Automation overdrive: from IaaS to Blueprint engine

David Shacochis, VP, cloud automation platform, CenturyLInk Technology Solutions
David Shacochis, VP, cloud automation platform, CenturyLInk Technology Solutions

“Automation is the lifeblood of cloud,” according to David Shacochis. “It’s like liquidity in the financial sphere — if we had to barter and negotiate every single transaction, the economy would stagnate.” Shacochis’ observation speaks to a perception of cloud technology that is commonly held if not well understood — and to his own firm grasp on cloud infrastructure and its value proposition. The VP of cloud platform automation at CenturyLink Technology Solutions (CTS), Shacochis was a key driver behind the broadening and consolidation of CenturyLink automation strategy, which in turn served as impetus for the company’s acquisition of Tier 3. He was also in Toronto this summer to gauge progress on construction of a CA3 cloud node at the company’s TR1 facility in Mississauga, a new availability zone that came online earlier this month to offer expanded cloud service capability to Canadian customers (and to customers with Canadian deployments) and to demonstrate CenturyLink’s ongoing investment in global cloud services. As part of this initiative, Shacochis took time to discuss some of the cloud fundamentals with InsightaaS, explaining the role, range and results of automation to help users better understand how cloud can serve as the basis for ‘platform thinking’.

‘Cloud’ is a technology area that is replete with terminology: provisioning, automation and orchestration are important processes that tend to blur in the mind of the uninitiated, but which build upon each other to form advanced cloud services. Shacochis defined provisioning as the means to turn on or instantiate an IT service, a process that was done manually 10 to 15 years ago, but that is increasingly achieved through automation, “a broad umbrella term meaning the opposite of doing things manually.” Automation, he explained, may be based on triggers or conditions, and sometimes can be as simple as a scripted set of steps that make the provisioning process faster — and which may still involve a human pushing a button to initiate a sequence of event that have been put in place through automation design. Orchestration operates on another level, and means stringing together multiple, different automation/provisioning activities in sequence or in concert with each other. Fundamental to Shacochis’ definition of orchestration is outcome: “Automatically provisioning some storage, automatically provisioning some servers, tying those two provisioning elements together so that they know about each other, making them into a server and then attaching them to a network, provisioning and grabbing IPs, assigning them to the network, wrapping everything together, and making it a functional IT service — this is all orchestration, pulling together a series of automation actions that achieve a business or a technology outcome.”

A final component in automation architecture is the notion of abstraction, where services present themselves simply as an interface, without revealing the underlying complexity in the “box below.” According to Shacochis, “that notion of service abstraction takes place at every layer within the whole automation architecture,” and if the services are well defined and simplified, orchestration need not be complex or operate at a higher level. “All of those services that have a lot of complexity inside them have been wrapped in a layer of simplicity called abstraction,” he explained, “that’s how the whole thing ends up building itself up so that you don’t need to own a byzantine level of complexity as you are designing an orchestrated workflow.”

For service providers, automation is a critical platform requirement for the delivery of cloud services. Using manual processes and human intervention, Shacochis argued that it would be impossible to achieve cloud oriented architectures, and hence impossible to deliver elasticity in on-demand services — the ability to turn services up and turn them down again when they’re not needed, which is a key cloud value proposition. From a customer perspective, lack of automation would entail the building of infrastructure to address forecasted peak demand requirements, an expensive proposition that also translates into lack of speed and IT service agility. As Shacochis put it, customers would not be able to respond quickly to changing market conditions, in terms of seasonal demand or the need to experiment with products and services to maintain competitive positioning. With cloud, on the other hand, there’s no need for capital investment to start up the digital and technology-based pieces of new ventures, to tie into new IT resources. So for both cloud service provider, and for customers looking to stay abreast with “information-based innovation” in an increasingly competitive marketscape, cloud automation is “table stakes.”

CenturyLink has been at the table for some time now. An established IaaS player, the company has provided what Shacochis called “everything from floor tiles up to an appropriate level of service abstraction,” making this available to customers via the Cloud Control web-based provisioning portal or through a set of APIs that developers use to connect over a trusted network for resource provisioning inside the CTS cloud. A public beta version of AppFog, a PaaS platform based on Cloud Foundry middleware which supports PHP, Java, Node, Python and Ruby developers that was acquired by CenturyLink last June, is now available and will be integrated into the IaaS environment later this year.

But CenturyLink is now working to move beyond automation at the service layer to offer customers the ability to orchestrate for the development of custom, business orientated solutions. Shacochis sees this as a capability that will differentiate CTS in an increasingly crowded market space: “if you really want to be a top tier, high performing, market share gaining cloud computing platform, you can’t just say ‘we’re going to create servers or networks for you, we’re going to get machines to wake up for you on the Internet’.  You have to be able to allow customers to do more than just point instantiate individual services. Leading clouds in the industry give customers the ability to string together in a scripted, prefabricated customizable way all the different sequences necessary to create more of a functioning solution, or a business service where applications start coming into play — to orchestrate.”

Screenshot blueprintingAt CenturyLink, this functionality is now provided through a blueprinting engine, which creates deployable configuration templates that enable a user to automatically bring online new infrastructure resources that have been optimized to support custom apps or prepackaged software. As Shacochis explained, Cloud Blueprints represent an exposed orchestration layer where customers can take any combination of cloud provisioning actions, couple that with any installable software from the library, and modify that with runnable scripts they can upload into the engine — and invoke this whenever additional resources are required. For example, a customer could instantiate a server and load some ecommerce middleware from a technology partner, run a script to configure and tune it in the best way possible, create the database that the solution needs, load this and make it aware of the upstream server, and package this into a blueprint: “this is where automation, orchestration and workload specialists are all starting to fit together,” Shacochis added. Currently, CTS has blueprints for popular application areas such as Microsoft SharePoint, and has workload specialists working on blueprints for important areas such as ecommerce or Cassandra data management. Going forward, the company is also looking at niche industries such as law enforcement or healthcare, environments where software has been running for decades in client/server paradigms and clients are now looking to take advantage of automation without tearing down their software and rewriting it from scratch to transform it into SaaS applications.

In developing blueprint capability, CTS has worked to simplify the user experience. As compared with other clouds that Shacochis claimed have “powerful but arcane interfaces,” CTS has created a straightforward interface with drop down menus where the user creates a sequence of steps, declaring what the scripts and software library will be. According to Shacochis, “you don’t need to be a hard core developer in order to work with,” the technology is accessible to business users as well.

Creating standardized cloud building blocks, CTS is helping to fulfill business’ increasingly strident demand for faster, more agile IT services — by enabling IT to deliver it. “Cloud is the topic on every CIO’s mind,” Shacochis explained, as they strategize around how to improve and infuse their services with more information. The primary challenge for CIOs is how to modernized tech service capability, to stay on top of the explosion of innovation in service abstraction and data centre automation, while ensuring that IT is accessed out of the shadow and in a secure, standardized way with appropriate governance. “Every single CIO is looking for it,” Shacochis claimed, “cloud platforms that have already automated a massive chunk of what they need done” which will enable IT to move on to “platform thinking,” a state of mind that entails IT thinking of itself as a platform for defining standards, services and agile capabilities — on which business can innovate. In one final definition, Shacochis described platform thinking as the opposite of “project thinking” which is largely reactive to the need for isolated, new IT requirements, an approach that lead to self-service capabilities with well documented, public and published access to resources through an intuitive and self-explanatory user interface. A platform makes a community of users more effective, he explained, an increasing requirement in the hyper-competitive markets of today.


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