Is ‘IT-as-a-service’ a creature of vendor marketing departments or reality for consumers of IT today? As with most definitional questions in the world of IT, the answer is ‘it depends’. For many companies that rely on technology to drive the business agenda in the here and now, ITaaS represents a future vision where IT supports and unites all areas of the business, is delivered on demand, in increments as needed and in a seamless fashion that is transparent to the user — likely by a third-party with the knowledge and infrastructure to drive resource efficiency. In other words, is more aspirational than actual. But when cloud technology is added to the mix, new ways of consuming IT draw this future vision closer to reality, pushing IT delivery to new utility models encapsulated by the term ITaaS.
This past week, CenturyLink Technology Solutions (CTS) moved closer to this concept through launch of managed services on its Cloud platform. For the customer, this means the delivery of CTS hosted managed services on demand, billed in hourly increments, with what CTS calls "cloud utility ease" by a provider with extensive experience in both cloud and managed services and ample data centre resources. Ultimately, CenturyLink expects to transition its entire hosted managed services portfolio to the Cloud platform and will add services each quarter, but for now is offering eight services via cloud: Windows Server 2008 and 2012 and Red Hat Enterprise Linux 6 managed operating systems, Active Directory, web servers such as Apache HTTP Server, Microsoft Internet Information Services, Apache Tomcat middleware, and Microsoft SQL Server and MySQL database technologies. Commenting on the services included in this first round, Richard Seroter, head of product management, CenturyLink Cloud, explained that CTS focus on these high demand services is designed to "democratize" managed services, as cloud delivery will make these services available to new groups, such as the startup or to department within an organization who cannot wait for services, or the enterprise that is unable to commit to a large outsource contract.
For the technology consumer, this announcement begs a question that should be considered when organizations are making procurement decisions. Are there differences between hosted managed services and cloud if both offer remote access to applications, operating systems and infrastructure — and do these differences matter? At a practical level, the CTS announcement demonstrates a blurring of the lines between these two service categories that is underway: as Seroter noted, "it’s a combination of traditional managed services with the CenturyLink Cloud — allowing people to start at the cloud level and provision on demand hourly managed services for operating systems and applications that plug into that same team, the standard, massive service organization that we use for customers today."
To achieve integration, CTS has made some changes to its managed services offerings to render them more cloud friendly; for example, services no longer involve a monthly contractual commitment, and are now provisioned on demand. "With traditional managed services," Seroter explained, "from the time you call up and say ‘I’m interested’ until you’re up and running could take a week or two given the time it takes to do contracts, set up physical gear, get things installed and configured. In our case, you are going to be going from zero to managed server in well under an hour." So while managed services will continue to rely on multiple engineers for delivery, the requisition process and provisioning have been "cloudified." Does this matter? Certainly if speed and ease of access to IT resources are important to your business.
Another characteristic of traditional managed services is management on behalf of clients by the provider. With the new combined offering, there is combined access and control. As example, Seroter cited the case of operating system services, where CTS would automate provisioning — configure the server, harden security, shut off extra ports, install monitoring agents and connect it with the CenturyLink backbone — while the customer retains control over capabilities like increasing capacity on demand, or turning the server off for a period of time. "It’s no longer a black box where you have to contact CenturyLink and go through a gateway to do anything with your server," Seroter noted. "This is a change from how traditional managed services are today — we wanted to add some of the self-service that you have in the cloud. You can do a managed OS, and still have that kind of control over the server."
According to Seroter, the flexibility provided by hourly billing in the new "cloudified" managed services has obvious applications — spinning up different environments for a two week campaign, performance testing or doing a proof of concept project, for example, but more importantly, "this does open up new scenarios that a customer may never have considered managed services for before." And this flexibility may have special appeal for an internal department such as HR or R&D that does not have a lot of technical staff on hand and is not interested in going through central IT for its web applications. A managed server in the cloud, where a third-party takes care of licensing, patching, administration, monitoring and SLAs offers good value for this group, Seroter argued: "For temporary projects, it’s important to have the right security hardening or 24/7 monitored because if this goes off line it may disrupt a very small delivery window. This kind of service can really help big projects, and spending an extra hundred dollars for a managed server for a couple of weeks clearly outweighs any cost of downtime or inconsistencies that might happen if you are completely self-service."
While CTS’ traditional market is the enterprise segment, this cloud flexibility opens opportunity for the company with the SMB, or even developer communities, as managed services may help fill in shortages in the smaller organization’s IT skill sets. This also applies to departments within the enterprise. While not looking to facilitate the trend towards ‘shadow IT’ — where procurement of IT is initiated by the business as opposed to the IT manager, with predictably questionable outcomes from a security perspective — Seroter agreed that the offering "acknowledges the existence of it" and in fact, helps companies cope with the fallout. CTS managed platforms provide many of the governance, accounting and control requirements that are not always available in some of the popular public cloud services. "With this platform, we have been building things like account management, where I can have an account hierarchy in which each division gets their own chargeback and can see their own invoicing and consumption, and I can layer governance on top, specifying that this division only has this much capacity that they are allowed to provision, or this group of servers only has this much capacity. So we provide some of the usage, governance and audit capabilities in the platform, while maintaining self-service on demand." With centralized billing, and the same networking backbone, user permissions, and billing agreements, "you don’t have this wild west of cloud, where your inventory shows ten or twelve different platforms," he added. Does this delivery of governance and compliance capabilities matter? Only if your organization is looking for a single platform that will provide the IT department with the tools it needs, while offering the user what he/she needs — on demand, fast self-service IT.
CenturyLink’s ability to fulfill a range of IT needs has served as the company’s key value proposition for some time. Through its combination of colocation, managed services and cloud offerings, the company claims to provide unique ability to service the need for hybrid IT infrastructure that industry watchers agree will be the dominant model for the foreseeable future. By integrating its managed services and cloud offerings, CenturyLink is playing on its heritage multi-service strengths to create additional capabilities that will play in the hybrid world. The first, real joint-engineering project since CenturyLink’s acquisition of the Tier 3 cloud platform, Seroter explained that integration work consumed three months and has resulted in a "true platform as opposed to a one off integration." With the platform, the CenturyLink Cloud orchestration engine is able to kick off processes on the CenturyLink services side that install agents on machines, register billing components, etc., while taking advantage of newly created web service APIs (SOAP and REST) to call back and forth between systems. The result is an automated pipeline that goes on behind the scenes — a platform that removes the human engineering to allow the customer point and click management.
As a platform with standard APIs, the new cloud/managed services offering is also aimed at service provider customers looking for automated backend processes, including billing. From a corporate perspective, CTS has different contracts for customers depending on minimum time or spend commitments as well as "different discount knobs that we can turn on and off," Seroter added. As cloud infrastructure becomes increasingly commoditized, the ability to deliver and easily monitor fulfillment of premium services engagements will become critical — and the CTS platform increasingly attractive to the service provider community as well. So while CTS has brought cloud agility to managed services, baked in services capabilities (no third party software required!) help to differentiate CTS in cloud markets, and through marriage of the two, CenturyLink has generated new outcomes — simplification and reduced friction in procurement. "We think we’re jumping into another generation of cloud," Seroter concluded, "where we’ve got the early adopters past some of the self-service capabilities. Now it’s about optimization and having capabilities like managed services move you from just consuming cloud resources to consuming them well. And we want to be at the beginning of that."
CTS cloud-based managed services will be available starting June 30 through CenturyLink Cloud nodes in Santa Clara, California, and Sterling, Virginia, with additional managed services and global locations in Europe and Asia enabled later this year.