A Match Made in Hosting Heaven

By By Derrick Harris, Editor

September 3, 2007

If there is one thing the world loves, it is a combination of two (or more) perfectly good things that results in one super-functional product. Whether it’s mixing flavors like cherry and Coke to create Cherry Coke, or something a little more complex, like combining a phone, a camera, the Internet and e-mail to create one of today’s advanced handheld devices, the formula is simple: A + B = Convenience.

Because of the increasingly long work week and seemingly endless lists of tasks in front of today’s professionals, convenience has become paramount for today’s working professionals. (How else do you explain the success of the executive carwash or coffee in a can?) And for those charged with making sure a company’s computing resources continue to meet the company’s needs, which become more and more everyday, while spending less money and hiring less personnel, convenience could not be more important.

With this in mind, Web hosting providers have begun to combine their tried-and-true practice with the capabilities of grid computing and the functionality of utility computing – and they’re hoping it has at least the same allure as fusing the carwash with the power lunch.

One such provider is Plano, Texas-based Layered Technologies, which has been offering its The GridLayer solutions to customers for the better part of a year. The product line currently offers a Virtual Private Server, which essentially is a measured instance running on a shared cluster, or a Virtual Private Datacenter (VPD), which gives customers the option of having Layered Tech host a dedicated grid that can be scaled vertically or horizontally as needed, and can be managed by the user via a simple Web browser. This is possible because all of Layered Tech’s grid offerings are powered by 3Tera’s AppLogic software, which allows users to manage their environments, including firewalls and load balancers, and allocate resources, storage, etc., using an interface that resembles a Microsoft Visio drawing.

According to Layered Tech CEO Michael Platner, the company chose AppLogic to manage its grid offerings because its one-of-a-kind functionality matched Layered Tech’s promise to bring its customers the “most technically savvy” way to get computing over the Web. “AppLogic was compelling enough to us,” he explained, “that we invested the time and money and personnel in hardware and people to become experts in how it works and how to deploy applications and deploy customer requirements rapidly and efficiently, with the all the uptime and SLAs and everything that has to go with the kind of services we offer.”

From 3Tera’s perspective, it has been very happy with its relationship with Layered Tech and, says 3Tera vice president of marketing and product management Bert Armijo, has been happy to see Layered Tech pull in some customers it likely would not have been able to without the cutting-edge AppLogic middleware. Armijo believes AppLogic is a perfect fit for hosting providers because of their ability and efficiency in managing large amounts of resources, which is exactly what IT shops are looking for when they are looking to lessen the burden of managing their datacenters. When you throw AppLogic into the mix, it allows both parties to maximize their grid-based hosting experience.

Although AppLogic is used by several hosting providers, including British Telecom, not all of them have seen success on par with that experienced by Layered Tech. One, in fact, stopped offering the service altogether. From Armijo’s point of view, this is because grid hosting – especially with a user-oriented software solution like AppLogic – is a new offering for most providers, and it takes the kind of effort put forth by Layered Tech in order see real reward on your investment. “It’s not an easy walk in the park,” said Armijo, “but [it] is certainly something that a good, capable hoster can pick up and run with.”

And, boy, has Layered Tech been running. The company currently has upward of 1,000 servers running AppLogic, and last month, for example, the company announced a VPD called Super Grid (or “Gridzilla,” internally) that is comprised of 443 CPUs, 920GB RAM and 47TB of storage. By creating this computing beast, says Platner, the vendor made it possible to immediately provision pretty much any reasonably sized VPD. In addition, should they really want to, customers could request that Layered Tech hook them up with their very own Gridzillas.

Super Grid, said Platner, brings HPC to the masses (even if the majority of current customers come from the Web 2.0 space) for a lower cost than anyone has been able to offer for such an immense amount of resources. He estimates that users would have to spend eight to 10 times as much to build something similar in-house or get service from a traditional HPC utility provider such as IBM, which certainly backs up his claim that Super Grid “knocks the box out from under the pricing” of HPC resources. “The issue of where high-performance computing and high availability meet cheap computing is what this subject is all about,” said Platner.

But Layered Tech is not alone in the world of providing grid hosting, and another provider looking to make its mark in the space is San Francisco’s ServePath, whose Grid Series offering took home “Best Grid Computing Solution” at last month’s LinuxWorld Conference and Expo. Like Layered Tech’s VPD, Grid Series is a standard, pay per month per server pricing model, but ServePath does things a little differently by offering resources as virtual machines, something CEO John Keagy believes allows customers who want to utilize virtualization but don’t have the technical expertise a way to experience the technology on a hosted basis, where the provider employs the best practices.

If you think that’s groundbreaking, though, prepare to have your socks blown off, as ServePath recently announced its GoGrid offering, which truly brings a utility model to Web hosting. GoGrid allows customers to deploy their own servers online via a graphical user interface, which even displays a screen display that tells users how much RAM they’ve deployed and what their projected month-end usage would be. Not that it would ever be too much.

On top of its user-friendly deployment model, GoGrid is cheap, with prices ranging from 9 cents per memory-hour 12 cents per memory-hour. Based on the high-end rate of 12 cents, in a 30-day billing cycle, a 1GB virtual server running non-stop would come to $86.40. Also, because of the per-memory-hour billing, customers essentially have free will to partition memory as they please – 10 1GB servers, for example, would cost as much as five 2GB servers or 20 512MB servers. The reason for all of this, said Keagy, is flexibility, which is a big criterion with the customers prone to buying into a utility-style model. Since announcing at LinuxWorld, response has been “pretty great,” said Keagy.

Perhaps not coincidentally, this idea of utility is on Layered Tech’s Platner’s mind, as well, who acknowledged that his company had a lot of questions about whether to use the term grid at all. “It’s obviously a very relevant offering in terms of bringing something that looks like and smells like a grid of computing power to the level of services that we’re providing,” he said “… but, really, this is more aligned with our mission of delivering services based on the need for on-demand computing power in the format of a utility.”

Of course, traditional models of utility computing can be a difficult enough sell without any additional stigma surrounding doing something like it through a hosting provider, which probably goes a long way toward explaining why both companies have seen early adoption coming primarily from the Web 2.0 space. Keagy attributes this affinity to the market’s keenness on scalability and ease of use – the two big value propositions of ServePath’s products. “These people all think they’re going to be the next MySpace or the next YouTube,” he explained, “and they just want to know that if they need to scale, they can do so.” Plus, he added, configuring everything over the phone or via a GUI is far easier than ordering equipment, taking delivery of it, loading operating systems, and configuring the network, firewall, load balancer and everything else that goes into a distributed system.

Platner echoes this notion, saying that about half of the current customer base for Layered Tech’s GridLayer solutions is from the Web 2.0 community, and citing NeXplore, who is utilizing a VPD to offer a Web search tool similar to that of Google, only without having to make a comparable investment in hardware and other related costs. Web 2.0 customers, Platner said, tend to appreciate the inherent scalability and efficiency of these types of platforms, and they often are technically savvy enough to appreciate the innovative AppLogic interface, as well.

However, even though he acknowledges that mainstream enterprises are not all ready to jump on the bandwagon quite yet, Platner sees fairly rapid growth for Layered Tech’s grid hosting platforms, estimating that within the next calendar year, 30 percent of the company’s business will come from this area. The reason for this optimism, he said, is that he has seen very few customers who found the company’s GridLayer solutions haven’t met their needs, and he expects future version of AppLogic to be even easier to use, which will make for an easier sell to less savvy users. “The hurdle right now is it’s a little new and it takes some getting used to once you get on,” said Platner, “… however, we like it and we have gotten great feedback.”

ServePath’s Keagy is just as optimistic, stating that he believes this model “absolutely is the future,” but adding that he’s not holding his breath (which is why ServePath has its core hosting business). He gives grid/utility hosting market about five years to really take off because, he believes, customers need to get familiar with outsourcing before they embrace a utility model. “I think that the actual people that are ready to buy are a lot slower to actually get out their credit card than the press and the experts would expect,” said Keagy. “But I’m still confident.”

Neither ServePath nor Layered Tech, though, is waiting around for an influx of customers before eyeing changes to their offerings. ServePath is always looking for ways to improve flexibility, value and power, said Keagy, and is investing heavily in function, usability and quality of support, which he believes will be necessary to get real, mainstream customers on board. For its part, Layered Tech is looking into adding Web deployment capabilities to its solutions, and will soon be releasing in beta an Amazon S3-style storage offering called DynaVol, which will run on Layered Tech’s AppLogic powered grids.

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