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Server provisioning methods holding back cloud computing initiatives

With older approaches to server provisioning proving inadequate for many cloud computing initiatives, corporate users look to image-based provisioning for a solution.

As companies begin shifting the workloads supported by their internal infrastructure to the cloud, many are realizing their traditional ways of provisioning physical and virtual servers are coming up woefully short.

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 Traditional methods, which include provisioning each server manually or using automated scripts to accomplish the task, are proving too time-consuming, costly and inefficient. Even when newly provisioned servers are brought online , they can't be scaled adequately to meet the rapidly changing demands of Web-based environments. Increasingly, these provisioning approaches are becoming an important factor in why C-level executives aren't pulling the trigger on some cloud-based initiatives.

"In my mind, this [lack of sophisticated provisioning tools] is a dirty little secret in the industry. Traditional provisioning done by hand -- and even when it is done by scripts -- takes too long. People are moving workloads across hundreds of servers at a time into the cloud and then back again. They need provisioning solutions that can be implemented faster and that can scale high enough to address Web 2.0-level problems," said Dan Olds, principal analyst with Gabriel Consulting Group Inc. in Beaverton. Ore.

Even larger IT shops willing to take the time and spend the money on manual or script-based methods say they no longer have enough trained personnel to go through the process of provisioning servers for new, Web-based workloads.

"With cutbacks over the last few years, along with younger people not being trained in the older methods of provisioning, we no longer have the personnel to handcraft images to provision servers. People don't realize yet just how fast they will have to throw workloads up into the cloud and then bring them back," said Eugene Lee, a systems administrator with a large bank in Charlotte, N.C.

The traditional process for provisioning -- which simply means getting a server ready to do useful work -- typically involves a number of steps: physically installing server hardware, establishing network and storage assignments, installing the operating system and associated drivers, optimizing the operating system and modifying system files for best performance in the target environment, and installing and customizing the application stack.

"Traditional provisioning is this series of steps you have to go through -- and in the same order -- every time, whether the server is down the hall or in the cloud. With the expanding number of applications in the modern enterprise, it's easy to see how provisioning can become a painful chokepoint," Olds said.

Scripted provisioning is faster than the traditional approach and reduces technical and human costs, but it is not without drawbacks. First, it takes time to write a script that will shift an entire, sometimes complex workload seamlessly to the cloud. Second, scripts must be continually updated to accommodate the constant changes being made to dozens of host and targeted servers.

"Script-based provisioning can be a pretty good solution for smaller companies that have low data volumes, or where speed in moving workloads around is the most important thing. But in a company of our size, the sheer number of machines and workloads we need to bring up quickly makes scripts irrelevant in the cloud age," said Jack Henderson, an IT administrator with a national transportation company based in Jacksonville, Fla.

More aggressive enterprises that want to move their cloud and virtualization projects forward now are looking at more advanced provisioning methods. What appears to be emerging as the preferred approach is image-based provisioning. Generally, the more sophisticated software associated with this type of provisioning allows a complete image of the software stack to be copied onto a target system. The software then allows the target system to be simply booted up.

Many proponents say this technology is significantly faster than scripted methods; perhaps more importantly, it can scale to accommodate workloads that must shuttle quickly between internal servers and cloud servers to take advantage of fast-moving business opportunities.

In a company of our size, the sheer number of machines and workloads we need to bring up quickly makes scripts irrelevant in the cloud age.
Jack Henderson
IT administratornational transportation company

 Unlike scripted provisioning, where the host system must be running the script and managing the process from beginning to end, image-based provisioning manages only the copying of the proper image from the network to the target server. This is a more straightforward, lighter task that requires less infrastructure.

"This is a good solution, not only for customers provisioning from the data center to the cloud; but they will also need a technology like this to provision among VMware, Hyper-V and Xen-based virtual machines. If they can't do these things quickly, they will be frustrated by the time and effort it takes to deploy cloud solutions," Olds said.

Many image-based provisioning solutions also have their shortcomings, Olds and others note. The problem, they say, is that the golden image (a bootable image that represents the corporate standard for a particular system type) for one server might not transfer and work exactly the same on any other server, even servers with the identical hardware specifications of the host system. It seems the devil in the image-based provisioning details involves the discrepancies in software drivers used among various and competing server manufacturers. Given that most large IT shops use servers from a handful of different makers, it is safe to assume this problem will not go away any time soon.

"Looking at just Intel-based servers from an IBM, Dell, HP or some of the white boxes we have, the guts of all those machines might be technically identical. But the problem is each company writes its own drivers for network cards and storage subsystems, so from a provisioning standpoint, they are not identical," Lee said.

Remedies for the problem are becoming more widely available, however, mostly among smaller vendors. Atlanta-based Racemi Inc., a vendor that specializes in image-based provisioning, offers a product that intelligently selects only those drivers on the host systems that need to be installed and configured on the target system. The technology also allows for entire workloads to be seamlessly moved from both physical to virtual machines and from in-house to public clouds.

Most vendors and service providers are starting to deliver image-based provisioning software as a way to attract corporate users to their cloud offerings. It appears however, that such smaller companies as Racemi, along with Inc. and a handful of open source companies, have a significant technology lead over top-tier vendors such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard Co., according to some industry observers.

"The money being made here is by and Rackspace. Interestingly, the money being lost in this opportunity is being lost by the Big Four -- IBM, Hewlett-Packard, CA and BMC Software. They are scrambling to react to the threat posed by technologies used with cloud computing," said Rachel Chalmers, research director with the New York-based analyst firm The 451 Group.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Ed Scannell, Executive Editor.

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