A pioneer in treatments for multiple sclerosis, Biogen Idec needed to quickly assign computing resources to support its researchers. Yet, provisioning servers and applications to new projects requires a lot of planning, effort and support, says William Hayes, director of IT for the R&D section’s decision support group.
“One of the things that was a challenge for us is to get servers deployed so we can use them,” Hayes says. “It takes anywhere from weeks, for virtual servers, to months, for physical servers.”
1. First Wins Will Be Quick
In fact, the company has reduced the time to create a new server to less than ten minutes, he says. An IT manager can log into a Web site and create a Red Hat server or an Ubuntu server within a few minutes. Because the research groups have such disparate demands, the flexibility of quickly creating instances of different types of servers is a huge benefit, Hayes says.
“We tend to need a lot of throwaway servers of different sources, and in a lot of cases we need nonstandard servers,” Hayes says.
The need for quickly-provisioned resources is common among companies that focus on R&D, says Ellen Rubin, founder and vice president of products at CloudSwitch, a startup that focuses on easing access to cloud resources, especially for companies with legacy apps.
“These companies often can’t get the physical IT resources quickly enough,” she says. “Cloud is an inherently attractive thing for these companies.”
2. Paying for Cloud Can Be Tricky
One downside to many cloud services, such as Amazon’s EC2, it their relatively inflexibility in terms of payment. It may seem odd, but many companies do not allow recurring payments through credit-card accounts.
Like many firms, Biogen Idec works on a purchase order basis; the IT department does not have a credit card that they can use to pay large recurring expenses. That created a problem when signing up for an account with Amazon’s Elastic Computing Cloud service.
“You have to be very creative in how you pay Amazon,” Biogen Idec’s Hayes says. “We have actually contracted with an outside firm to pay Amazon and then bill us.”
The lesson for many IT managers is that, while cloud technology highlights advances in delivering affordable and flexible computing to companies, many companies internal processes are much slower to advance. Getting accounting departments to change their policies to handle computing resources as operational expenses, rather than capital expenditures, will take a while, he says.
3. Per-Server Cost Savings Add Up
While Biogen Idec was not searching for a way to reduce the cost of provisioning researchers with computing resources, the savings helped sell Hayes on the benefits of cloud computing. Moreover, when implementing well-tested services to production servers, the cost savings mattered more than agility, he says.
While Hayes would not discuss the costs of Amazon’s service and the licensing costs of CloudSwitch, the cost for a fully-provisioned virtual server in the cloud was less than half that of a physical server over a period of three years. In addition, the ability to only pay for a server during work hours, as opposed to paying operational costs every day, reduces the expense even more, he says.
“I’m still astounded by how cheap this is,” he says.
4. Protect Against Accidental Shutdown
Yet, companies that put critical data in the cloud should beware that they could be setting themselves up for a serious business disaster. While denial-of-service attacks–such the revenge attacks inspired by the controversy surrounding Wikileaks–are a major concern, simply failing to pay your bill could result in being disconnected from critical data, says Hayes.
“The cloud computing services, if you don’t pay the bill, they will shut you down,” Hayes says. “It is kind of hard to explain to your company that because finance could not pay the bill on time that you have a lot of interesting personal computers sitting on people’s desktops.”
The lesson for CIOs, Hayes says, is whether a company’s infrastructure depends on cloud computing or co-location facilities, the firm that manages your information technology controls your servers.
5. Security Not All Good or Bad
One reason that Biogen Idec chose to use CloudSwitch to manage its cloud infrastructure is because the firm worried about putting its research data on servers rubbing shoulders with other servers in Amazon’s cloud. CloudSwitch adds a middleware layer that encrypts all data that travels outside a company’s network and gives managers a single view of their resources, both from internal networks and from the cloud.
While placing data outside the corporate firewall makes any IT security manger nervous, Hayes says that Biogen Idec’s security group is “fairly comfortable” with the technology.
“You don’t get a ‘this is good’ or ‘this is bad,'” he says. “You get a degree of goodness and badness.”