS platform to deploy those assets.
According to Nabeel Sherif, EIS has been built with automation in mind, starting with the ability to control the allocation of physical assets entirely through APIs. Q9 has also developed a user interface to control the APIs, which Q9 will use to deploy and configure solutions throughout the QA phase. EIS also includes a storage ‘utility’ model whereby users can access storage on an as-needed basis in 100GB increments ($0.10 per GB per month) instead of having to buy dedicated storage that is deployed in large increments and is capital intensive. Storage can be bought separately from EIS server nodes, but does reside on the same network fabric and thus can be easily integrated into a customer’s EIS environment. Users can custom-provision storage to meet their needs in terms of capacity (GB) and performance (IOPS).
For the use-case scenarios summarized above, EIS offers strong attributes customers would be looking for. In addition to the flexibility of bare-metal servers on which customers can install, or have Q9 install, whatever software they wish, the solution provides significant inter-node network capacity (i.e. 2x 10Gbps connections to each server), and for those focused on reliability, the EIS network fabric is customer-configurable to be High Availability throughout.