Hybrid hosting: Marrying hosted, cloud environments with little capex

Rackspace built a hybrid hosting environment at minimal cost by reconfiguring existing devices to securely and automatically bridge its cloud and dedicated hosting networks.

If service providers isolate their new cloud computing networks in dedicated data centers apart from other revenue-generating services, they limit their opportunities for growth and add complexity to service delivery models. One cloud and managed hosting provider has proven that building a hybrid hosting environment requires some creative engineering -- not a new data center.

Rackspace US Inc. reconfigured existing devices in its data centers to launch and automate a new service bridging formerly separate networks. This approach reduced cost and complexity for the service provider and its customers.

We needed something to not just connect those networks, but to do it securely. We don't want to open up everyone in the cloud to a customer's hosting environment.

Toby Owen
Product Manager for Hybrid Hosting, Rackspace

Rackspace built its data centers more than a decade ago to support managed hosting services, building custom mini-networks for each individual customer, according to Toby Owen, product manager for hybrid hosting at Rackspace. Multitenant cloud computing architecture required the opposite approach. When it rolled out its cloud services a few years ago, Rackspace built a separate network to support them.

If customers wanted to link their hosted and cloud environments, they had to buy a separate virtual private network (VPN) product and pay for the bandwidth, which provided a typically sluggish connection, Owen said. The lack of high-quality hybrid hosting made the cloud services somewhat unattractive to customers who had invested heavily in dedicated hosting.

"We've seen increasing demand and usefulness in having cloud [infrastructure] be a part of a customer's managed configuration -- or having those two environments connected so a single application could use pieces of both," Owen said. "We needed something to not just connect those networks, but to do it securely. We don't want to open up everyone in the cloud to a customer's hosting environment."

Hybrid hosting would allow customers to use cloud and hosting services in a complementary fashion to handle unpredictable spikes in traffic in Web-based applications and services more efficiently, Owen said.

"We grew up hosting websites, but a lot of lot of our customers have moved beyond simple websites and are doing online applications, SaaS offerings and things like that," he said. "A lot of those customers have a lot of variable traffic, depending on whether it's a product launch … where they're expecting that traffic or -- if it's [a] social media [site] -- where there are unexpected spikes in traffic."

Hybrid hosting on the cheap through reconfiguration of hardware

Rackspace wanted to minimize investment in new equipment but didn’t want to spend time on a large-scale re-engineering of its data centers to enable hybrid hosting, Owen said. The service provider sought a redesign that "would have the ability to use the cloud with little or no additional cost," he said.

Hundreds of customers had already been leasing F5's BIG-IP application delivery controllers for load balancing and Cisco Systems' Adaptive Security Appliances (ASAs) for firewalls, Owen said. Working with both vendors, Rackspace was able to reconfigure the devices to support secure and efficient hybrid hosting and launch a new service, Cloud Connect.

Instead of being slaved to a VPN, the networks connect at local area network (LAN) speeds -- many of them at 10 Gbps -- with minimal latency, he said.

Using application program interfaces (APIs), Rackspace's engineers built an automation engine for the devices so that customers could turn resources up or down immediately from a Web portal, Owen said.

"It's moving beyond [creating] a bridge of those two networks," Owen said. "That connection is essentially filtered, so we automatically apply security rules that allow [those] cloud servers to only talk to their hosting environment.… [Customers] don't need to pick up the phone and call support to let us know they've added servers."

Rackspace isn't making money directly off of Cloud Connect, per se. Customers who lease BIG-IPs and ASAs today use the service for free, and the provider doesn't want to "sell an F5 [device] to a customer just to do Cloud Connect if they don't need a load balancer," Owen said.

In addition to lowering overhead and gaining a competitive edge, hybrid hosting makes cloud and hosting products appealing to customers who previously used one or the other, he said.

"Not only is it more expensive for the customer to keep dedicated server capacity online that they're not using, but that stuff is more expensive to implement because it's custom … [and] more expensive for us to deploy," Owen said.

Moreover, he added, "if [customers] have a cloud database and aren't getting the performance they'd like, we can move it to a dedicated machine and connect that to the cloud environment."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer.

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