September 9, 2008

IronScale – The Future of Web Hosting?

IronScaleIt was the shot heard round the hosting world. Last month, my good friends at RagingWire announced their latest offering, IronScale, which has the potential to fundamentally change the hosting business. At least, that’s what the press release and the voice mail I received from Doug Adams, their head of sales claimed. Now, I’ve been doing business with RagingWire for almost 8 years, and I often tell people they have the best designed/built/run data center in Northern California, so I know they offer great services. I’m one of their only three-peat customers (I’ve put three different companies into their facility) and I’ve never been disappointed. Still, I tend to discount terms like “game-changing” as marketing fluff. I’m a “show-me” kind of guy. So they did.

Today I had the pleasure of an on-site demonstration and walk through of the IronScale service. I am impressed. On the surface, it is a typical managed server hosting offering. You rent one or more dedicated servers in their data center and they provide the operating system, network, internet bandwidth, security, etc. Pretty common stuff, and pretty boring. Why did I drive to Sacramento on one of the hottest days of the year for this (110F)? Well, you have to look beneath the surface, which I did, to see what they are really offering. At what I saw was awesome.

IronScale makes some bold claims for their services. Among them:

  • Dedicated physical hardware (Not VMWare or Zen virtualization)
  • Less than 5 minute server deployment
  • Instant reconfiguration of servers
  • Instant backups
  • No cost to reload the operating system
  • Everything easily manageable through a web portal, including provisioning, console access, network configuration, firewall rules, backups, and bandwidth provisioning
  • On demand Raid 50 storage
  • Enterprise class network security

The first two bullet points are what instantly sets IronScale apart from the competition. Most hosting provides focus either on rapid deployment or dedicated hardware, but not both. If you want dedicated hardware, then provisioning time takes 24-48 hours, because it takes time for an engineer to Ghost/JumpStart a server and put it on the network. If you want rapid deployment, you use virtualization technologies like VMWare. RagingWire figured out a Door #3.

Some of what I learned today is under NDA, and the product is in Beta and patent pending, so I need to tread carefully, but here is my best explanation of what they are doing. The core of the product offering is commodity servers connected to an enterprise-class storage area network. Rather that laying an OS down on the physical server, they SAN-boot it. Provisioning a new server is as simple as taking a SAN snapshot of an existing server image, and assigning it to a new server. Each server is connected to a high-end Cisco switch with integrated firewall that provides security and isolation from every other server at the port level.

Simple concepts. The special sauce here is not the mix of technologies, but the software they’ve written to control it all, and do so simply and securely. Want to provision a new server? Grab one out of the pool assigned to you, pick the OS baseline image you want on it, name it, give it an IP address from the available pool, and boot it. Click the next tab and you can write firewall rules in an easy to understand format. The IronScale software translates into the appropriate Cisco commands and applies the configs to the firewall. Need more storage? Pick the server, assign more space, and the software updates the SAN to allocate space to that image. The running OS instantly recognizes it as new available space (no reboot required).

Need a bigger server? Shut down the running server. Assign the image to a bigger box, and reboot. Want to backup your servers before applying the latest updates from Microsoft on Patch Tuesday (you know, just in case…)? Take an instant SAN snapshot. If something goes wrong, revert back. No calls to customer service. No waiting for days or weeks. It is fast, and it is easy.

Basically, this IS virtualization but not like what you’ve seen before. Instead of VMWare, Zen, Cloud, Grid, pick your buzz word virtualization, this is storage-based virtualization combined with some really kick butt management software. The servers are dedicated but the storage is not. The beauty of this is, among other things, it isn’t OS restricted. Although the initial offering is based on Windows and RedHat, there is no reason they can’t support Solaris (x86), BSD, or other flavors of Linux in the future. They don’t need to hook into the OS to perform their services, so any OS that will run natively on the hardware will work. And because the servers they are running are very generic, driver support should not be much of an issue. All you need is the 1st OS image, and the SAN snapshots do the rest.

This service is clearly designed for the mid market. I would say their sweet spot is customers wanting 5 – 50 servers, but the service can scale up to hundreds, if not thousands of servers. For bigger companies, it would make a good platform for proof-of-concepts, development environments, or any situation where you need to be able scale capacity up or down rapidly and make frequent changes. What would push this into uber-cool status is if IronScale works out billing based on time-slices. So, if I want a pool of 50 servers to generate load for testing purposes, but I only need them 1 hour per night, or I need a compute farm for end-of-month processing, I could pay just for the time I use the servers and shut them down the rest of the time. Other companies are offering capacity on demand, but most of those are grid-based, and you need to modify your applications to take advantage. IronScale could do capacity on demand with zero customer modifications.

This is a Beta product, because they are still adding features and I’m sure fixing bugs in the management software, but the core offering is fully baked and ready for prime time. I expect in the future, they will layer on a plethora of additional services, such as advanced security scanning, server virtualization to increase utilization of the hardware, and database server clustering. I sincerely hope they also package their management software and start selling it to enterprises in the future. Based on what I saw today, I would buy it with some minor tweaks.

I am planning to beta test this offering in the next few weeks, so hopefully I’ll have more information, and some screen shots soon. In the mean time, I encourage you to check out the online demo and give IronScale a serious look. http://www.ironscale.com/videos/demo

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