The potential benefits of public clouds are obvious to most IT execs, but so are the pitfalls -- outages, security concerns, compliance issues, and questions about performance, management, service-level agreements and billing. At this point, it's fair to say that most IT execs are wary of entrusting sensitive data or important applications to the public cloud.
But a technology as hyped as cloud computing can't be ignored either. IT execs are exploring the public cloud in pilot programs, they're moving to deploy cloud principles in their own data centers, or they are eyeing an alternative that goes by a variety of names -- enterprise cloud, virtual private cloud or managed private cloud.
We're using the term enterprise cloud to mean an extension of data center resources into the cloud with the same security, audit, and management/administrative components that are best practices within the enterprise. Common use cases would be a company that wanted to add systems resources without a capital outlay during a busy time of the year or for a special, resource-intensive project or application.
In this first-of-its-kind test, we invited cloud vendors to provide us with 20 CPUs that would be used for five instances of Windows 2008 Server and five instances of Red Hat Enterprise Linux -- two CPUs per instance. We also asked for a 40GB internal or SAN/iSCSI disk connection, and 1Mbps of bandwidth from our test site to the cloud provider. And we required a secure VPN connection.
Rackspace, Terremark and BlueLock accepted our invitation. Amazon did, then did not and refused to communicate further. The services we tested were comparable in many respects. Rackspace Managed Private Cloud scored points for cost transparency, a solid administrative portal and good overall performance. Rackspace was the slowest in many portions of the tasks we needed them to complete, although, to be fair, we were making requests that were outside of their traditional sales channels. Terremark Enterprise Cloud delivered speed and the best administrative portal, and also offered the lowest cost. The BlueLock Virtual Cloud offered strong processes and good administrative support, but was the most expensive.
Over the course of conducting this test, we learned several things. First, a customer can expect to have an enterprise cloud deployed and up and running within a week after the selection process is complete. Second, all of the vendors delivered strong security and comparable performance, albeit with vastly contrasting management components.
And, we found that enterprise cloud services can be expensive. We also discovered that each vendor seemed "squishy" on overall pricing. Our recommendation is to not assume that the enterprise cloud route is automatically cheaper than buying and provisioning your own servers. Do a thorough cost analysis and make sure to pin down your vendor when it comes to specific items like bandwidth.
Seeding the clouds
We contacted each vendor, described our requirements and waited for the proposals.
Each vendor has a different process to arrive at a quote for the resources we asked for, which amounted to a small subset to the wide array of possible offerings in each vendor's menu. While each vendor had a different list of options, there were many commonalities. Ordering virtual private cloud or enterprise cloud services meant getting dedicated machines with gear we wanted and a connectivity method that would link our network operations center at n|Frame in Indianapolis to the vendor's resources through VPN connectivity, which should be used as a demarcation point for both security and cost purposes.
BlueLock's hardware choices were among the narrowest, but they won points for having a thorough and deliberate quotation and subsequent provisioning process. They use forms made of Excel worksheets to exchange information, but the interactivity of information exchanged was thorough and well thought-through. By contrast, Rackspace offered the most flexibility in many ways.
Terremark's rapid speed of delivery (three days) earned the product high marks as it delivered quickly and to spec -- all things we like in a cloud vendor. But the other vendors weren't far behind -- BlueLock delivered in five days and Rackspace in six.
BlueLock has an openly published security process, which initially intrigued us, and we were reminded of an almost military provisioning process. We e-mailed them with our desired configuration, and Bluelock responded with a detailed proposal. Bluelock creates the offering from a source document build list. Once we said "go", Bluelock created the entire private cloud, operating systems deployment, initial security, IP routing, and so on. We didn't create the virtual machines and BlueLock provisioned the VMware instances (VMware 3.5 at this writing; 4.0 soon). We received dedicated hardware running on HP blades, which are their only hardware platform.
For connectivity via VPN and firewalling, BlueLock provided a CheckPoint SSL VPN whose administrative interface doesn't work with very many browser platforms; we tried various setups but only were able to get it to work in Windows XP and Internet Explorer (and Firefox 3.5 with Java installed). Windows 7 with IE8 or Firefox, Mac OS X 10.5/10.6.x with Safari, Firefox, did not work at all. Once inside CheckPoint, it works well and it's an enterprise class workhorse firewall and VPN. Bluelock was also able to pass our not-a-Cisco VPN test, by connecting to our Vyatta router/VPN appliance quickly.
The management interface to our 10 operating systems instances could have been better. There is no Web interface for accessing VMs (you can only connect to instances directly after connected through the SSL VPN or through IPSec site-to-site VPN, we tried both). Cloud administration was stiff. Bluelocks's own Vital Signs portal is a Web-based shell program that in turn calls other administrative applications. Vital Signs displays choices including a Vital Signs Diagram (which wasn't useful, as it shows a user count, and our agreement did not concern users, so it displayed - one user), and Event Monitoring Portal (the FOSS tool, Nagios), a Trend Portal (the FOSS tool Cacti), a non-working Reports screen, a Ticket and Support System (trouble ticket submission and process control), a portal user account maintenance facility, and FAQs.
Nagios is an open source network monitoring tool that we used to monitor network services such as http or mysql servers, along with whether the host is alive (ping test). We could also set alarms or notifications if a Nagio-tested service failed. The Cacti trend portal showed us virtual machine and firewall information. Cacti does a great job of showing time series sample graphs of CPU usage, network activity, memory usage and disk usage. We found Bluelock's Vital Signs Ticket and Support System to be frustrating, as it gave us only summarized information and no transaction or billing history. The Vital Signs portal isn't well connected, in terms of applications integration, as pieces can't be related together as objects in easy ways. While most of the discrete applications are useful, they're very disjointed.
We logged on to check BlueLock's administrative interface, then dove into forming our test suite, which consisted of installing LAMP/WAMP onto each OS instance that had been created. We checked Bluelock's performance with an Apache benchmark. It turned out that all of the vendors performed within a narrow window.
Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.