Advanced Analytics Helps CenturyLink in Data Center Capacity Planning
Inside a CenturyLink data center. (Photo: CenturyLink)

Advanced Analytics Helps CenturyLink in Data Center Capacity Planning

Bare-metal cloud servers are a best-of-both-worlds alternative to dedicated hosting and VM-based cloud infrastructure services in some cases, but they do complicate data center capacity management for the service provider.

CenturyLink rolled out its bare-metal cloud service this morning, but the IT capacity planning strategy for it will have to be devised over time, as the company gets a clearer picture of demand. The best it could do initially is create a capacity buffer to absorb a potential spike in demand, Richard Seroter, vice president of cloud product management at CenturyLink, said.

“We did start off with some excess capacity to makes sure we have some scale,” he said. “We don’t assume we know everything.”

Bare-metal cloud servers are provisioned the same way cloud VMs are provisioned, through a web interface, and billed for on an hourly basis. They are for applications that need the performance of physical servers or ones that are simply not built to run in VMs.

Numerous CenturyLink competitors have had bare-metal services for some time now, including IBM SoftLayer and Rackspace.

They provide the performance of dedicated servers but with elasticity of cloud services. But creating that elastic-capacity service for the customer using physical machines requires a lot of intricate IT capacity planning by the provider.

Home-Grown Analytics Tools Used in Capacity Planning

Future capacity management decisions for CenturyLink’s new service will be based on usage data processed by what Seroter described as fairly sophisticated data analytics tools. CenturyLink has a team of data scientists on staff, and part of their job is creating and refining models for IT capacity planning to support its services.

Their tools are primarily home-grown applications that use open-source tools like Spark, Kafka, and Cassandra. They use these tools to monitor the entire platform, crunching through hundreds of millions of data points per week to understand what is going on in in real time and to make infrastructure-management decisions.

CenturyLink delivers all of its cloud services through a single platform, be they public or private cloud VMs, bare-metal cloud servers, or AppFog, the Cloud Foundry-based Platform-as-a-Service offering it also launched today.

Faster Server Deployment Through Automation

What also helps is the amount of automation the company has built into standing up new physical servers in its data centers to make the process faster. The only manual labor involved is installing servers into the racks and plugging in the cables. The platform recognizes and configures the hardware automatically.

This approach drives hardware-purchasing decisions. From servers to switches, API maturity is CenturyLink’s number-one priority for working with hardware vendors, Seroter said. The hardware has to be managed by the company’s own software, built to make expanding capacity quicker.

The initial deployment of bare-metal cloud servers at its data centers in Sterling, Virginia, and Slough, UK, consists of HP’s Apollo hardware. But the service will not be limited to HP gear.

‘Hardware Matters Less and Less’

While there will still be room for dedicated hosting, CenturyLink expects its bare-metal cloud service to eventually become a “non-trivial part of our revenue,” Seroter said. The company still sells a lot of customized dedicated hardware, but things are generally moving toward standardization.

“The smart CIO is realizing the hardware matters less and less, and the service matters more and more,” he said.

Because service providers charge for bare-metal cloud servers by the hour, customers pay only for capacity they use and may ultimately spend less than they would on a dedicated deployment, Seroter explained. It isn’t a clear-cut comparison, however, since dedicated-server deployments differ from one another, and since there’s usually a discount for signing a long-term hosting contract.

In addition to some commercial software that cannot run on cloud VMs, such as Oracle databases that don’t have dynamic licensing models, a new approach to application deployment is on the rise that can especially benefit from bare metal. An application running in Docker containers may not need a hypervisor, and “developers are showing that they’re using bare metal for that,” he said.

“It’s not always what you can’t do in virtual; it’s sometimes what you don’t need to do in virtual. In some cases, it’s a [performance] tax you don’t need to pay.”

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