As demand matures, new cloud apps call for new orchestration layer

As more customers migrated business applications into the cloud, IT provider CSC had to upgrade its legacy orchestration layer to handle complex provisioning needs.

When early adopters took their first, cautious steps into the cloud -- renting compute resources for application testing and development -- the back-end systems supporting them didn't need much pizzazz. But as enterprises gain confidence and entrust cloud providers with production-grade apps, the stakes rise for what providers need from their automation and orchestration layers.

Cloud and managed services provider CSC, which began as an IT outsourcing company in 1959, began to undergo orchestration-layer growing pains over the past year as its customer base grew in size and ambition, and moved more business applications into CSC's cloud.

"Three years ago, the focus for cloud had been test and dev, and … the requirements and nuances for orchestration were pretty limited. They just wanted the server and maybe the database, and the rest they did on their own," said Sunil Bhargava, global portfolio executive for cloud and hosting at CSC. "When we started pushing the boundaries at that time to go for production workloads … we found that our technology was inadequate."

What are vCloud Director's limits?

The automation and orchestration layers are part of the backbone of cloud services, enabling customers to provision, adjust or cancel services instantly through a self-service portal. This software automatically "orchestrates," or coordinates and executes, the complex series of back-end configurations necessary to add or change a service -- removing human error from and accelerating what would otherwise be a time-consuming, manual process for providers. 

The higher you go, the more manual the steps are because these more advanced applications have complex configurations.

Sunil Bhargava
Global Portfolio Executive for Cloud and Hosting, CSC

But not all automation and orchestration products are created equal, Bhargava learned. As CSC's cloud strategy matured, it needed an orchestration layer that could automatically provision specific applications and application workloads. Its legacy automation and orchestration layer, based on VMware's vCloud Director, excelled at spinning up operating systems, databases and development platforms, but Bhargava said it wasn't the best choice for going farther up the stack.

"As you move up to applications like SAP, Exchange or whatever -- the higher you go, the more manual the steps are because these more advanced applications have complex configurations," he said. "To [provision them] takes a lot of effort, which we all want automated."

Customers were also looking for greater integration with their Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) processes, particularly based on BMC Software's Remedy IT Service Management suite, which was another area where vCloud Director fell short, Bhargava said. 

CSC didn't want to throw away its existing investment in vCloud Director, however, and sought an orchestration layer that would work in concert with the legacy platform.

"It was important for us to retain because of other integration opportunities with customers, like on-premises virtual machine farms that are VMware-based," he said. "We needed our cloud to still have vCloud Director, and yet vCloud Director in itself wasn't going to be adequate to meet the needs of higher-level orchestration."  

Orchestration layer is 'key for agility' in cloud

Finding a service provider-grade orchestration layer that met all of CSC's needs at first proved difficult. Bhargava evaluated all of the "big names in this space," declining to name those vendors that weren't chosen. He found that many were too enterprise-focused or didn't integrate with vCloud Director. He ultimately chose Cisco Systems' platform, Intelligent Automation for Cloud.

"Enterprise customers are complex, and service-provider customers are complex. But people think they [need] the same thing, and that's not true," he said. "Cisco understood the service-provider perspective and had architected [its software] for it from three perspectives: functions and features of the product, the licensing model for the product, and how their staff was organized to provide us the support during implementation and ongoing."

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Cisco's Intelligent Automation for Cloud software performs three key functions for cloud providers: building and maintaining a reusable service catalog, making those services available to customers for purchase through a self-service portal, and automatically provisioning selected services based on its library of application-specific configuration requirements.

After a service has been provisioned one time, Cisco's orchestration layer "learns" what storage, server and network resources are necessary and delivers the service "in minutes or seconds," according to Flint Brenton, senior vice president of the intelligent automation solutions business unit at Cisco.

"It reduces our efforts from weeks down to a couple of days to start orchestrating a product we have never orchestrated before," Bhargava said. "After you've done it once, the second time it's … minutes or seconds to get a new service deployed. That is key for agility, and agility is key for cloud."

Cisco regularly updates the orchestration library, which currently supports about 180 business applications and comes with a software developer's kit (SDK) for providers to add more as needed, Brenton said.

Cloud orchestration: The road ahead

As CSC acquires more customers that want to migrate business applications to its cloud -- which is built with Virtual Computing Environment (VCE) coalition's Vblock architecture -- Bhargava would like to see Cisco offer some integration between its orchestration layer and a specific application vendor's orchestration capabilities. SAP's orchestration tool, NetWeaver Landscape Virtualization Management, is "superior at orchestrating SAP than using Cisco's standardized workflows," he said.

"Cisco's orchestration capabilities are quite superior, yet they will never be as good as the orchestration capabilities of a [specific] product vendor," Bhargava said. "I'd like to see them add that kind of support to their roadmap."

Overall, Bhargava is impressed with Cisco's roadmap for Intelligent Automation for Cloud -- particularly its attention to user experience. CSC is working with Cisco to build "portlets" and dashboards into customer portals, he said.

"We haven't deployed that portion in [general availability] yet … but we can already see it's going to have a significant improvement in the usability of our solution, and it'll accelerate our ability to integrate other solutions [into our cloud]," Bhargava said. "It allows us to bring the future forward faster."

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

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