Advanced managed services: Utility computing for pros

Smart use of contract help is central to the New Data Center plan. Call it outsourcing. Call it managed services. Call it out-tasking. But network executives will call on it in some form to help them manage the complexities of their advanced New Data Center infrastructures.

Some early adopters of today's crop of advanced network management services can even envision a day when their entire New Data Center infrastructure comes to them in on-demand form with the hardware owned by the outsourcer, stored off-site and delivered as a pay-per-use monthly service. So it is with Bill Kirkland, president of Logistics Computer Services (LCS), the IT arm of Performance Logistics Group, a US$300 million auto logistics and transport company.

Kirkland is in the first year of a five-year, $4.6 million contract in which Sun manages LCS' servers, network and specified enterprise applications. The contract includes a slew of advanced network management services, including intrusion prevention and ongoing performance tuning.

"We still have all the hardware here, but we are reaching a point where I'm thinking, 'Why do we need the hardware here?'" he says, noting that today's utility computing options are not affordable for LCS now. "In our environment, with terabytes of storage and data, this isn't going to fit for us until it is economical, and right now I don't think it is. But it would be in the future. I don't see any reason why my programmers couldn't be at home and basically have virtual offices."

Even so, service providers have much work to do before the New Data Center can truly be delivered as a series of low-cost utilities. As such, they're busily refining their advanced managed-services portfolios, which include utility services, outsourced virtualization, grid computing, storage services, preventive/performance maintenance and business process management. You'll need diligence to find the provider that will fit the particular advanced technology you want managed or that offers the cutting-edge network management functions you need.

All things server

Managed services for the server infrastructure are perhaps the most abundant among NDC options. They include utility services, outsourced server virtualization and grid computing. While the utility buzzword connotes an entire, flexible infrastructure available for a monthly charge, services today more or less involve servers residing at the outsourcer's site with customers paying for CPU cycles used. The per-CPU fee necessarily covers all underlying infrastructure components, including storage, network connections and hosting space. Such stalwarts as AT&T, HP, IBM and Sun offer various flavors of utility computing. More are on their way. For instance, Capgemini, based in Paris, is experimenting with utility computing for its European customers and has unofficial plans to enter the U.S. market, officials say.

As one example, AT&T offers its Managed Utility Computing and Utility Hosting services through its hosting data centers. With Managed Utility Computing, a customer gets dedicated Sun servers, complete with whatever storage and network support is required, but pays only for the CPU cycles it needs, says Chris Costello, AT&T director of managed hosting. The Utility Hosting service is similar, but customers share servers and get even more flexibility. "Customers can add or remove computing resources on a real-time basis, and they pay for current usage vs. their expected peak usage," Costello says.

Like other outsourcers playing with advanced services, AT&T provides a management portal that lets users make near-real-time configuration changes to their firewalls, load balancing rules and so on. AT&T also has recently rolled out a Server Virtualization service in which it hosts Windows servers running VMWare software.

Interestingly, some users say that even if they have an established vendor such as AT&T doing classic monitoring or break/fix management, they aren't necessarily interested in a "one outsourcer fits all" approach for their next-generation NDC technologies.

"With network and infrastructure, we've got AT&T -- it's got its arms around the whole thing. It understands technology and has the infrastructure in place, but we are still segmenting it from our day-to-day operations. I like to control some of my own destiny," says Jim Elsesser, IS manager of Aurora Pharmacy.

Aurora Pharmacy, a unit of Aurora Healthcare, outsourced the building and management of its MPLS wide-area network to AT&T (formerly SBC) but Aurora Healthcare runs VMware server virtualization in-house, Elsesser says. Meanwhile, the pharmacy looks to Communications Cabling and Networking for help desk, monitoring and advanced network-performance tuning for the gear on the inside of the smart jack, he says.

If your goal is a contract for utility-style automatic server provisioning, beware. "We have customers asking, 'Can you dynamically move 27 Web servers from A to B if I need to move the load?'" says Marc Duvoisin, practice head for Dimension Data's managed services. "If you stay with a homogeneous environment, we can dynamically reprovision servers to another purpose," he says. But, he adds, this can't be done today for multivendor server infrastructures.

Network managers who want even more dynamic provisioning, for applications that need a lot of computational power, can think grid. Outsourced grid services include HP's Flexible Computing Solutions, IBM's Grid Deep Computing Capacity on Demand and Sun's Sun Grid Compute Utility. AT&T, too, plans to offer a grid service, Costello says. It has not announced an availability date.

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