Advanced managed services

Hot new outsourcing services abound to help you manage your New Data Center network.

Smart use of contract help is central to the New Data Center plan. Call it outsourcing. Call it managed services. Call it out-tasking. But network executives will call on it in some form to help them manage the complexities of their advanced New Data Center infrastructures.

Some early adopters of today's crop of advanced network management services can even envision a day when their entire New Data Center infrastructure comes to them in on-demand form with the hardware owned by the outsourcer, stored off-site and delivered as a pay-per-use monthly service. So it is with Bill Kirkland, president of Logistics Computer Services (LCS), the IT arm of Performance Logistics Group, a $300 million auto logistics and transport company headquartered in Wayne, Mich.

Kirkland is in the first year of a five-year, $4.6 million contract in which Sun manages LCS' servers, network and specified enterprise applications. The contract includes a slew of advanced network management services, including intrusion prevention and ongoing performance tuning.

"We still have all the hardware here, but we are reaching a point where I'm thinking, 'Why do we need the hardware here?'" he says, noting that today's utility computing options are not affordable for LCS now. "In our environment, with terabytes of storage and data, this isn't going to fit for us until it is economical, and right now I don't think it is. But it would be in the future. I don't see any reason why my programmers couldn't be at home and basically have virtual offices."

Even so, service providers have much work to do before the New Data Center can truly be delivered as a series of low-cost utilities. As such, they're busily refining their advanced managed-services portfolios, which include utility services, outsourced virtualization, grid computing, storage services, preventive/performance maintenance and business process management. You'll need diligence to find the provider that will fit the particular advanced technology you want managed or that offers the cutting-edge network management functions you need.

All things server

Managed services for the server infrastructure are perhaps the most abundant among NDC options. They include utility services, outsourced server virtualization and grid computing. While the utility buzzword connotes an entire, flexible infrastructure available for a monthly charge, services today more or less involve servers residing at the outsourcer's site with customers paying for CPU cycles used. The per-CPU fee necessarily covers all underlying infrastructure components, including storage, network connections and hosting space. Such stalwarts as AT&T, HP, IBM and Sun offer various flavors of utility computing. More are on their way. For instance, Capgemini, based in Paris, is experimenting with utility computing for its European customers and has unofficial plans to enter the U.S. market, officials say.

As one example, AT&T offers its Managed Utility Computing and Utility Hosting services through its hosting data centers. With Managed Utility Computing, a customer gets dedicated Sun servers, complete with whatever storage and network support is required, but pays only for the CPU cycles it needs, says Chris Costello, AT&T director of managed hosting. The Utility Hosting service is similar, but customers share servers and get even more flexibility. "Customers can add or remove computing resources on a real-time basis, and they pay for current usage vs. their expected peak usage," Costello says.

Like other outsourcers playing with advanced services, AT&T provides a management portal that lets users make near-real-time configuration changes to their firewalls, load balancing rules and so on. AT&T also has recently rolled out a Server Virtualization service in which it hosts Windows servers running VMWare software.

Interestingly, some users say that even if they have an established vendor such as AT&T doing classic monitoring or break/fix management, they aren't necessarily interested in a "one outsourcer fits all" approach for their next-generation NDC technologies.

"With network and infrastructure, we've got AT&T - it's got its arms around the whole thing. It understands technology and has the infrastructure in place, but we are still segmenting it from our day-to-day operations. I like to control some of my own destiny," says Jim Elsesser, IS manager of Aurora Pharmacy, in Milwaukee.

Aurora Pharmacy, a unit of Aurora Healthcare, outsourced the building and management of its MPLS wide-area network to AT&T (formerly SBC) but Aurora Healthcare runs VMware server virtualization in-house, Elsesser says. Meanwhile, the pharmacy looks to Communications Cabling and Networking for help desk, monitoring and advanced network-performance tuning for the gear on the inside of the smart jack, he says.

If your goal is a contract for utility-style automatic server provisioning, beware. "We have customers asking, 'Can you dynamically move 27 Web servers from A to B if I need to move the load?'" says Marc Duvoisin, a practice manager for Dimension Data's managed services. "If you stay with a homogeneous environment, we can dynamically reprovision servers to another purpose," he says. But, he adds, this can't be done today for multivendor server infrastructures.

Network managers who want even more dynamic provisioning, for applications that need a lot of computational power, can think grid. Outsourced grid services include HP's Flexible Computing Solutions, IBM's Grid Deep Computing Capacity on Demand and Sun's Sun Grid Compute Utility. AT&T, too, plans to offer a grid service, Costello says. It has not announced an availability date.

Ending storage pain

If storage is your pain point, many a vendor claims to have a service to help. HP offers Multi-vendor Storage Management Service, a per-gigabyte, pay-as-you-go option that includes monitoring, provisioning, capacity management and multivendor storage-area network (SAN) management, HP says. Dimension Data sells virtual tape-like, disk-to-disk backup and recovery as a managed service, where it pulls the data over the network and eliminates the need for tape transportation, Duvoisin says. EMC and Sun StorageTek offer pay-for-capacity, metered storage options.

Advanced managed services: a menu of options From point solutions to the whole shebang, advanced network management services are being offered by vendors from diverse backgrounds.
ProviderBackgroundSelect NDC service offerings
AT&TVoice/data network servicesOptical network management, utility computing, server virtualization
CapgeminiSystems integratorBusiness process outsourcing, limited utility computing
CentrePathNetwork monitoringOptical network and storage monitoring
Dimension DataSystems integratorE-mail archiving, virtual tape backup and restore
HPSystems vendorUtility computing, storage management, automated server provisioning, grid computing
IBMSystems vendorUtility computing, grid computing, software-as-a-service, managed storage services
SunSystems vendorUtility computing, grid computing, storage management, predictive tuning, automated performance management

For high-end SAN management, a custom contract might be more appropriate than an existing managed service. Community Health Network (CHN), an Indianapolis healthcare system that wanted to outsource management of its optical storage network, made that choice, says Chris Stewart, technical services manager. In October 2005, CHN hired CentrePath (better known for its root-cause analysis software, Magellan DataPath Manager) to build and manage a 50TB Fibre Channel optical SAN. CentrePath had been managing the healthcare system's private dense wavelength division multiplexing ring since it helped build the optical WAN in 2003.

"It manages the Fibre Channel switches - all of our switch ports on each side," Stewart says. In addition to keeping the ports running, CentrePath monitors for performance improvement, but, as a control measure, the service provider doesn't execute such changes automatically. "We work really closely with it on what we can improve, though guys in my team perform the work," he says.

Hiring for performance

Perhaps the trickiest of all NDC technologies to contract out is advanced network management. Sure, you can hire countless companies to watch your network, tell you when something breaks and help you fix it. Yes, nearly every monitoring service provider today is smart enough to ensure that one downed component won't crash the whole network. But you'll find it hard to find a provider to move beyond maintaining the status quo.

Sun attempts to do so with its Preventative Services offering. Its goal is to do ongoing performance tuning long before even a quiver in the traffic stream will register. This service calculates the statistical risk of a failure by comparing the network's behavior against a matrix of some 4,500 known risk conditions and 1.1 million configurations, says Mike Harding, vice president of customer network services at Sun. For instance, the matrix shows that for every 50 megabytes of system software change in a Unix/Linux environment, one 9 of availability is lost. That knowledge can help you prioritize changes against the probable associated downtime, Harding says. "As we see these risk conditions, we balance them against the risks of change - whether change needs to happen now, two weeks from now" - or the system may advise to simply live without the change, he says. Sun's Electronic Prognostics service takes this further by automating the fix to potential failures.

LCS relies on Preventative Services as part of its larger outsourcing contract, Kirkland says. "Sun is doing a lot of proactive management. We have one group of database administrators responsible for our account. We get advanced notification of potential problems. We get an advanced set of skills at our disposal, and it is more economical than going out and spending $100,000 on hiring another Oracle programmer" when we need those skills, he says.

For those companies that want more targeted help - monitoring the network to ensure a specific application gets priority - finding a service provider is more complicated. Business process management (BPM) is today's label for such advanced network management. Many outsourcers, such as Capgemini and Electronic Data Systems, offer what they call business process outsourcing. However, this term generally refers to software-as-a-service outsourcing of an enterprise-scale application, such as for human resources, call centers or payroll.

True BPM, in the network management sense, can still be hired out for your existing infrastructure, but as of today would likely involve a lot of custom coding. Dimension Data offers such a service, loosely calling it "drill-down monitoring," Duvoisin says. Such would be used, for example, for a customer who wants to track the performance of an Oracle database, down to the transaction level, as transactions move through the application, across the network and back to the database.

To do so Dimension Data could build "synthetic transactions" that log transaction time and other metrics, and then host a metrics repository for the customer to access and analyze.

But, while most net executives would love help with BPM, early adopters of advanced support aren't sure the outsourcers are ready to provide it. "In the group we support, some of the processes are generic and probably could be monitored," by an outsourcer, Kirkland says. "But 70% are not. They are specific to the delivery of the product, and I question if an outsourcer could do that."

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