Bringing Data Center Automation to the Masses

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Imagine you are at a cocktail party on a Saturday night and you discover that one of your servers is running critically low on storage. You whip out your iPhone, tap the screen a few times, and get back to your Mint Julep. The server panic is over because you just gave it an extra 500GB.

That’s the sort of automation that’s being promised by California-based managed hosting company Raging Wire’s StrataScale subsidiary. StrataScale last week announced its IronScale “automated managed server hosting solution,” which it says enables SMB customers to provision a server in about three minutes.

The idea is to be able to go to the IronScale Web site and rent a server or two (running either Windows Server 2003 or Red Hat Linux) from a control panel. Each server bundle includes a set amount of storage, several public IP addresses, a VPN and remote access, payable by credit card or PayPal. Customers can also order over the telephone.

Once the servers are up and running, you can manage the server remotely from the control panel. You could, for example, buy an extra 400GB of storage online, and once that has been attached to your servers you could allocate it to particular machines when you need to.

The server bundles include various security features such as an IDS and a firewall, and these can also be configured using a simple point and click system reminiscent of the type of easy-to-use Web interfaces offered by low-end domestic routers.

How does the system work? StrataScale is staying tight-lipped about the technologies it has employed beneath the interface and the “glue” the company has written. But various automation technologies — storage, network and servers — work in concert beneath the hood to create an impressive demonstration.

One thing is clear: This is not a “cloud” offering, and customers don’t rent compute cycles on a virtualized machine running in some vast resource grid. The company offers its customers physical x86-based servers, not virtual machines. “A subset of the market has concerns about virtualization, so we want to provide this service on physical servers,” said Doug Adams, StrataScale’s sales and marketing vice president.

But despite this, the service has many similarities with a virtualized infrastructure, including much of the same nomenclature. When you start the process of provisioning a server, you are offered several gold images of Linux and Windows systems. Once you have built the server to the specification you want, you have the option to turn that configuration into your own customized gold image that you can reuse later as the basis for new servers that you implement.

Just like in a VMware (NYSE: VMW) environment, it’s also possible to take a snapshot of a running server before carrying out maintenance such as applying a patch, for example. If necessary, it’s then possible to revert to the snapshot if the patch proves unsatisfactory for any reason. You can also make clones of machines in a process that takes a few minutes, the company says.

Rounding out the service, StrataScale also offers load balancing, automated backup with data stored both on and off site, health monitoring and management, and a ten-minute automatic failover to another server if a system goes down.

Right now the service is not completely Web-based — although the intention is to make it that — and some options have to be ordered over the telephone. But Adams said it will soon be possible to carry out everything from the Web interface, while stressing that there will always be the option to call a technician to carry out any work if for any reason you can’t access your systems or the service control panel remotely.

The obvious question to ask before using any kind of managed service is, “Who are these guys who are providing the service?” You have some confidence that Amazon’s Compute Cloud will be around in a year or two, but what do you know about StrataScale?

The answer is that the company itself has been around for about a year, with 30 people working to build the IronScale platform since then. Parent company Raging Wire Enterprise Solutions has been around for a lot longer — it was formed in 2000 and now employs over 100 people. It operates a Tier IV data center in Sacramento.

StrataScale’s intention is for IronScale to be a premium managed service, which it said it has priced 10 percent below the competition. “We can offer our service at less than Tier 1 providers do,” said Adams. “We are saving on human costs (because of all the automation in the IronScale platform) so we can pass the savings on to customers.”

IronScale’s pricing is as follows:

  • Level 1: 2 cores, 4GB RAM, 70GB storage — $800 per month
  • Level 2: 4 cores, 8GB RAM, 70GB storage — $1000 per month
  • Level 3: 8 cores, 16GB RAM, 70GB storage — $1100 per month

Each server bundle includes:

  • Dual/quad-core CPUs
  • 70GB of RAID-configured storage per server
  • A choice of Red Hat Linux 4.4 or 5, or Windows Server 2003 Standard
  • 1Mbps dedicated burstable bandwidth per server
  • 2 networks and 8 external IP addresses per client; 100 internal IP addresses per network
  • VPN for one site-to-site and five remote users per client
  • 24×7 Monitoring and Management
  • KVM access

Optional upgrade OS licenses include Windows Server 2003 Enterprise, Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4 and Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5.

The IronScale service is just the start, according to Adams. In the future, the company plans to introduce new features, which may include a wider choice of operating systems, applications like databases, and perhaps automation that extends to orchestration — automatic provisioning of resources based on the minute-by-minute requirements of individual applications.

If the system works as well as Adams promises and his demonstration suggests, SMBs wary of the cloud and virtualization may well find IronScale worth checking out. Adams’ goal for the company is certainly an attractive proposition: “We aim to make life as easy as possible,” he said. There must be plenty of server, network and storage professionals who like the sound of that.

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Paul Rubens
Paul Rubens
Paul Rubens is a technology journalist based in England and is an eSecurity Planet and Datamation contributor.

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