Replacing your Data Center with IaaS: Opportune Scenarios

By | February 16, 2016

A version of this article originally appeared on TechTarget SearchDataCenter as These IaaS examples show data centers can share the load

You might not be ready to go all in on AWS like GE and Netflix, however it’s both feasible and advisable to start moving some applications online

DC-signThe emergence of rentable, online software and infrastructure, aka The Cloud, has fueled one of the most polarizing debates in IT history. Fortunately, we’ve moved past the black-versus-white phase, as the stark intransigence of corporate cloud deniers has waned while the smug assertiveness of cloud triumphalists has matured leaving the cloud discussion much more nuanced. Of course, there are still cases, like cash-starved, tech-savvy startups where IaaS is the only option. Conversely, there are situations like legacy financial systems or applications with highly regulated and sensitive data controls that are best left on internal infrastructure.

Enterprise applications in every organization invariably have a wide variety of characteristics. Some have variable and unpredictable workloads, others are new and built using a cloud-friendly, scale-out architecture, while still others have become a commodity that’s widely (and less expensively) available as a SaaS product. All three categories are great candidates for the cloud. Conversely, most organizations also rely on a plethora of largely static legacy applications, often in maintenance mode and sometimes highly customized, that run business-critical systems where the risk-reward of changing a stable, working implementation is far too high to consider a cloud deployment. The trick is figuring out which is which and determining where best to replace your internal data center with IaaS. Few organizations will get want to emulate GE’s aggressiveness in reducing its data center footprint by 90% by moving to AWS, however there are almost certainly systems in every IT facility that are best run on IaaS.

Source: SuperNAP

Source: SuperNAP

Bimodal and the Legacy Versus Greenfield Dichotomy

IaaS can be appropriate for both legacy and Greenfield applications, but generally the latter group make a more natural target given the ability to design from scratch with the cloud in mind. This means using a distributed, loosely-coupled microservices architecture that not only exploits basic IaaS compute and storage, but higher level services like load balancing, auto scaling, content caching, Hadoop/MapReduce data processing, Spark or equivalent data analytics, mobile backends and others. Whether you agree or not with the concept of Bimodal IT, new applications should be built borrowing concepts from mobile app startups by using Agile development methodologies, multidisciplinary specialists and rapid release/update cycles. Due to the ease and low cost of deployment, along with the ability to rapidly add new IaaS capacity and services, these projects should start and likely remain in a public cloud.

DC-to-IaaS-quoteAlthough legacy infrastructure is often best left alone that doesn’t mean there aren’t situations where IaaS can add value whether via increased flexibility, reduced CapEx upgrade expenditures, better redundancy and availability or new capabilities previously unavailable on legacy systems. These will generally entail hybrid architectures where legacy infrastructure is augmented with IaaS, however in cases where the application is relatively simple or tightly integrated and with few dependencies on internal data sources, a ‘forklift upgrade’ to IaaS is feasible and perhaps preferable.

Sample Scenarios

There’s no prescriptive formula for when and where to use IaaS, but the following scenarios illustrate situations where moving private data center infrastructure to the cloud can pay dividends:

  • Scaling an Application of Service Used by External Customers: Two key benefits of IaaS are easy and rapid scalability and global distribution. Both can be invaluable for smaller companies trying to enhance and scale an existing customer-facing application delivered out of an internal data center. For example, a regional online travel agent wanted to grow into new, emerging markets in Asia and the Middle East, however its transaction processing application lived in a New Zealand data center. Since the application was built on SQL Server, it was relatively easy to ‘lift and shift’ to Azure. Moving to and properly scaling cloud infrastructure tripled performance, with an additional 50% gain projected from future upgrades and allowed tapping new customers from nearby regional cloud locations. Joomla-Drupal-Wordpress
  • Consumer-facing Marketing Content: Every company has a website, but for consumer products manufacturers and retailers these are often the most important way to reach customers and influence buying decisions. Today’s sites must be dynamic, engaging and snappy, no matter where the customer is located: qualities that make them good candidates for IaaS deployment. Many use popular content management systems (CMS) like WordPress, Joomla or Drupal along with custom code, all of which work well on cloud infrastructure, are easily deployed using rebuild packages or recipes and easily scaled. The value of IaaS becomes apparent when running a marketing or sales campaign that is too successful. It’s next to impossible to scale internal systems fast enough to meet unexpected demand, however IaaS apps can be quickly redeployed to larger instances, new regions or accelerated with CDN and other services. For example, the AWS content and media serving reference architecture uses its CDN (CloudFront), distributed DNS (Route 53) and S3 object store to accelerate distribution of static content and distribute the workload.
  • Disaster Recovery, Backup Sites: A classic use of IaaS is for DR and backup locations. Indeed, in many cases the cloud can provide better capability than that currently available. Smaller organizations might not have a secondary location at all, in which case IaaS could save the company in a cataclysmic event. Other times, the secondary site is outfitted with old, surplus equipment that’s under-sized, seldom tested and end-of-life on the theory that something is better than nothing. Here, IaaS can provide on-demand capacity equivalent to that in the main data center with no CapEx. Even large enterprises with multiple regional data centers can exploit the IaaS to provide a secondary location in each region to avoid costly and performance-sapping failovers to distant facilities.
  • Test and Development Infrastructure: The other archetypal use of IaaS is for test and development. R&D and even IT engineering organizations often have sizable investments in test hardware to accommodate code builds, beta and stress testing and product staging. All of these can be replaced and improved upon by IaaS, which can allow each developer to have a private, virtual sandbox of servers, storage and networks without the need for CapEx investment or system managers.


Recommendations, Caveats

Moving infrastructure and applications to IaaS is a multivariate decision: it’s not just a question of cost, which is often the least important factor. Organizations must consider the complexity of the move, including disruption to existing operations, need (if any) for application modifications and IT willingness and capacity to learn and incorporate new management portals and processes. Conversely, organizations shouldn’t underestimate the unique benefits of IaaS including easy, rapid and low-cost scalability, offloading of routine system administration (updates, patches), CapEx avoidance and usage-based pricing models. It’s a nuanced problem, however we feel most organizations will find many cases where the upside of an IaaS move far superior to the status quo.