Q&A: Infrastructure-as-a-Service

What is infrastructure-as-a-service and how can you maximize its benefits?

The latest entry in the “as-a-service” world is infrastructure-as-a-service, but what does this technology include? What benefits does it promise, and what gets in the way of delivering these benefits? To learn more about IaaS, we turned to Duke Skarda, vice president of information technology and software development at The Planet, a provider of on-demand IT Infrastructure solutions.

Enterprise Strategies: The term "infrastructure-as-a-service" (IaaS) is used in many ways but is not consistently or precisely defined. How do you define IaaS?

Duke Skarda: IaaS has a number of different descriptions depending on the person. We define it as a service, provided by a third party, with four distinct elements:

  • Compute power: physical servers with memory and storage
  • Facilities: the physical building that houses the infrastructure required to operate servers in a safe, dry, and secure environment with solid HVAC systems
  • Internet access: multiple bandwidth connections to protect customers in the event of a fiber cut
  • Management services: Every provider should offer some degree of management services on top of the compute power, from a network operations center all the way to hands-on managed services to take care of the compute power

Many people add certain cloud requirements to their IaaS definitions, including utility billing and immediate scale-up/scale-down capabilities. There are numerous ways to provide IAAS and certainly cloud products are one. Nonetheless, IaaS also comes without cloud services.

What are the biggest misconceptions about IaaS?

Customers worry that it will cost more to purchase services from a third-party provider than taking the do-it-yourself route. Many overlook the value IaaS providers offer with a scalable infrastructure and having a staff on duty 24x7x365. This is all backed by skilled technicians who are watching over the servers and facilities and ensuring the Internet is always up. We’ve seen rolling brownouts in many cities, and when there’s an outage or weather-related incident, most companies don’t have a secondary power source, which can be devastating.

What are the benefits of IaaS?

First and foremost, customers benefit from a vastly improved infrastructure that backs the servers. It’s a stark contrast to what most companies can build themselves. Startups and even companies that have been around for a while may have their servers in a closet, which really doesn’t offer a secure environment for critical data. From security to infrastructure, HVAC to backup, there are a number of elements a proven data center offers that companies simply can’t afford on their own.

What are the potential drawbacks of IaaS?

A customer’s architecture is limited to the architecture of the service provider. For instance, providers offer certain storage products, firewalls, load balancers, or other hardware that may not be what you have in mind. If cloud services are a requirement, we encourage companies to be careful with the element of unknown costs, which can be unpredictable if they’re using utility billing vs. a set, in-house cost.

What types of companies are able to maximize its value?

Any company can leverage IaaS, but it clearly depends on the business. Most companies can leverage a more robust and higher-performance environment at lower cost than they can build themselves. They aren’t forced to hire an entire IT staff to maintain and secure the servers and to ensure cooling and heating are working. In the event of power outages, even large companies can leverage IaaS providers for burstable needs or disaster recovery.

IaaS providers can also offer “Web farms” for testing environments and load creation, as well as the ability to scale and test application software throughput. Essentially, any kind of burstable computing that needs to be performed on a regular (or even irregular) basis works well in an IaaS environment. Customers can use the server farms for short-term demo applications, too.

What infrastructure elements are good candidates for IaaS? Which elements should remain in-house?

Virtually all elements are good candidates for IaaS capabilities. Most importantly, however, is the security and comfort level of the company using the services. Some companies may decide to keep certain backend/compute environments in house due to perceived issues with security or strong ties to other applications. All of this can be overcome by conducting appropriate due diligence in selecting a provider.

How should internal IT departments prepare for a move to IaaS?

Internal IT departments should begin by selecting a small element of their environment that they’re most comfortable in transferring to an IaaS provider. Thereafter, they should move through a phased plan. We recommend they start with a front-end environment such as a Web site that can be easily put on the Internet since it’s typically located in a DMZ in their internal facility. It also allows them to retain the same architecture.

Once a comfort level is established, they can consider the lessons learned and put together a list of service requirements for further outsourcing. Among these will be support, security, monitoring, and the ability to access their boxes. Another consideration is how much they want to do themselves or hand over to their provider’s managed services team.

Many companies typically think of IaaS as having limited services. This isn’t necessarily so. Nonetheless, it also means the internal IT department can retain as much or as little management as they deem appropriate. Cloud IaaS is a good first step toward a broader IaaS implementation. The second or third step may involve having the IT department determine the environments best suited for outsourcing. It could be test environments, usually followed by large back office components or compute environments that can be outsourced.

What factors should be considered when selecting an IaaS provider?

It’s important to consider financial stability. When possible, prospective buyers should be sure to take a data center tour to assess the backend operations. Ask about the number of bandwidth providers and about the fuel plans in the event of an outage. They should understand the company’s responses during historical outages, as well as see the records and responses on outages. Finally, the quality of customer service and management personnel will be good indicators.

How can an enterprise delineate between IaaS, SaaS, and cloud services?

For IaaS: The provider provides the server compute power, the secure data center facilities, Internet access, and some degree of management services.

For SaaS: In this case, an enterprises purchases software services and doesn’t worry about compute power, memory, facilities, or any kind of management beneath the software since it’s provided by the vendor using a Web interface.

For Cloud services: This is a superset of IaaS that includes SaaS as well as storage and computing platforms as a service.

What makes an IaaS provider different from a SaaS or cloud provider?

SaaS applications are higher up the stack because they offer services and software for specific business solutions. By contract, IaaS provides compute capabilities upon which to build business solutions.

Are there different factors to consider when evaluating providers of these types of services?

There are absolute considerations and factors to be considered -- and they can mean night and day differences.

For IaaS: Companies should focus on the services the provider uses to maintain servers, as well as the quality of the data center, their Internet connections, backup, and backend systems.

For SaaS: They should first look at functionality when selecting a provider to be certain it meets their business needs. Above all else, it must be a robust and scalable solution.

What does The Planet provide in this market?

The Planet operates eight state-of-the-art data centers and an enterprise-class network, backed by 7x24x265 support. We host more than 20,000 businesses and 18.5 million Web sites. More than 45 percent of our customers are located outside of North America. Customers have the power to choose from the broadest range of hosting solutions in the industry, from dedicated servers to managed and fully managed servers to colocation.

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