How does Skytap plan to take on the cloud?

Skytap is taking virtual labs into the cloud. So what do they think about cloud computing and the direction that it is taking?

Virtualization was long considered nothing more than a "buzzword" by many people in the industry. But over the last few years, the technology has really grown roots in most organizations throughout the world.

Today, the new buzzword seems to be cloud computing. Everyone is talking about it, but who is using it? We've talked about Amazon's EC2 technology, and we recently covered Microsoft's Azure announcement. So to find out more about the cloud, I recently spoke with Steve Brodie, the Chief Product and Marketing Officer over at Skytap.

[ For more on cloud computing offerings check out A guided tour of Amazon, Google, AppNexus, and GoGrid and get the facts from InfoWorld's cloud computing primer. ]

Q: Cloud computing is a crowded market with many large and niche players, and each with a slightly different definition of the category. How does Skytap define cloud computing?

Brodie: Well, cloud computing is an umbrella term that includes Software-as-a-Service (e.g. Salesforce.com), Platform-as-a-Service (e.g. Microsoft Azure), and Infrastructure-as-a-Service (e.g. Amazon EC2) offerings. These services typically:

  • Provide on-demand infrastructure and software services without an up-front investment
  • Scale up or down based on need
  • Use a "pay-as-you-go" or utility pricing model
  • Reduce costs and administrative overhead

We're also now seeing a new cloud category of solutions that combine different elements of the cloud stack to provide a complete solution for a business problem. Skytap, for example, provides a complete cloud-based lab solution delivering self-service provisioning of virtual lab environments combined with a powerful Web-based lab management application that enables global collaboration. It still retains the key cloud computing characteristics, but offers far more than raw infrastructure.

Q: What are the primary reasons customers are adopting virtual labs using the cloud computing model?

Brodie: Cost savings, business flexibility, and accelerated cycle times. With the current status of the economy, Skytap allows organizations to convert costly up-front capital lab expenditures to needs-based operational expenditures, effectively reducing capital expenditure, administrative overhead, and server sprawl.

Customers also highlight many other reasons for adopting virtual labs, including the ability to instantly create IT labs and access virtual infrastructure on demand, easily set up and tear down complex environments, and the ability to access the lab from any location over the Web.

Our development & QA customers are using virtual labs to improve time to market and software quality. Our customers from sales organizations are using Skytap for live demo and POC environments that radically compress sales cycles, and our training customers use our virtual labs to cost-effectively deliver hands-on training for on-demand, remote training classes.

Q: What does Microsoft's entry into the Virtual Lab market mean for customers and other players in the market?

Brodie: Virtual lab technology is entering mainstream adoption when Microsoft jumps into the fray. Microsoft's entry into Virtual Lab market will provide customers with a different choice over packaged application vendors such as VMware and Surgient. These vendors provide virtual lab management solution for traditional, large on-site installations and have good reason to be concerned about Microsoft's entry into the market. However, we see a different segment of customers who are opting for cloud-based virtual labs solutions for the following reasons:

  • No investment in servers and software required
  • Flexibility to scale resources for maximum cost efficiency
  • Seamless integration with existing on-site environments, tools and processes
  • Heterogeneous support for hypervisors and OS platforms
  • Broad selection of pre-built VM images and tools at their disposal

To make an analogy to the CRM market, we are the equivalent of Salesforce.com while Surgient and Microsoft are more akin to SAP and Microsoft Dynamics. Customers who want instant time-to-value, on-demand scaling up and down, and plus pay-as-you-go pricing will typically choose a cloud-based virtual lab over on-site packaged software and hardware.

Q: With the downturn in the economy, most companies are under pressure to cut IT costs while still delivering the same outcome. Can you provide examples of how "cloud economics" are helping companies in this situation?

Brodie: There are several ways the cloud can help companies cut IT costs while delivering superior service. IT environments are costly to build and manage, and typically require a large capital outlay as well as implementation and administration costs. Meanwhile, many of these infrastructure elements are underutilized and not easily deployed where they are needed most.

Cloud services provide the same datacenter infrastructure with actual usage billed hourly, effectively eliminating the initial capital expenditure for the hardware and implementation. This allows companies to reserve this budget for needs-based operational expenses. Cloud services are scalable to accommodate usage so customers have the bandwidth they need, never too much or too little. The resulting Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) with a cloud-based environment is typically 30 to 40 percent lower than managing infrastructures in house.

Q: What advice would you give to companies who have Cloud Computing written into their 2009 budgets, but aren't sure where to start?

Brodie: For an IT organization that isn't sure where to begin, I would encourage them to start by moving an IT environment, such as QA, IT ops testing, or training lab to the cloud. This will allow a company to evaluate the level of ROI on their investment and learn how cloud solutions can help them achieve larger business objectives. It's best to start with environments that are lower risk before moving to production workloads. Before choosing a cloud computing vendor, companies should also carefully evaluate SLAs and past performance to ensure they are selecting a reliable solution that can guarantee maximum uptime.

Q: One of the reasons IT dislikes the cloud is because it requires them to re-write their applications to run in a cloud. Is this true of all environments or do some clouds provide the flexibility to run applications "as-is"?

Brodie: Cloud vendors that require applications to be rewritten do so in order to take advantage of proprietary application frameworks or storage services. This makes it challenging for organizations to quickly leverage them for existing IT environments and applications. IT organizations who want to quickly see the benefits of cloud economics should look for cloud solutions based on open, industry-standard virtual infrastructures that support leading hypervisors, operating systems, and industry-standard application platforms. This will allow them to gain the benefits of the cloud today with their existing application architectures and investments.

Skytap is one of the only cloud platforms that allows companies to run their applications unchanged in the cloud. We provide advanced virtual machine and virtual networking services, allowing machines to continue using the same machine specifications, the same networking settings, and seamlessly connect to onsite infrastructure and tools as required. This enables IT and development teams to use a cloud service as an extension of their onsite IT environment and run existing applications, virtual machines and systems unchanged in the cloud.

Q: Cloud computing is a relatively new concept. How can enterprises get their feet wet without moving all of their operations to the cloud?

Brodie: The benefits of cloud computing are compelling, but no enterprise will jump head into the water without testing it first. Many organizations opt to transition dynamic IT lab environments, such as development and QA, IT ops testing, training and demo lab environments to the cloud as a first step. These environments provide a low-risk adoption path as well as the highest ROI as their usage fluctuates dramatically.

To make the move easier, customers should look for solutions that can provide a hybrid approach to cloud computing. By using the cloud as an extension of an existing environment, companies can scale cloud infrastructure for lab environments while maintaining business-critical production environments in house.

Q: What can customers expect to pay for cloud computing when they first jump in? How do different cloud vendors charge for their service?

Brodie: The beauty of cloud computing is that it provides a cost-effective way to access IT infrastructure on-demand. For example, Skytap's subscriptions begin at $500 per month.

True cloud computing vendors won't make customers undertake a capital expenditure. If you're asked to do this, customers should take a second look to see if their cloud vendor is a hosting provider in disguise.

Q: What type of ROI are companies seeing on their investments in virtual labs?

Brodie: Companies measure ROI from virtual labs in several ways, including increased productivity, reduced costs, and responsiveness to business demands. While most companies will see a 30 to 40 percent reduction in cost compared to managing an in-house datacenter, Skytap customers are achieving even greater results through faster cycle times and improved productivity.

One of our customers, Kivati, used Skytap's Virtual Lab Platform for its global application development and test platform and was able to save $250,000 in up-front capital expenditures. Additionally, the platform helped Kivati deliver its product to market three months ahead of schedule; a direct result of improved set-up and tear-down of multi-tiered environments by up to 80 percent as well as a 75 percent reduction of defect resolution time. Overall, Kivati experienced a 50 percent savings of Total Cost Ownership, compared to an internal test lab implementation.

Q: There is a lot of hype around the cloud. Realistically, where do you see the market moving in the next 3-5 years?

Brodie: At Skytap, we believe there are four adoption trends that will gain momentum in the coming years:

The first trend is companies, especially startups, using cloud services for scalable Web applications and storage. Amazon EC2 is a great example of this and the scalable nature of their platform and utility billing are compelling reasons to host new SaaS applications on this type of service.

The second trend we see is companies migrating highly dynamic, costly environments to the cloud. IT labs are great examples because their usage is very dynamic and the set-up and tear-down is a huge burden on IT teams. IT organizations are looking for low-risk, high-ROI projects to prove out cloud computing and lab environments, as these are ideal candidates to move to the cloud first.

The third trend we are just starting to see is organizations moving to a "hybrid" on-site cloud model to handle peaks and valleys in demand. Support for existing platforms and secure virtual private networking are very important for usage of these types of cloud environments to accelerate. New vendor initiatives, such as VMWare vCloud and Citrix C3, will provide virtual infrastructure to make hybrid environments easier to adopt.

Finally, we'll see the economics of cloud computing and maturity of vendor offerings cause companies to move most of their production environments to the cloud. We'll see also standards emerge around cloud interoperability, SLAs, and pricing. This could well be a five to 10 year process, but market forces and rapid innovation in this space will be the catalysts for this major industry shift.

Q: If you could sum up the benefit of cloud computing in one sentence, what would it be?

Brodie: Cloud computing solutions provide faster time-to-value without up-front capital investments, scale dynamically according to business needs and are more cost effective because they are billed using a utility model.

Thanks again to Steve Brodie, Chief Product and Marketing Officer at Skytap for taking the time to speak with me.

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