IT service assurance in a hybrid cloud environment

CIOs need to ensure they can continue to provide the same levels of service in a mixed environment of cloud and legacy IT

Using cloud services within a modern IT environment is inevitable for many organisations, as the benefits of greater flexibility, agility and lower cost are proven. But CIOs need assurances they can continue to provide the same levels of service in a mixed environment of cloud and legacy IT as they have done by relying on advanced tools to manage their in-house systems.

At a roundtable debate hosted by Computer Weekly, in association with Oracle, IT leaders met to share their experiences of managing service assurance and systems performance in cloud and legacy IT environments.

Several delegates agreed that the key potential benefits of moving to a cloud-style infrastructure are:

  • Chargeback – the ability to reclaim usage costs directly from users;
  • Self-service – for users to turn resources on and off themselves on demand;
  • Elasticity – whereby computing resources can be scaled up and down on demand.

“At the moment we have a fixed-charge model, but our ultimate aim is chargeback in two to three years’ time," said Richard Gough, CTO at actuarial and investment consultancy Punter Southall Group.

"Managers will be in front of their display and be able to provision [IT resources] themselves. However, two things are preventing me from offering self-service – the mindset is not there, although the technology is; and the business does not like the idea of being charged anything,” he said.

Pressure has been relieved by cutting database provisioning down from six weeks to 19 minutes

Surren Partabh, CTO of core technologies, BT

Surren Partabh, CTO of core technologies at BT, said: “Elasticity and chargeback are important in a private cloud. We wouldn’t risk putting our core business on anything other than a private cloud.”

What cloud means for you 

IT leaders agree that the cloud means different things to different people, but understanding what it means for your organisation is vital.

“In many ways it is just a rebranding issue, and having access to spurts of power and additional CPU and storage etc,” said Gough.

Case study: Moving to a private cloud at BT

BT has moved a significant legacy database estate to a private cloud infrastructure.

Surren Partabh, CTO of core technologies at BT, said the most important objective for any IT leader is to ensure the customer is happy and that strategy requirements such as data protection and value for money are maintained.

For BT, this has to happen in a mixed environment because the firm has been around for a long time, so old and new technology has built up over the years.

“The attitude to technology is, if it works, don’t touch it. New stuff is coming out, so let’s try to use it, but proliferation is a big problem. How do you get legacy IT in the forefront of technology while being agile? If you are not agile, you will fall behind and lose profit,” said Partabh.

BT's is using cloud technologies for database provision, moving towards standardisation to reduce the costs of heat, power and administration spent on inefficient hardware associated with a legacy estate.

BT has put 30 databases on six Oracle clusters built on HP blades and racks, and a significant database estate can now be managed by a small number of people.

“If the Oracle database RAC [real application clusters] is designed correctly, it will implement right the first time, but you need to ensure the operational and design groups sit and work together collectively. If you make it inclusive and the architects and designers all have input, your solution will be more successful,” said Partabh.

Various arms of the organisation need databases to deliver services to customers quickly, and requests are usually made with the plea, "My priority is the greatest". But this pressure has been relieved by cutting database provisioning down from six weeks to 19 minutes.

“Nineteen minutes to provision is great, but [it means] everyone wants a database,” said Partabh.

Education is needed to counteract this surge in demand.

“It is important to teach customers and stakeholders so we can create solutions that are appropriate to their needs. You need to consider education or there can be a problem of manageability and you risk being a victim of your own success,” said Partabh.

He said the private cloud infrastructure helps BT stay ahead, but requires lots of servers for running it.

“The more machines you have, the more batching has to be done. Ideally, self-managing and self-healing would take place, but heavy-duty computer systems shouldn’t make decisions on their own,” he said.

Greater use of self-service is an important aim.

“We don’t want more middleware guys. We want to deliver right the first time,” said Partabh.

Oracle Enterprise Manager is used to manage the IT stack and Partabh said the 12c product release will support cloud management by helping to extend database-as-a-service and middleware-as-a-service cloud offerings.

“Oracle 12c is the answer for provisioning and customer services. It’s where we want to go, but we have not implemented chargeback as yet,” he said.

BT wants to get ahead of any application support problem by investing in tooling and training so the team can “arrive and work quickly”. The traditional method of receiving a message about an incident which takes a long time to fix is no longer sufficient.

“It is very important to invest in the right tooling to add a degree of oversight to ensure we can deliver a reliable service,” said Partabh.

Focusing on making the IT estate work better so it gives the organisation a good return is essential, he said: “There is good legacy which can be encapsulated and moved onto the latest hardware. The moment you make any changes to legacy, it is in danger of breaking. Pre-production is key – applications, systems, infrastructure, should be tested as much as possible."

Industry definitions are often irrelevant, but what is critical is the way organisations look to exploit opportunities offered by cloud services.

“When we look at trusted cloud services, we should be thinking, ‘What can I do that gives me an edge?’," said Gough.

But don't forget that it is still possible to run services cheaper in-house.

“With some licences it is cheaper to run the hundredth server than the first. If I bring services in-house, I will have better total cost of ownership over three years,” he added. “What can you do better than I can do, and what can I do better than you can do? See what’s best for the business in terms of making money."

Richard Sarwal, senior vice-president of product development at Oracle, agreed there is nothing new in the cloud, but he said improvements in networking, bandwidth and shared storage enable fast provisioning.

“You have to monitor lifecycle management if you want fast provisioning, and for deep diagnostics you must have the right tools. There is very little that is new, but what is new is the speed at which the environment can change,” he said.

Alex Lorke, head of e-business engagement and delivery at Royal Mail Group, said: “It is a question of scale. You can be better off provisioning yourself if you have got scale. Cloud is an opportunity to break down the cost model.”

He said cloud can also be used as a commercial negotiation tool.

“The contract framework can be hard to change, but cloud can be used to bring competitive pressure,” said Lorke.

Private cloud performance 

Gough said his IT environment is nearly 100% virtual and the firm has learned that one danger of a private cloud is “lazy code syndrome” – badly written software that can degrade the user's experience.

“The way it presents to the user can have the biggest impact on their experience. The transit from the datacentre to where the user is and how the data interchanges between the datacentre and the customer can affect experience” he said.

This is particularly true for highly computational data, and Gough said that input/output performance is often overlooked and not seen as being as important as application delivery.

“Networking and bandwidth do impact on your performance,” he said.

IT leaders contemplating moving to the cloud are concerned that there should be no degradation of service. One delegate said the potential benefits of cloud need to be explored within the context of most people being knowledge workers.

“Knowledge is in separate spreadsheets on different databases and the challenge is trying to pull everything together. We have to shift to a cloud environment, as there is no money to spend on capital, but the fear is losing control of the systems, so service management and what you expect in terms of service delivery is vital,” he said.

The physical location where data is stored is also relevant in choosing the right cloud service as for some organisations datacentres must be in the UK.

“It is a legal issue [for some] – datacentres must be in the UK. It is an issue with US-owned cloud providers as we can’t have external law enforcement agencies executing warrants against our data,” said one delegate from a UK police force.

Manuel Restrepo, head of PEMSA service centre at insurer BNP Paribas Cardif, said location is important because data is key for banks. “Part of my role is to create innovative solutions across Europe and Russia, but the data still needs to be here,” he said.

Barriers to the cloud 

Oracle's Sarwal said the barriers to cloud adoption include regulatory compliance, data location and integration of the diverse number of applications.

“If you are trying to integrate applications between public and private cloud, good luck. I expect to see the majority of large companies primarily looking at private clouds for fast provisioning and chargeback in a standardised environment,” he said.

For many organisations, the reality is they are using multi-supplier services, and the challenge of the cloud is how to make it work in such a complex environment.

“Integration is not impossible, but it is hard,” said BT's Partabh.

But integration should be reversible, and exit clauses should be an important part of cloud contracts.

“You need to have somewhere else to go," said one IT leader at the event. "Can the cloud truly be a utility if we can’t use it or understand it as a utility?" 

Lorke said some IT departments may see cloud as a threat. “The 'credit card moment' comes when the IT department knows services can be sold directly to the business, and this is seen as a threat because of the control and governance issues around this,” he said. “It is important to examine the IT department and what IT professionals do.”

Sean Curran, chief operating officer at investment management firm CCLA, said the reality is that with the increasing consumerisation of IT, users start to ask what they need an IT department for. “You have got to have a light touch with enough corporate control; you have to work with them," he said.

Image: Thinkstock

Read more on Cloud computing software