Government taps utility

iSERV Ontario, the provincial government’s IT infrastructureservices provider, is turning to utility computing servicesdesigned to offer access-on-demand to servers, desktops andapplications via virtualized machines.

iSERV, or the Office of the Corporate Chief Service Deliveryheaded by Blair Smith, has been looking at implementing a utilitydata centre model for the past 18 months and began installing asystem of Web portals in December and January.

The portals enable a user to order a custom-configured server ordesktop and then download the virtualized machine, or master image,from a back-end farm of blades that is maintained by a serviceprovider.

iSERV Ontario is responsible for managing infrastructure servicedelivery, including the mainframe, servers, desktop management andprocurement, for the government’s 30 ministries across Ontario.

The utility system integration was set up and implemented inpartnership with Commerx Computer Systems Inc., a Mississauga,Ont.-based services provider that offers specialized virtual LANswitching technology.

VLAN switching, which helps to maintain the local area networkconnections in the back-end server farm, is one of three criticalfactors to the success of utility computing, according to StuartLevinsky, president and chief operating officer of Commerx.

End-user simplicity at the front-end and a commercially viablebilling and charge-back system are seen as the two most complicatedobstacles to making utility computing work, says Levinsky.

Commerx last month entered into partnership with Bell BusinessSolutions Inc., a division of Bell Canada.

Levinsky is hoping to learn from the telecommunications carriera thing or two about billing and charge-backs.

“The key issue for a utility’s commercial success isjustification for what a user is being charged for,” saysLevinsky.

“Customers want to understand exactly what they’re being billedfor.”

Initially, the utility service might start with a fixed pricethat’s comparable to a physical alternative, leasing a server for$300 per month, for example. “But eventually customers are going toget more demanding,” he says.

Levinsky anticipates that customers and service providers willwant a bill that’s based on usage per minute, but it could even beas simple as whether the machine is on or off.

“As soon as the customer logs off, the machine is stored on disk[in the server farm] and at that point the billing metric canchange.”

Levinsky says there is a strong case for computerization goingthe same route as electricity, telephone, telegram and otherservices that became ubiquitous utilities. He sees a viable marketin Canada’s 750,000 small and medium businesses, and an interest byenterprise companies in the disaster recovery space.

“I think it’s inevitable, but people aren’t going to flick aswitch. It’ll be a gradual process as IT shops approach theirrefresh cycles.

“But for this to be a true utility, it has to be really simpleand easy for an end-user customer to obtain the service,” hesays.

Commerx joins Toronto-based Charon Systems, NexxlinkTechnologies of Montreal and ERP specialist CSB Systems of Winnipegin comprising Bell Business Solutions.

The unit runs a Virtual CIO program that aims to offerutility-type infrastructure services, software as a service, hostedsecurity and disaster recovery, as well as managedtelecommunications, according to Robert Courteau, president and CEOof Bell Business Solutions.

Levinsky believes it is critical to give end-users thecapability to order a machine the same way they would if they weregoing online to order from a retailer or OEM (original equipmentmanufacturer).

“With a simple point-and-click, I can self-provision a system’smemory, disk space and processing throughput — and within 15minutes I’ve got my virtual machine.” In 2001 Commerx sold one ofits subsidiaries, a remote systems monitoring company calledCommerx Solutions, to AT&T Canada. It was there Levinsky metRob Hildred, then AT&T’s chief architect and today the designerof Commerx’s VLAN switching software that maintains the serverfarm. “The whole vision and development of the project belong toRob,” says Levinsky.

Courteau, the former head of Nexxlink, says the partnershipallows Bell to offer server virtualization and helps to ensurecustomers get what they need from a capacity standpoint.”Previously we were ranging from hosting dedicated servers to ASP(application service provider) mode, with all our customers sharingone infrastructure. With Commerx we’re now able to segment andvirtualize the infrastructure.”

To support between 1,000 and 1,500 virtual machines, theback-end might consist of a full rack of 96 dual-core blades, 100terabytes of disk in a storage area network, SAN cards, and anetwork switching layer like HP’s ProCurve or Cisco.

Every time a virtual machine cycles off or on, it will reappearin the server farm wherever there is excess capacity across all 96blades. The virtual LAN establishes itself and follows that machineso that security is maintained. The secure network attachment hasto follow the virtual machine in the farm in order to keep itdedicated to the user.

Because the customer enters the back-end at the switch level,Commerx developed its propriety VLAN switching software to bettercope with the multiple network segments that connect to the serverfarm, says Levinsky.

The software adds a layer of switching between the Cisco orProCurve switch and the VLAN switching within vmWare.

“As a service provider, you don’t want to have to bind or assignblades specifically to network segments, otherwise you lose thewhole optimization of the back-end server farm.”

The pilot project with Bell will start with 10 blades, 40TB ofdisk and Cisco switching gear housed at the Charon data centre inCalgary, according to Levinsky. The partners are initially aimingat 10 Ontario customers and 10 from Quebec. Bell hopes to go livewith the system in April and officially launch the service in July,says Courteau, with possible expansion to its Montreal datacentre.

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