Category Archives: Application Hosting

Scott’s Book Arrived!

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We are pleased to announce that Scott’s books have arrived! ‘The Business Owner’s Essential Guide to I.T.’ is 217 pages packed full of pertinent information.

For those of you who pre-purchased your books, Thank You! Your books have already been signed and shipped, you should receive them shortly and we hope you enjoy them as much as Scott enjoyed writing for you.

If you haven’t purchased your copy, click here, purchase a signed copy from us and all proceeds will be donated to the WA chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

Why Desktop as a Service?

This morning, I ran across an interesting article over on techtarget.com talking about the advantages of the cloud-hosted desktop model. Among other things, it listed some of the reasons why businesses are deploying DaaS, which align quite well with what we’ve experienced:

  • IaaS – Businesses are finding that as they move their data and server applications into the cloud, the user experience can degrade, because they’re moving farther and farther away from the clients and users who access them. That’s reminiscent of our post a few months ago about the concept of “Data Gravity.” In that post, we made reference to the research by Jim Gray of Microsoft, who concluded that, compared to the cost of moving bytes around, everything else is essentially free. Our contention is that your application execution platform should be wherever your data is. If your data is in the cloud, it just makes sense to have a cloud-hosted desktop to run the applications that access that data.
  • Seasonality – Businesses whose employee count varies significantly over the course of the year may find that the pay-as-you-go model of DaaS makes more sense than building an on-site infrastructure that will handle the seasonal peak.
  • DR/BC – This can be addressed two ways: First, simply having your data and applications in a state-of-the-art data center gives you protection against localized disasters at your office location. If your cloud hosting provider offers data replication to geo-redundant data centers, that’s even better, because you’re also protected against a catastrophic failure of the data center as well. Second, you can replicate the data (and, optionally, even replicate server images) from your on-site infrastructure to a cloud storage repository, and have your hosting provider provision servers and desktops on demand in the event of a disaster – or, although this would cost a bit more, have them already provisioned so they could simply be turned on.
  • Cost – techtarget.com points out that DaaS allows businesses to gain the benefits of virtual desktops without having to acquire the in-house knowledge and skills necessary to deploy VDI themselves. While this is a true statement, it may be difficult to build a reliable ROI justification around it. We’ve found that it often is possible to see a positive ROI if you compare the cost of doing a “forklift upgrade” of servers and server software to the cost of simply moving everything to the cloud and never buying servers or server software again.

It’s worth taking a few minutes to read the entire article on techtarget.com (note – registration may be required to access some content). And, of course, it’s always nice to know we’re not the only ones who think there are some compelling advantages to cloud-hosted desktops!

Ingram-Micro Cloud Summit 2014

On Monday afternoon, I walked by the beautiful 3 story atrium and into the conference center attached to the Westin Diplomat Hotel in Hollywood, FL. It was torturous. After experiencing a March in Seattle which had 3x the normal amount of rain, I was so excited to see the beautiful blue sky and feel the 70 degree temperatures. And it was just a few feet beyond me as I walked down the long hallway to the Conference Center.

Minutes later, I headed into my first session titled “Effective Executive Leadership Skills” led by Gary Beechum of SPC International. If you haven’t met Gary, you really should. He’s no-nonsense, direct, inspirational and articulate. He often references he time in the military and even uses some of the tools he picked-up while in the Army in his presentation. I definitely learned some things to bring back to our Leadership Team. One of the best parts of his presentation was the 14 Traits of Leaders.

At the reception that followed our classroom sessions I met a ton of new people. Many were from across the country and wanted to work with a firm like VirtualQube, and some who wanted to partner with us to deliver new bundles to customers. Our story really resonated with the attendees. There are a number of MSPs looking for a white-labeled cloud offering, and people would actually overhear my conversation and ask me for a card. I think one of the great benefits of this conference was since it was focused on “cloud” there weren’t MSPs who didn’t have any idea about how they were going to deliver cloud services. Many had come to the conclusion that they would rather hire-out a solid cloud vendor instead of re-invent the wheel and build their own hardware. Our story was like music to their ears. And we’ve even written about it recently here.

All-in-all, the first day of the conference has been so valuable that I’m excited not only for the rest of the conference, but for working more closely with Ingram Micro over the coming months.

Karl Burns

So You Want to Be a Hosting Provider? (Part 3)

In Part 1 of this series, we discussed the options available to aspiring hosting providers:

  1. Buy hardware and build it yourself.
  2. Rent hardware and build it yourself.
  3. Rent VMs (e.g., Amazon, Azure) and build it yourself.
  4. Partner with someone who has already built it.

We went on to address the costs and other considerations of buying or renting hardware.

Then, in Part 2, we discussed using the Amazon EC2 cloud, with cost estimates based on the pricing tool that Citrix provides as part of the Citrix Service Provider program. We stressed that Amazon has built a great platform for building a hosting infrastructure for thousands of users, provided that you’ve got the cash up front to pay for reserved instances, and that your VMs only need to run for an average of 14 hours per day.

Our approach is a little different.

First, we believe that VARs and MSPs need a platform that will do an excellent job for their smaller customers – particular those who do not have a large staff of IT professionals, or those who are using what AMI Partners, in a study they did on behalf of Microsoft, referred to as an “Involuntary IT Manager” (IITM). These are the people who end up managing their organizations’ IT infrastructures because they have an interest in technology, or perhaps because they just happen to be better at it than anyone else in the organization, but who have other job responsibilities unrelated to IT. Often these individuals are senior managers, partners, or owners, and in nearly all cases could bring more value to the organization if they could spend 100% of their time doing what they were originally hired to do. Getting rid of on-site servers and moving data and applications to a private hosted cloud will allow these people to regain that lost productivity.

Second, we believe that most of these customers are going to need access to their cloud infrastructure on a 24/7 basis. Smaller companies tend to be headed by entrepreneurial people who don’t work traditional hours, and who tend to hire managers who also don’t work traditional hours. Turning their systems off for 10 hours per day to save on run-time costs simply isn’t going to be acceptable.

Third, we believe that the best mix of security and cost-effectiveness for most customers is to have a multi-tenant Active Directory, Exchange, and SharePoint infrastructure, but to dedicate one or more XenApp server(s) to each customer, along with a file server and whatever other application servers they may require (e.g., SQL Server, accounting server, etc.). This is done not only for security reasons, but to avoid “noisy neighbor” problems from poorly behaved applications (or users).

In VirtualQube’s multi-tenant hosting infrastructure, each customer is a separate Organizational Unit (OU) in our Active Directory. Each customer’s servers are in a separate OU, and are isolated on a customer-specific vLAN. Access from the public Internet is secured with a common Watchguard perimeter firewall and a Citrix NetScaler SSL/VPN appliance. Multi-tenant customers who need a permanent VPN connection to one or more office locations can have their own Internet port and their own firewall.

We also learned early on that some customers prefer not to participate in any kind of multi-tenant infrastructure, and others are prevented from doing so by security and compliance regulations. To accommodate these customers, we provision completely isolated environments with their own Domain Controllers, Exchange Servers, etc. A customer that does not participate in our multi-tenant infrastructure always gets a customer-specific firewall and NetScaler, and customer-specific Domain Controllers. At their option, they can still use our multi-tenant Exchange Server, or have their own.

Finally, we believe that many VARs and MSPs will benefit from prescriptive guidance for not just how to build a hosting infrastructure, but how to sell it. That’s why our partners have access to a document template library that covers how to do the necessary discovery to properly scope a cloud project, how to determine what cloud resources will be required and how to price out a customized private hosted cloud environment, how to position the solution to the customer, how to write the final proposal, how to handle customer data migration, and much, much more.

We believe that partnering with VirtualQube makes sense for VARs and MSPs because that’s the world we came from. Our hosting platform was built by a VAR/MSP for VARs/MSPs, and we used every bit of the experience we gained from twenty years of working with Citrix technology. That’s the VirtualQube difference.

So You Want to Be a Hosting Provider? (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this series, we talked about the options available to prospective hosting providers, and specifically about the costs of purchasing your own equipment. In this post we’re going to drill down into the costs of building a Citrix Service Provider hosting infrastructure on Amazon.

Amazon has some great offerings, and Citrix has spent a lot of time lately talking about using the EC2 infrastructure as a platform for Citrix Service Providers. There was an entire breakout session devoted to this subject at the 2014 Citrix Summit conference in Orlando. Anyone who signs up as a Citrix Service Provider can get access to a spreadsheet that allows you to input various assumptions about your infrastructure (e.g., number of users to support, assumed number of users per XenApp server, number of tenants in your multi-tenant environment, etc.) and calculates how many of what kind of compute instances you will need as well as the projected costs (annualized over three years). At first glance, these costs may look fairly attractive. But there are a number of assumptions built into the cost model that should make any aspiring service provider think twice:

  • It assumes that you’ve got enough users lined up that you can get the economies of scale from building an infrastructure for several hundred, if not thousands, of users.
  • It assumes that you’ve got enough free cash to pay up front for 3-year reserved instances of all the servers you’ll be provisioning.
  • It assumes that, on average, your servers will need to run only 14 hours per day. If your customers expect to be able to work when they want to work, day or night, this will be a problem.
  • It assumes that you will be able to support an average of 150 concurrent users on a XenApp server that’s running on a “Cluster Compute Eight Extra Large” instance. Anyone who has worked with XenApp knows that these assumptions must be taken with a very large grain of salt, as the number of concurrent users you can support on a XenApp server is highly dependent on the application set, and doesn’t necessarily scale linearly as you throw more processors at it.

If all of these assumptions are correct, the Citrix-provided spreadsheet says that you can build an EC2 infrastructure that will support 1,000 concurrent users (assuming 10 customers with 100 users each for the multi-tenancy calculation) for an average cost/user/month of $45.94 over a three year period. But that number is misleading, because you have to come up with $377,730 up front to reserve your EC2 instances for three years. So your first-year cost is not $551,270, but $803,081 – that’s actually $66.92/user/month for the first year, and then it drops to $35.45/user/month in years two and three, then back to $66.92/user/month in the fourth year, because you’ll have to come up with the reservation fees again at the beginning of year four.

There are a couple of other things about this model that are troublesome:

  1. By default, it assumes only a single file server for 1,000 users, meaning that you would administer security strictly via AD permissions. It also means that if anything happens to that file server, all of your tenants are impacted. If we instead provision ten file servers, so that each of the ten tenants has a dedicated file server, it bumps the average cost by roughly $5/user/month.
  2. If your user count is 100 users per tenant, but you’re expecting to support 150 users per XenApp server, you’ll obviously have users from multiple tenant organizations running concurrently on the same XenApp server. This, in turn, means that if a user from one tenant organization does something that impacts XenApp performance – e.g., launches the Production Planning Spreadsheet from Hell that pegs the processor for five minutes recalculating the entire spreadsheet whenever a single cell is changed – it will affect more than just that tenant organization. (And, yes, I know that there are ways to protect against runaway processor utilization – but that’s still something else you have to set up and manage, and, depending on how you approach the problem, potentially another licensing component you have to pay for.) If we assume only 100 users per XenApp server, so that we can dedicate one XenApp server to each tenant organization, it bumps the average cost by roughly another $1.50/user/month.

“But wait,” you might say, “not many VARs/MSPs will want to – or be able to – build an infrastructure for 1,000 users right off the bat.” And you would be correct. So let’s scale it back a bit. Let’s look at an infrastructure that’s built for 250 users, and let’s assume that breaks down into five tenants, with 50 users each. Let’s further assume, for reasons touched on above, that each customer will get a dedicated file server, and one dedicated XenApp server. We’ll dial those XenApp servers back to “High CPU Extra Large” instances, which have 4 vCPUs and 7.5 Gb of vRAM each. Your average cost over three years, still assuming 3-year reserved instances, jumps to $168.28/user/month, and you must still be prepared to write a check for just over $350,000 for the 3-year reservation fees. Why the big jump? Primarily because there is a minimum amount of “overhead” in the server resources required simply to manage the Citrix infrastructure, the multi-tenant Active Directory and Exchange infrastructure, etc., and that overhead is now spread across fewer users.

Now consider that all of the prices we’ve been looking at so far cover only the compute and storage resources. We haven’t begun to factor in the monthly cost of Citrix or Microsoft Service Provider licensing. In round numbers, that will add another $25/user/month or so to your cost, including MS Office. Nor have we accounted for the possibility that some of your users may need additional SPLA applications, such as Visio or Project, or that some tenants may require a SQL server or some other additional application server. Nor have we accounted for the possibility that some of your tenants may require access to the infrastructure on a 24×7 basis, meaning that their servers have to run 24 hours per day, not just 14.

This is why, at the aforementioned session at the 2014 Citrix Summit conference in Orlando, the numbers presented in the session were challenged by several people during the ensuing Q&A, the general feedback being that they simply didn’t work in the real world.

So let’s quickly review where we are: As stated in Part 1 of this series, an aspiring hosting provider has four basic choices:

  1. Buy hardware and build it yourself. This was discussed in Part 1.
  2. Rent hardware (e.g., Rackspace) and build it yourself. This was not covered in detail, but once you’ve developed the list of equipment for option #1, it’s easy enough to get quotes for option #2.
  3. Rent VMs, as we have discussed above, and build it yourself.
  4. Partner with someone that has already built the required infrastructure.

We would respectfully submit that, for most VARs/MSPs, option #4 makes the most sense. But we’re biased, because (full disclosure again) VirtualQube has already built the infrastructure, and we know that our costs are significantly less than it would take to replicate our infrastructure on EC2. And we’re looking for some good partners.

In Part 3, we’ll go into what we believe an infrastructure needs to look like for a DaaS hosting provider that’s targeting the SMB market, so stay tuned.