IaaS is smart choice for ConnectEDU

Cloud-based compute capacity delivers elasticity, scalability and cost-savings

As most parents and teachers can attest, teenage students have a tendency to procrastinate - not a particularly endearing characteristic, especially if you're a company that helps students with their college applications.

"You know how students are - they leave everything for the last moment, which for us means millions of students trying to file an application on deadline. That makes scalability a huge issue," says Rick Blaisdell, CTO at ConnectEDU, a Boston-based education and career management company.

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And scalability, in turn, makes cloud infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) an enticing alternative to traditional architecture. "The elastic nature of IaaS, the ability to scale up and down and have that directly relate to utility pricing, is the No. 1 reason we decided to go with infrastructure as a service," he says.

That technology driver dovetailed with a critical business decision. Rather than rebuilding legacy software platforms to meet changing business demands, ConnectEDU decided to break up its products and deliver them via the software-as-a-service (SaaS) model. Blaisdell came on board in April 2009 to help orchestrate that shift. From day one, he says, the plan to move to cloud-based architecture began taking shape.

"From a CIO/CTO perspective, I always look at simplifying things. If you can simplify, clone and reproduce, you're always in a much better place. So when I started looking at the physical architecture and the number of servers we were maintaining and the number we needed to purchase, I knew from previous experience with virtualization and cloud that that's where I needed to go," Blaisdell explains.

But Blaisdell says he didn't want to deal with management of the cloud environment and so decided to explore managed IaaS options. Three managed services companies came immediately to mind, he says: NaviSite, which Time Warner Cable acquired in February, Savvis (now being acquired by CenturyLink) and Terremark (now Verizon Business).

"I wanted a company that would manage my servers and systems all the way from security to maintenance and, if we had any issues, I needed people there at a 24/7 operations center that I knew would carry out our procedures or, if that couldn't be done, call in my team. I knew I'd be spending more money for that, but it was a baseline requirement for us," he says.

When Blaisdell came on board, ConnectEDU was already doing some hybrid virtualization with NaviSite. And while that was working out well, it had neither the true elasticity nor utility features he wanted, Blaisdell says.

Taking a flyer on Cisco's UCS

He discussed those concerns with NaviSite and learned that his hoster would be one of the first beta and production facilities using Cisco's Unified Computing System (UCS). "Would he care to be a beta tester himself?" Blaisdell says he was asked.

Already impressed with Cisco's integrated approach to the cloud, and having further investigated the NaviSite environment and architecture plans, Blaisdell decided to go for it. He tested NaviSite's UCS-based cloud service in late 2009 to early 2010.

"The beauty of being in the beta was really that we weren't paying so we could create virtual instances like there was no limit on the money we had in our pockets. We tested our beta code on some of our new products and tried massive scaling for load testing - mainly we were trying to test the limits of the system to find out how much scalability and power/performance we could get out of the environment," he says.

Liking what it saw during the beta testing, ConnectEDU moved into production in July, Blaisdell says.

"This has proven an extremely flexible model that lets us scale tens of millions of users on the system and lets us repackage all of our products in many different ways. Communications among these products can run at very, very fast speeds and very efficiently in a cloud environment, especially on the UCS platform," he adds.

Today ConnectEDU has about 90 virtual servers, most with four virtual CPUs and between eight and 16 gigabytes of RAM, running Microsoft Windows Server 2008 and SQL Server. It has about 21Tbytes of storage, which is growing at a rate of 1TB per month, Blaisdell says.

With one peak period behind him since ConnectEDU's move to NaviSite's managed IaaS, Blaisdell has proof the decision paid off. "The beauty of the cloud environment is that you can scale up on front-end application servers, load balance them and quickly clone the ones you have so you can multiply that infrastructure 10 times in a matter of hours, and that's one of the things we did," he says.

Now the only physical servers at ConnectEDU itself are two domain controllers. All of its other needs are handling in the cloud, via IaaS or SaaS.

"I'm drinking the cloud Kool-Aid," he says, "maybe more so than most people right now."

But it's not just a sugar high Blaisdell is experiencing. The numbers give him a nice feeling, too.

By embracing the use of public cloud services, ConnectEDU saved more than $1.6 million in infrastructure development costs in 2010, Blaisdell says. With infrastructure requirements tied directly to sales, he adds, that's the kind of figure ConnectEDU hopes to equal or better annually.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.