Q&A: Toby Owen on Rackspace's Updated Hybrid Cloud Solution

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Web hosting provider Rackspace (www.rackspace.com) made several updates to its RackConnect service on Tuesday. Launched almost a year ago, the hybrid cloud solution integrates the Rackspace Cloud and dedicated hosting in one environment.

RackConnect allows customers to “mix-and-match” computing platforms by providing a customized combination of public cloud, private cloud, virtualized and dedicated servers, as well as security and networking services.

Rackspace says it has improved RackConnect’s automation and security capabilities, and has added several other features. In an email interview with the WHIR, Toby Owen, senior manager, hybrid cloud product solutions at Rackspace, talks about hybrid cloud platforms in general and their influence on RackConnect’s development, as well as the specific improvements to the latest release of RackConnect.

WHIR: What kind of customer is looking for a hybrid cloud platform?

Toby Owen: We have looked at trying to categorize our customers, so we could better understand what industries/verticals tend to gravitate towards a hybrid platform, and what we found is that traditional taxonomies for vertical industry segmentation don’t really seem to apply. What we have found works better is use case. Obviously, web based applications are the predominant use case. Within that, we see a lot of adoption with maybe 4 or 5 broad categories. First, apps that have highly variable traffic. These could be e-commerce apps that have seasonal spikes in traffic, or social apps that have very hard to predict traffic patterns. They can benefit from the cost savings a hybrid environment offers by scaling the capacity back to average load, and growing in cloud during the peak times. Next we’ve had a lot of traction with digital agencies that are building media promotions for companies. They want the security and safety of customer data residing on isolated, single tenant databases, but the flexibility that cloud offers to be at the ready, since it can be hard to predict just how popular a promotion might get. Then we also see very creative technical designs, those that are using the flexibility of the hybrid platform to fine tune different workloads within a complex application. An example here might be a customer who manages video content – they use a lot of dedicated storage and a secure dedicated machine to securely transfer files, they use cloud for batch video manipulation (like transcoding), and they use the CDN for distribution. Also, we have seen some interest by ISV’s with a client server application, using hybrid to “SaaSify” their app, by deploying it once per customer on a cloud server – sometimes a transitional step so they can have a SaaS offering of their software while they undertake the larger effort to build a true multitenant package. Finally, we see a lot of companies “in transition”, those that are able to begin to use cloud more quickly because they can move bits and pieces at a time, maybe just the web servers, or a batch process. This gets them on cloud faster, and enjoying some of those benefits sooner (rapid deployment, cost savings, etc) rather thanwaiting for a complete rewrite for the cloud.

WHIR: Did you see any larger trends in hybrid cloud platform development that Rackspace wanted to include in RackConnect?

TO: I think there are a whole host of trends we’d like to include. RackConnect right now is really about connectivity and automation, and is becoming about security as well. I’d say there is an entire set of enterprise features we’d like to include, such as identity federation, auditing, system monitoring, and advanced security capabilities would be great additions. All of these areas have mature offers in a traditional IT setting, but are either nascent or non-existent for cloud. By extending these products across platforms, I think we’ll enable more and more adoption of hybrid clouds.

Also, we are eyeing the WAN as our next frontier for hybrid clouds. While we already support site to site connections, using VPN tunnels or leased lines, to link up customer datacenters with Rackspace, there is a lot of improvement to be made there. Things like provisioning, flexible bandwidth policies, QoS, utility billing, all could become more “cloudy”. We’re working on doing those things to help extend the promise of hybrid. This is really fundamental to our vision for OpenStack and a connected cloud. While OpenStack will be the management layer for the cloud, the “single pane of glass” to manage multiple clouds, RackConnect will be the enabler stitching together all the infrastructure.

WHIR: What types of features were missing from the previous iterations of Rackconnect that have been addressed with this update?

TO: Our first release of RackConnect was great for a first release. We got the rudimentary things done, like network connections on multiple platforms, automated security boundaries between dedicated and cloud. But it was lacking in several areas. First, when cloud servers were built, customers still had to do a few housekeeping items to get them pointed to their dedicated servers. We’ve automated that now, so when a customer spins up a server, it comes up at build already connected and ready to go. Second, public IP addresses for cloud servers were complicated, since we were logically moving those cloud servers behind a firewall. We are now basically moving the IP from the cloud server to the firewall and building the address translation automatically. This is especially important for customers using third party tools to manage or monitor their cloud, since they often communicate with the cloud over their public IP address. We’ve added support for more network appliances, which should make RackConnect an option for more of our customers, particularly smaller customers. And finally, maybe most importantly, the security perimeter was only halfway there. In managed hosting, each customer gets their own isolated network segment. When you connect a cloud to that, you are basically adding in a big shared network. We restricted that by limiting access to only that customer’s cloud servers. But their cloud servers still share a network with other customers in the cloud. What we’ve done is create a network policy management tool for customers. They can now define policy at a macro level, defining traffic access rules for how various components in their environment should interact (and where they shouldn’t). Those rules are automatically applied to their environment, on their firewall, load balancer, and even the distributed firewalls on each of their cloud servers. This finishes off that security perimeter, and effectively isolates their entire environment from the rest of cloud. It’s a flexible perimeter, too, since the policy gets inherited by new cloud servers automatically.

Overall, RackConnect 2.0 is about more automation, more security features, more widely available for customers. We aren’t done yet, either.

WHIR: How do you see hybrid cloud platforms fitting into the future of cloud infrastructure offerings?

TO: I view hybrid cloud as the real cloud for some time to come. Now that we are seeing companies start to move real production workloads to the cloud, we are seeing the need to supplement some of the features of cloud with technologies from dedicated hosting. Things like SAN, IDS, WAF, database clustering – these are purpose built tools that perform very well, and are also products that are lacking a bit in cloud today. By linking the two worlds (traditional IT and cloud) we can bridge some of the gaps we have today in cloud, which is still a very early technology. I think of hybrid cloud as a sliding wedge. Today, we have a lot of traditional IT and a little cloud. In the future, maybe 10 or 15 years, maybe those ratios are reversed. In between, cloud will mature, gain more of those features, and dedicated purpose built appliances and hardware will diminish in need. But I don’t think we’ll ever have a purely cloud world. We still have mainframes around, and the mainframe era was a long time ago. Cloud is no different.

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