IaaS Case Study: Preferred Hotel Group prefers the cloud

Preferred Hotel Group says Terremark cloud delivers flexibility and high performance

If you've ever stayed at the Trump International Hotel and Tower in New York, the Chancery Court Hotel in London or the Keio Plaza Hotel in Tokyo, then the Preferred Hotel Group handled your reservation, delivered technology-driven guest services and took care of a variety of other behind-the-scenes functions.

Jonathan Newbury, PHOTO: Chris Lake

If you've ever stayed at the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago, the Chancery Court Hotel in London or the Keio Plaza Hotel in Tokyo, then the Preferred Hotel Group handled your reservation, delivered technology-driven guest services and took care of a variety of other behind-the-scenes functions.

The Preferred Hotel Group is the technology, sales and marketing backbone for more than 700 of the poshest independent hotels and resorts in 65 countries - specific services include group, corporate and leisure sales, integrated marketing, global connectivity and reservations, electronic distribution services, and tech-based guest services.

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The clientele who frequent these hotels expect impeccably smooth services. So when the Preferred Hotels IT team migrated its entire pool of servers from a collocated data center in Chicago, where the company is headquartered, to Terremark's Enterprise Cloud over the Christmas holidays in 2008, everything had to go off without a hitch.

And it did.

"From the end user's point of view, there was no change in service. It was seamless," says Jonathan Newbury, vice president of ecommerce and technology at Preferred Hotel Group. Newbury was the company's vice president of brand development at the time of the migration.

Charles Zieres, director of Information Technology Development, who managed the company's leap into the cloud had overseen the months of planning and testing prior to the move. He describes the process as "just like transitioning to a new collocation facility, only without the moving vans."

Preferred Hotels initially migrated 25 servers into Terremark's Enterprise Cloud including its Citrix, SQL, and Exchange servers, which were supporting its online reservations system, back office applications and disaster recovery protocols. The company has since continued to ramp up its cloud presence and is now running the equivalent of more than 50 servers in Terremark's Enterprise Cloud.

The initial attraction

According to Gartner vice president of research Lydia Leong, Terremark's Enterprise Cloud is very focused on self-service virtual data center needs, has a broad range of features and boasts one of the longest track records in the enterprise-class public cloud infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) market.

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Terremark has a bunch of cloud offerings. Terremark Enterprise Cloud is the in top five market share leaders in the category of VMware-based public IaaS. Then there's Terremark Computing as a Service, which focuses on hybrid cloud deployments. Terremark's vCloud Express is based on Enterprise Cloud and is a pay by the VM offering, but does not guarantee resource allocations.

With Terremark's Enterprise Cloud, services are sold in blocks of computing capacity, and billed by processor megahertz, with allowances for RAM and storage. And that flexibility was an initial big draw for Preferred Hotels.

Compared to other public cloud offerings that only let you spin up standard VM instances, this model is more in line with how Preferred Hotels prefers to run its operations. "We don't have one type of machine that gets fired up for every application. Some need four processors some need 16. Some have tiny footprints like our SVN server, while other like our reporting servers have massive requirements," says Zieres.

The management software that helps customers drive their cloud implementations is called DigitalOps. It allows Enterprise Cloud customers to control virtual machines in Terremark's data center through a portal, much as they might manage physical servers in their own.

Newbury says having Terremark handle the hassles of the physical servers - and assume the capital costs of doing so - means his IT team is freed up to take on more strategic projects. "We've now more than doubled our infrastructure and our storage capacity in the cloud, but we've not had to increase staff to support that huge growth.''

Being in the public cloud has also helped facilitate some of the more mundane parts of running an IT department, like upgrading legacy Windows systems. Since moving to the cloud, the company has upgraded all of its servers from Windows Server 2000 to Windows Server 2008.

That process was expedited by the fact that in 2009 Zieres's team could spin up new Windows 2008 machines, while keeping the old Windows 2000 servers functional during the migration in case there were issues with application dependencies that could disrupt service to the company's 220 end users worldwide.

Last year the company also used the same process to upgrade users from Office 2003 to Office 2010. "That kind of flexible scalability is really invaluable," says Zieres, and it dramatically cuts down on overall application down time.

Newbury points out that despite industry-wide fears about uptime in the cloud, Preferred has actually seen a significant improvement in system uptime. There have only been two outages in the Terremark Cloud since Preferred Hotels signed on, one was in February and lasted about 90 minutes. "We were experiencing more along the lines of one hour downtime per month when we had a physical data center, so one outage every 18 months is quite acceptable to us," Newbury says.

Last year, Preferred Systems re-signed with Terremark for another three years of cloud services and is steadily making its way through a list of upgrading legacy systems one by one. Sometimes that will mean migrating some applications off the Terremark cloud, explained Newbury. As part of the company's business continuity plan, Preferred wants to make sure all of its data is not stored in one place.

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To that end, the company in the next few months plans to move from an outdated Mimosa Systems email archiving system and the six terabytes of email storage - both currently housed by Terremark - over into Google's cloud through the use of its award winning Postini email security and email archiving service.

In terms of new projects, Preferred Hotels has spun up a Microsoft Dynamics CRM application in the cloud and has pulled its previously outsourced Web site management back under the control of internal IT.

Zieres has also set up a staging area within Enterprise Cloud for the ecommerce development team. "That allows them to stage new capabilities before rolling them out," says Zieres. He describes the new system as far superior to the previous straight to production nightmare.

Also on tap for this year in the cloud is deploying a mobile device management application so the company can better control how and when end users can use their own personal devices while working.

And Newbury says the company will bring a Microsoft SharePoint business collaboration system online as well.

"These are all things that we would not have had time to implement without taking the hassles and worries of running a data center out of the picture," Newbury says. "We're in the cloud for good."

Burns is a freelance writer and editor who has over 15 years experience covering the networking industry. She can be reached at cburns1227@googlemail.com.

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