Buyer's Guide: Case study on using infrastructure in the cloud

Bluhalo, a digital marketing agency that creates and operates websites for the likes of Liverpool FC and Tottenham Hotspur, replaced 100 physical servers with nine virtual ones, running on a private cloud network.

Cloud benefits for Bluhalo

Bluhalo, a digital marketing agency that creates and operates websites for the likes of Liverpool FC and Tottenham Hotspur, replaced 100 physical servers with nine virtual ones, running on a private cloud network.

The firm moved its computing infrastructure to the cloud mainly so that it could cater for the peaks and troughs in its customers' web traffic more efficiently in terms of costs, but the initiative has also yielded other business benefits.

Bluhalo used to run the physical servers in different locations, from three separate hosting providers, with enough redundant capability to cope with spikes in web traffic. But each time the business expanded, it had to add new servers and storage which was a costly exercise.

The agency's managing director, Spencer Gallagher, commented that delivering a high-quality service for its clients and their end-users requires good front-end design and user interfaces. But it also means ensuring fast, reliable access and high levels of system availability. "We host many complex, high-traffic sites that simply eat up server capacity. Keeping pace with these demands using traditional un-consolidated server systems just became too expensive, inflexible and inefficient," he said.

Bluhalo, which drives more than five billion page views a year through its clients' websites, moved to the cloud in late November 2009.

The new infrastructure, operated and managed by DediPower Managed Hosting, is based on VMware's vSphere platform and is designed to support virtual clusters across Bluhalo's offices in the US and Europe.

The hardware is based in DediPower's Reading datacentre, and Bluhalo's set-up uses nine Intel-based high-capacity servers, switches, firewalls, and storage area networks. Each server comprises two quad-core Intel 2.5GHz Xeons, with 32Gbytes of RAM and a small dedicated RAID storage array.

The hardware runs VMware's ESX 4 hypervisor and VMotion software, which can move virtual machines from server to server with no downtime. The infrastructure is fully redundant with automatic failover capabilities.

Robert Belgrave, solutions architect at DediPower, said, "One of the benefits of a custom-built private cloud deployment is you can ensure that you have got some logical separation between machines, and Bluhalo can sell that to its clients as a dedicated hosting package, albeit with a cloud back-end."

He added that, in terms of security, Bluhalo is able to offer each of its customers a VLan, so they get a secure, sand-boxed environment.

"A lot of the security we use is part of modern hardware, as well as feature-sets in VMware. We have front-to-back load balancing, fully managed firewalls, VPN connections to management layers, and separate VLans for customers," said Belgrave.

Among Bluhalo's reasons for moving from its former Tier 1 managed datacentre service provider to DediPower's private cloud was that its relationship with its previous provider was no longer working satisfactorily, and Bluhalo had become more hands-on than it wanted to be. Moving to DediPower addressed this issue.

In addition, going from 100 servers to nine yielded an immediate cost saving of 25%, and created a smaller carbon footprint in terms of its power consumption, a cost reduction of about 40%.

The new environment also provides greater resilience, future-proofing and the ability to scale up computing resources on demand.

For example, said Gallagher, the Tottenham Hotspur website previously required 10 servers to be running constantly to handle peaks in the football season, such as cup finals, and the start of season. Using the cloud, the site now runs "happily" on two to four servers, with extra capacity available when needed. "It also means we are not tied into managed server contracts," said Gallagher.

Another key business benefit is Bluhalo's ability to offer clients a faster turnaround on their production websites, because it now employs VMware's VApps feature to virtualise test environments. These are built by Bluhalo developers on an internal system, separate to the cloud, which uses a mixture of Windows and Ubuntu.

Once completed, they send the site to the cloud, enabling Bluhalo to quickly set up a new virtual server for a client, which means a new site can go live in just half an hour. Using the traditional managed-server approach, this previously took two to three weeks.

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