For many a startup founder and CEO there comes a time when they need a second-in-command. For Cole Crawford, founder of the edge computing infrastructure startup Vapor IO, that time came recently.
About a month ago Jacques Greyling, who until summer 2017 ran all things data center infrastructure at Rackspace, started in a new role as Vapor’s chief operating officer. The Austin-based startup has one of the fuller and bolder visions for edge computing, and now Crawford gets to focus on developing that vision further and selling others on the Vapor way, while Greyling devises an optimal strategy for implementing it.
“I see Cole as being the face of Vapor, someone [who] can now really focus on helping us attract the right customers,” Greyling, a 41-year-old South Africa native, told Data Center Knowledge in an interview. “For me it’s about making it real, making it practical, and making sure that the team understands that, and they buy into that.”
Rackspace’s Growing Pains
That last part, getting the team on board, is important. If you’ve ever tried to get someone to do something differently from how they’ve always done it, you know it’s not easy. Greyling has gone through this exercise at Rackspace, when he oversaw a wholesale rethinking of the way the company ran its international data center fleet.
That process started in 2010, shortly after he was promoted to VP of the company’s global data centers and engineering. (He’d been with Rackspace for eight years at that point.) The company had grown quickly, adding data center capacity to keep up with demand without much thought about operational efficiency, he said.
When you’re serving customers out of multiple locations, with each site doing things its own way, and you keep adding locations, at some point it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to manage the infrastructure effectively. Rackspace needed to standardize operations, which became Greyling’s job.
Want to learn more about what Vapor IO and other early movers in edge computing are up to? Most importantly, are you wondering whether enterprise IT/data center leaders should even care about any of this? We at DCK think they should, but don’t take our word for it. At Data Center World Global in March, Vapor IO founder and CEO Cole Crawford, Packet CTO Ihab Tarazi, and StackPath founder and CEO Lance Crosby (founder of SoftLayer, sold to IBM for $2 billion) will join us for a panel to take a deep dive into the earliest deployments of edge computing infrastructure and to talk about what it all means for the future of enterprise technology. Register here
His goal was to make it so that a Rackspace technician in Chicago could travel to London, hypothetically, and hit the ground running at the London site, without having to learn how things are done there. Greyling and his colleagues created standard processes for everything the company’s staff would do – be it on-boarding new customers, doing equipment maintenance, or creating documentation.
Once the new way of working proved effective for the data center team, he was tasked with making similar changes across the company’s backbone and support teams. “It really got to that stage where it became the center point of the business,” he said.
Because it was an entirely new way of doing things, not everybody liked it. Many “Rackers” had issues with it, and some left, Greyling said. But many realized that this kind of operational discipline was necessary.
Colocation for Edge Computing
Vapor is currently in the middle of deploying its first edge data centers, which is a good time to have someone looking after that operational discipline. Packet, another edge computing startup starting to deploy infrastructure, also recently brought on a seasoned executive, CTO Ihab Tarazi, whose role includes similar responsibilities to Greyling’s at Vapor.
Vapor has an ambitious roll-out plan. It’s built its first two edge data centers in Chicago, where according to Greyling, proof-of-concept installations are currently being implemented. Next on the agenda are Pittsburg, Dallas, Atlanta, Seattle, Los Angeles, and more. Working out not only the logistical details of standing up so many sites but also creating an operating model for this entirely new type of infrastructure-based business are all puzzles Greyling has to solve.
In basic terms, the company wants to provide colocation services the same way an Equinix or an Interxion does. But instead of leasing space in big colo data centers, Vapor will be leasing out space in “virtual” data centers that span several locations in each city interconnected by a fiber optic network backbone.
It calls this concept “Kinetic Edge.” By having multiple sites in a city, Vapor’s customers can ensure data is served to their end users from the closest possible location. The network of Kinetic Edge sites in a metro is also architected so that the sites provide redundancy for each other to ensure reliability.
Along with enclosures for storing customers’ equipment, the startup will provide them access to communications infrastructure, including wireless towers, to which its Kinetic Edge data centers are connected. The idea is to get computing resources as close as possible to as many end users as possible.
Much of the world’s network traffic is moving to mobile devices, and placing servers at the base of a wireless tower (or connecting them to one nearby) is the way to get compute closest to mobile users. Wireless carriers are looking at edge computing infrastructure as a way to offload a lot of traffic on their networks today. The anticipated acceleration of 5G wireless network deployment over the coming years is expected to drive unprecedented demand for edge computing infrastructure.
The Crown Factor
Vapor has developed a wide-ranging set of technologies to enable its edge computing infrastructure, but it also has a partnership with Crown Castle, the largest wireless-tower operator in the US, a partnership that is a big differentiator for the startup. Crown is both a partner and an investor in Vapor, which gives Vapor a leg up in getting access to wireless real estate, which is a prized commodity.
“The relationship with Crown makes a huge difference,” Greyling said.
Vapor has to select future deployment sites as much ahead of actual deployment as possible, because each new site requires a lot of work. It’s chosen locations for 2019, many of them already in development, but the next 10 cities (four to five locations per city) have to be selected before the end of the first quarter, he said.
As it enters a new city, the company needs to build a backbone network to interconnect its sites there. Adding a lot of complexity are data center power requirements at tower sites, most of which have single-phase power instead of the three-phase power commonly used by data centers and other high-load facilities. Not all Vapor sites will be directly at wireless towers (some will be “tower-connected”), but many will. Each tower site that doesn’t have three-phase power needs new power infrastructure built to power an edge computing installation.
Edge Operating Models a Work in Progress
Another challenge all the budding edge computing infrastructure businesses are facing is the operating model. If all goes according to plan, Vapor, for example, expects to have north of 100 sites under management within a few years from today. A model for serving customers from so many locations and managing and servicing them all at a sustainable cost level has yet to be devised.
Providers like Vapor and Packet are betting that automation and remote management technologies will enable their operating models. Work is also underway to standardize and simplify hardware deployment with edge computing in mind, primarily through the Open19 Foundation, which oversees development of the Open19 hardware standard born at LinkedIn.
Greyling is looking to hire people to “key strategic roles,” who will focus specifically on solving these operational problems. “Putting operations into a vision is really what my niche is,” he said.