Savvis Stakes Virtualization Claim

Grows its virtualized storage and server platform without big vendor help

January 26, 2006

6 Min Read
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IP service provider Savvis hit a roadblock when it first looked into offering utility computing services a couple years back: Traditional IT gear wouldn't work and it didn't look like the major vendors were planning to change that anytime soon.

Savvis wanted to offer customers everything they needed to run outsourced applications -- except the applications themselves. Service would include storage capacity, load balancing, and secure access.

But building a utility computing infrastructure to offer this would require a monumental and unmanageable amount of gear. What Savvis really wanted was to separate the logical from physical elements in servers and storage to achieve efficiency, speed, and ease of management and configuration. In short -- virtualization.

An informal search (no RFP) was discouraging at first. "We looked at conventional hardware vendors and I traveled to a couple of sites myself to see what they had," says Bryan Doerr, CTO of Savvis. "What we found was that nothing in their current product set had the kind virtualization in practice we were looking for... And I haven't seen a lot of change in that since then."

But Doerr and his team didn't come up empty-handed. By March 2004, they cobbled together utility computing infrastructure that included:

  • InServ storage arrays from 3PAR;

  • BladeFrame blade servers from Egenera;

  • Service Edge Router (SER) 5500s from Nortel Networks, which provides remote access, routing, and firewall security in one box;

  • The Virtual Service Switch and remaining intellectual property of Inkra Networks, purchased when that startup liquidated in August 2005. (See Savvis Sells Virtual Switch Savvy.)

During the last two years, Savvis has integrated these elements into what it calls a virtualized utility services platform, and extends to each of Savvis's 25 data centers worldwide. Doerr won't say what he spent on it or what it's earned back in service contracts (he cites SEC reporting constraints), but he says there's enough business to justify a whopping 320 Tbytes of 3PAR storage, 950 virtual servers in about 40 BladeFrames, and about 1,400 virtual firewalls and load balancers in an unspecified number of Inkra boxes in all.

The Inkra appliance has been key. Savvis already had a longstanding licensing agreement with Inkra when the startup tanked last summer. Savvis bought the assets, shouldering aside Cisco and Nortel, which were also raking the remains.

The investment, still undisclosed, was worth it. Inkra's product, with Savvis add-ons and customization, packs Secure Sockets Layer services, load balancing, and firewall capabilities for several hundred sites in one appliance. It has a management system that oversees the 3PAR and Egenera products as well.

Doerr picked the storage gear from 3PAR for its ability to virtualize disk arrays. "At the storage tier, 3PAR has its own example of virtualization that takes the form of volumes exported to servers based on logical disks," Doerr says. "With physical disk parts called chunklets you can do things like dynamically manage quality of service around a logical disk. Then they add things like thin provisioning and other functionality."

Doerr likes 3PAR's recent upgrade, which adds a range of ILM management features to its arrays. (See 3PAR Intros Utility DLM.) He's also eager to try a new feature 3PAR's working on called Adaptive Provisioning, set for delivery in 2007. The feature will automatically allocate data to various tiers on a storage array according to usage, eliminating the need for IT managers to sort and classify data to fit in various tiers. In short, policy automation without the painful categorizing and tagging that often accompany it."The primary advantage will be... no manual reassignment of resources," Doerr maintains. "Thats a fairly slow and not always well executed system of feedback. And it usually starts way too late."

Savvis is also staying abreast of the sizeable upgrade in performance (and price) recently announced by Egenera. (See Egenera Overhauls BladeFrame.) "In the server world, the notions of server and memory are preserved in what are otherwise stateless blades," Doerr explains. "The beauty there is that the physical element is fungible. You don’t care where an application is running, and you can create a failover pool of physical blades."

The Inkra management system and the management software for Nortel's SER 5500 are integrated with the broader operation support systems (OSSs) that govern Savvis's network, encompassing order management, billing, and integration among Savvis services. These are complex programs, including some third-party software. But huge portions also are proprietary.

"If I can go buy my core competencies in the form of software, I'd better not call them core competencies," Doerr says. When it comes to provisioning, monitoring, patch management, and configuration, Savvis wants to be in control with customized OSS software.

One aim of this is to develop specialized products and capabilities -- ones only available on loan from Savvis or in its services. For instance, Doerr has a policy-based product in internal development that will eventually eliminate the need for manual performance monitoring. Instead of having administrators monitor servers and storage for performance dips that signal a capacity crunch, an automated system will track changes in a customer-specified setup and make any necessary capacity add-ons. Then it will notify the customer of what it's done.Doerr claims this product will be available "soon," but won't nail a date. Meanwhile, Savvis appears to be making hay on its utility computing service. Among the takers are GLOBALconect LLC, which uses Savvis as the basis for its own secure online data repository service for law firms, government, corporations and insurance agencies; Zoom Information, an outfit that provides instant search results on people and companies; and Loyalty Management Services, a U.K. retail incentive firm. All claim to be pleased with the service.

"What we're buying is value," says Jeremy Rothman-Shore, vice president of research and development at Zoom. "We wouldn't be able to get these sophisticated capabilities on our own." While he wouldn't characterize Savvis as a bargain, he's content getting his money's worth. When his company went live back in December, they were able to get temporary storage from Savvis to accommodate a spike in demand accompaying the launch -- without investing in a permanent upgrade.

Savvis's implementation isn't completely rose-colored. Reliance on a handful of vendors and deliberate eschewing of major players can be considered risks. Doerr and his team are apparently reaping the benefits of relatively early adoption of virtualization from startups that are now firmly established. That's given them the means to compete in the still-nascent field of utility computing against the likes of IBM and HP. For now, life is sweet.

— Mary Jander, Site Editor, Byte and Switch

Organizations mentioned in this article:

  • Egenera Inc.

  • Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ)

  • IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM)

  • Nortel Networks Ltd. (NYSE/Toronto: NT)

  • Savvis Communications Corp. (Nasdaq: SVVS)

  • 3PAR Inc.0

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