Building the Better Cloud: ServerCentral Puts its High Performance Cloud Infrastructure to the Test

Strategic Solutions Series

Building the Better Cloud: ServerCentral Puts its High Performance Cloud Infrastructure to the Test

By Erin Harrison, Executive Editor, Cloud Computing  |  October 16, 2012

This article originally appeared in Cloud Computing Magazine Q4 2012

While cloud computing continues to grow in both demand and the number of players in the market, there are only a few real contenders when it comes to public cloud services. Many cloud service providers, including Amazon, may be an affordable option, but they typically do not offer the performance and reliability organizations need to truly leverage the benefits of cloud.

As cloud moves past the hype phase into the reality stage for many organizations, evaluating services can be a tedious process for IT – today’s users want stable, predictable performance for computing and storage that gives users more control over technology choice.

“Over the last 10 to 12 months, we have gone from the testing and investigation phase to reality. We now have real customers doing actual work in the cloud versus 18 months ago when it was merely a seminar topic,” Peter Berg, vice president of sales and marketing at ServerCentral, recently told Cloud Computing. “Cloud is quickly going mainstream in 2012. We still aren’t seeing too many customers doing everything in the cloud, and in the long run, the hybrid approach is probably going to be the right approach. That’s what’s exciting and challenging about cloud at the same time and that’s what presents the real opportunity for providers like us.”

Few vendors can base their claims to fame on performance, price and scalability. But ServerCentral says it can. The company’s customers range from five virtual machines up to 2,000 machines – and no two customers are alike since they serve small, medium and large enterprises from industries ranging from financial and healthcare to retail and government.

With over 12 years of experience in infrastructure design, in June 2012, ServerCentral entered the public cloud space with its High Performance Cloud (HPC) service. Rather than work with a third-party, ServerCentral spent more than a year going through the development process to create its own cloud platform, based initially on open source software and management tools such as Preboot eXecution Environment (PXE).

The Chicago-based company serves two large customer bases with its private and public cloud services: Enterprises and High Tech/Web 2.0 companies.  

“But the enterprise typically has more demands for high performance,” explains Avi Freedman, chief technology officer at ServerCentral. “We’ve seen a lot of companies look at how to manage servers in managed environments. It’s been interesting; a lot of people have been taking the improvements and methodologies that have come out of cloud and have this desire to have a cloud service that meet their price and service needs.”

With more established infrastructure providers like Amazon claiming to be the best or the cheapest, ServerCentral differentiates itself in what is becoming a much more dense IaaS market through its multi-10-Gigabit network HPC service.

“The ServerCentral IaaS offering has been designed for people unhappy with economics of running content infrastructure in cloud environments,” Freedman said. “In looking at the top five and beyond public cloud options, they found when they want to replace real physical servers…that it is actually uneconomical to always leave the infrastructure up in the cloud.”

Today, many cloud solutions exist, as Freedman points out, but they revolve around architecting for a specific kind of environment and assuming that all instances on an IaaS are worst-case performers and building in resiliency in the form of extra servers and elastic performance,” Berg added. “ServerCentral sees an opportunity to build the features of cloud into platforms without those weaknesses and allow enterprise users architect and manage their applications in even more efficient ways.”

“We built this high performing cloud specifically to outperform the other cloud providers that are out there. We want our cloud to really combat that and give customers way more performance at even a small scale,” he said.

Google (News - Alert) is another major public cloud provider, which ServerCentral says doesn’t offer the enterprise support companies need.

“They have a focus on, and deliver, high performance, which is a good approach to take, but it’s not as focused on predictability of where resources are located and in terms of support,” Freedman explains.

Each ServerCentral virtual machine (VM) has dedicated CPU as well as support from a multi-10-Gigabit network, allowing every VM to run at 1 Gigabit/sec per core, ensuring data and applications are accessible, protected, and lightning-fast 100 percent of the time.

Although there are many more implementations of cloud today then there were even just a year ago, there is still a lot of hype around cloud based on the innovation promises professed by countless cloud service providers. A great competitive equalizer, cloud computing provides immediate access to resources, saves time and money in developing new services and, more and more, addresses infrastructure, platform and software needs.

ServerCentral separates the marketing jargon from the real value cloud can offer to organizations by allowing customers to test their systems for 30 days.

“We give people free test resources for 30 days to hammer it, benchmark it, and make sure it’s ready for them to do real work,” Berg said.

The company’s High Performance Cloud provides virtual machines (VMs) that can do the work of physical servers. Each VM has 1 gigabit/sec per core of usable connectivity with high-performance disk to support real workloads such as database infrastructure and content delivery applications.

For every cloud vendor on the market today, there are almost just as many definitions of what “cloud computing” actually means.

“I would say we are not dogmatic about the definition of cloud,” added Freedman. “We give people the flexibility to try IaaS offerings that we have but we also work with them to use the IaaS model that works best for them. The cloud is about applying the best technology from a set of applications that people need to run. In order to offer the best network and storage offerings in the industry, that usually requires that you have a dedicated offering, hybrid, private and public.”

The latest Amazon cloud outages have exposed some of the inherent risks of cloud computing, according to industry analysts who also point out that outages are not uncommon in data centers, but are increasingly harmful in the cloud because so many businesses are affected by the downtime. Given the potential performance risks associated with cloud, ServerCentral’s strategy for guaranteeing uptime stems from the underlying technology, as Freedman explains.

“Everything that underlies our cloud from the data center and power and network to the storage and computing is implemented all the time with constant HA from the bottom of the top, run 24/7 using the best techs we can find,” Freedman said. “With the right architecture, I believe the cloud industry can do better and we try to do that with the service level agreement (SLA) we offer people. If you architect it correctly, 100 percent uptime is achievable.”

When I joined in 2009, there was a big focus on enabling single VMs to run often in inflexible ways. That’s focused on ‘how do I move my infrastructure to an on demand infrastructure service’ with predicable performance and good economics. People today still find cloud services to be inadequately performing…or they have higher costs…I think that is a niche that we were right people had a lot of interest in. We are probably six months too early to tell what our demand curve is, but the initial reaction has been very good,” Freedman added.

He also points out that many components of cloud are still not very mature, especially in the provisioning layer.

“I had hoped that bigger companies like Microsoft (News - Alert) that understand how to do things virtually supported would go in this direction, but they haven’t and that leaves a big wide open market,” he said.

Looking ahead, Freedman says that where cloud will go, no one really knows for sure.

“The only thing that’s sure is that it is going to continue to evolve. There is a large niche of organizations that need to run infrastructure – those people need predictable, economical, high-performance infrastructure and we are positioning ourselves as the leader in that segment of the cloud market,” Freedman summarized. “Over the last 12 years, ServerCentral has focused on supporting people and running the applications that run their business. Our approach to cloud is bringing the best management, server, and network technologies to support the applications.”

Edited by Braden Becker
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