Government taps utility

iSERV Ontario, the provincial government’s IT infrastructure services provider, is turning to utility computing services designed to offer access-on-demand to servers, desktops and applications via virtualized machines.

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

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

iSERV Ontario is responsible for managing infrastructure service delivery, including the mainframe, servers, desktop management and procurement, for the government’s 30 ministries across Ontario.

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

VLAN switching, which helps to maintain the local area network connections in the back-end server farm, is one of three critical factors to the success of utility computing, according to Stuart Levinsky, president and chief operating officer of Commerx.

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

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

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

“The key issue for a utility’s commercial success is justification for what a user is being charged for,” says Levinsky.

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

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

Levinsky anticipates that customers and service providers will want a bill that’s based on usage per minute, but it could even be as 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 can change.”

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

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

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

Commerx joins Toronto-based Charon Systems, Nexxlink Technologies of Montreal and ERP specialist CSB Systems of Winnipeg in comprising Bell Business Solutions.

The unit runs a Virtual CIO program that aims to offer utility-type infrastructure services, software as a service, hosted security and disaster recovery, as well as managed telecommunications, according to Robert Courteau, president and CEO of Bell Business Solutions.

Levinsky believes it is critical to give end-users the capability to order a machine the same way they would if they were going online to order from a retailer or OEM (original equipment manufacturer).

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

Courteau, the former head of Nexxlink, says the partnership allows Bell to offer server virtualization and helps to ensure customers 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 sharing one infrastructure. With Commerx we’re now able to segment and virtualize the infrastructure.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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