Over the past few years, a very common question I’m asked by potential clients and colleagues is “whose cloud do you use?” and when I tell them that we built our own, they’re often puzzled and surprised. “Why not just use Amazon – isn’t it so much cheaper and better?” they ask me. There are several reasons why we’ve built our own cloud and don’t plan on moving to a public cloud anytime soon.
First, a bit of background…
Since 2003, well before the word “cloud” had anything to do with computing services delivered over the internet, our company has been offering cloud services. We started in a datacenter in Newark, NJ, stacking a handful of servers for clients who wanted their email to be “always up, no matter what,” and it worked. By 2007, we had outgrown that particular datacenter and moved to a larger facility in New York, and a few years later, in 2010, we opened our west coast facility in Seattle. Finally, in 2011, we moved our east coast datacenter once again to a site much better suited for our growth, where we continue to operate out of today.
Throughout the years, our approach has always been co-location, meaning that we lease the floor space, power, and bandwidth, and we build, own and manage all of the hardware and technology ourselves. As we’ve grown, we are continually upgrading or replacing various components that make up our private cloud infrastructure.
In 2006, Amazon Web Services (AWS) was launched, allowing anyone to “rent capacity” on their public cloud. Since then, they’ve added dozens of features and options (way too many for me to list here, but you can see them here), and have had a slew of competitors pop up, including Google, Microsoft, Rackspace, and SoftLayer. While we do utilize some of these public clouds for ancillary functions, all of our production systems still run within our own private cloud infrastructure. Here's why:
Some of what we do in our cloud requires dedicated physical servers or specialized appliances, which we host in our racks. Some of the solutions these help us achieve include network acceleration, high-performance database processing, data archiving and compliance, and specialized data storage. Because our infrastructure is completely our own, we’re able to seamlessly integrate both our physical and virtual systems with each other. Additionally, because we have plenty of spare capacity for special situations, we’re also able to regularly test new systems in our cloud.
The best cloud experience needs the best connection to the cloud. For us, that means partnering with the best upstream providers, building our own connection to the internet (AS394735) and ensuring that our clients have the fastest and smoothest connection into our cloud. For certain clients who need a direct layer-2 connection into our cloud (a private dedicated fiber link), we offer that as well.
Much of what we manage in our cloud are standard applications that would probably run fine on the commodity hardware in any cloud environment, but not everything. Demanding applications require specific hardware to perform at their peak levels. For example, Boxtop, our all-in-one cloud IT solution which includes cloud desktops that look and feel just like traditional Windows PC’s – squeezing milliseconds of performance every step along the way – requires specialized equipment and deep hardware configurations – things you can only do when you’re working in an environment that you own, and not “playing in someone else’s sandbox.”
Getting into a public cloud is much cheaper than building your own, as you only pay for what you need, which is kind of like taking Uber when you need a ride instead of car ownership and everything it entails (lease/finance payments, gas, maintenance, registration, insurance, etc.). For some people, Uber makes a lot of sense, but for others, ownership is the right way to go. Same goes for making photocopies – you can go to Staples and pay per page, or you can buy your own copier.
For our own private cloud, the cost has been spread out over the years (remember, we started with just a single cabinet back in 2003 and have been slowly growing from there), so rather than a single cash outlay, we’ve continually invested in upgrades and growth. Furthermore, the fees that a public cloud vendor charges can quickly add up – just like when you go to a store that sell loose candy for a few cents per ounce but then when you get to the counter and realize you just spent $15 on a cellophane bag of candy! Public cloud providers typically break down their offerings into tiny segments costing a few pennies each, and make it easy to add whatever you need as you need it, but those tiny segments can quickly balloon into a huge bill at the end of the month.
Accountability & Support
This is a big one for us. We’re in the business of managing our clients’ IT, so they can focus on growing their businesses. If and when something is wrong, we need to know what’s going on right away so we can start working on the solution AND be accountable to our clients. We give our clients a 30 minute Service Level Agreement (SLA) – one of the lowest in the industry – and our actual response time is typically under three minutes – faster than an ambulance. But what good is an SLA if our answer to our clients would be that all we know is the issue is with our cloud provider, and “they’re working on it.” While most public clouds are pretty reliable, they all, including Amazon and Microsoft, over the years have suffered outages anywhere from a few minutes to several hours.
Our clients hire us because they can’t afford to be down, and when they need us, we need to be there for them, to know exactly what’s going on, and to be in complete control of the situation, which we can’t do when we’re relying on someone else’s cloud.
Finally, it’s the comfort level of having our own environment, in facilities which we can access anytime we need, and seeing the physical components behind the cloud. More than our cloud being the lifeblood of our own company (we’re also our own customer and have our business in our cloud), it’s where our clients entrust their business to. To resell that trust to someone else, even if that someone is a huge conglomerate, doesn’t fit with our core values.
We know exactly where our cloud is, how it works, and what we can and can’t do with it. Like a gated community, our cloud is reserved only for our clients. When one of those clients wants to “see our cloud” to help them understand where their data lives, we are able to take them on a tour of our datacenters, so they can physically see the buildings, the redundancies, and the people who are responsible for protecting their information.