Category Archives: Cloud Computing

LEAP

If you are a regular reader of this blog you know that Westcon is a distributor of Networking, UC, Security, and Data Center technologies.  We do about $3.0 billion in revenue per year and distribute solutions to over 70 countries.  We conduct business under two brand names – Westcon and Comstor.  As CTO I am responsible for both the technology that runs the enterprise and also setting the overarching strategic direction of the firm from a technology perspective.  So, I get to work with the stuff we distribute.

There have been a number of posts on our Data Center Consolidation project and our migration to virtualization.  Our journey towards selecting the right platform for us was important on a number of levels.  Obviously we wanted to make the best selection for our enterprise from an ROI perspective.  But we also planned ahead and utilized the decision making process as a framework that we would share with our customers (Resellers, SI’s, Service Providers) to help them in understanding the decision making process of the average mid-size enterprise end-user/buyer. 

The Framework

Substantial technology decisions must always be premised on rational business justification.  The bigger the purchase, the more demand for a coherent, articulate business justification (ie not tech-talk).  The learning process involved in acquiring new technology has to be at two levels – what is the technological benefit and what is the business benefit.  In addition to learning about the technology and the business rationale, there is the need to actually experience the technology in action.  Especially if the technology is on the leading edge, such as Virtualization or Cloud.  And, no technology purchase happens in a vacuum.  Understanding how the new technology can be architected into a heterogeneous environment needs to be part of the process.  Lastly, the larger the decision, the greater the need for a clear plan, with specific milestones, in order to ensure business and technology decisions are synchronized for success.

LEAP – Learn, Experience, Architect, Plan

This high level decision making process became a framework that the channel can use in conversations with their customers.  In order to deliver on this framework, Westcon recognized that an environment was needed to step through the four steps of the process – learn, experience, architect and plan.  To achieve that goal, Westcon will begin launching LEAP Centers around the globe in the coming months.  The first center opens in Brussels, Belgium this week (September 29, 2010) followed by the opening of the Denver, Colorado LEAP Center on October 20, 2010.  Additional sites in Australia, Brazil, Singapore, and South Africa will come online in the future.

Each LEAP center is designed to help the channel (with end-users when desired) learn about new technologies, the business value of the technology, and how the technology actually performs in live, heterogeneous technology environments.  The goal is for Westcon’s customers (Reseller, SI or Service Provider) to truly understand these new technologies and what the proper architectures are for solutions that include these new technologies.  Ultimately the goal of the LEAP center is to create a more informed channel partner who can successfully sell the solutions efficiently and effectively.

Our experiences as an average IT organization showed that our engineer’s “new technology skepticism” was eradicated when they had the chance to work with the equipment real-time.  As an example, in the case of our data center consolidation, the original selling points for our technology configurations were superseded with more important benefits once the team got their hands on the equipment. Appreciation for these new capabilities would not have been accomplished without working with the equipment.  That is a key objective of the LEAP Center.

Your LEAP Center

Each LEAP Center is a fully configured data center, running hardware and software from multiple manufacturers in order to create a more realistic IT environment.  The center contains equipment from vendors that, in some cases, Westcon does not even distribute.  Westcon has full-time engineers dedicated to the running of each LEAP Center.   But make no mistake about it, the LEAP Center is a center for our customers.  We built it for our channel customers.  Our goal is for our customers to be successful in deepening relationships with, and ultimately selling to, their end-users by creating greater value to their customers through the knowledge gained in a LEAP experience.   We want our customers to consider the LEAP center as an important component of their portfolio of sales strategies, tactics and tools.  LEAP Centers will help our customers Learn and Experience the technology, but also be an environment wherein they can bring in their customers to work on specific Architectures and Plans.  In order to do that, Westcon has committed millions of dollars in the development of the LEAP Center.  Ultimately, Westcon believes that this investment for our Resellers, Systems Integrators, and Service Providers will generate profitable success for our customers, their customers, our vendor partners and the channel as a whole.

We look forward to seeing you at one of the LEAP Centers soon!

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Cloud Physics

Westcon’s migration to Microsoft’s BPOS Cloud Solution has brought sunlight to some broken processes that reinforce the need to really plan out before jumping to the cloud.  Although we discussed this topic earlier in another post on the WestconCTO blog, we thought it might be of value to discuss it again but from a different angle.  We would like to share our experiences in the context of the channel opportunities, the need for advisory services, and the recognition that although Cloud Services are the way to go for commoditized technologies such as email, even then the ramp-up will be slower than the hype due to the hidden complexities lurking in every organization’s business processes.

The Silver Lining here is the services and guidance that are truly needed are an opportunity since they appear to be underestimated in many cloud deployments.  In our case, because of proximity of the physical servers, and the fact that it appears our own engineers were doing things on the QT (to genuinely help their business colleagues succeed), the business processes of our organization have become severely clogged or weighed-down.  The “ease of use” of just dumping everything into email was in some cases compounded by business partners who took the easy way out, too.  The interactions between the organizations, and within our own organization, relied more and more on “softly structured” data and less on structured data interactions.  “softly structured” means to us that the information necessary to complete the transaction is structured, but it is wrapped inside an email, rather than just being communicated via a webservice or EDI. You can actually see the structure of the data in the email.  The reliance on email, rather than taking the extra step to utilize existing message bus/SOA architectures is one example of the many types of process adhesions that your customer’s organization has most probably created, which will be exacerbated when they migrate to the cloud and all the cut-corners are exposed.

The opportunity is this – having an appropriate partner to work with when the end user is deploying a cloud service is crucial to success and an opportunity for the channel.  There are “quick answers” to the problem (OCR the email would be one), and there are more strategic solutions (tighter, structured messaging/SOA designs that are easier to incorporate) that need to be addressed before the end user goes to the cloud.  Our sense is that the smarter members of the channel will see this, and by bringing in the appropriate architects, process consultants, or engineers, the end user will ultimately be more successful in their utilization of the cloud.  This does lead though to a hard conversation around costs.  Most companies are not going to the cloud to improve their business processes, they are going there to reduce costs, and will perhaps not react well to the process re-engineering conversation that must occur before going to the cloud.  Nothing worthwhile is every easy, and this applies to the cloud as well.  This also means that any of your sales folks who are projecting cloud services sales within their pipeline had best ensure that they are allocating the appropriate lead time for this analysis.  If not, they may suffer from premature pipeline projections, or the customer will suffer from an unsatisfied customer experience after the cloud service has been deployed.

We have had some great experiences in the cloud, reaping real dollar savings.  We have also stubbed our toes.  But this does translate into opportunity for the smarter members of the channel.  Again, there are significant changes on the horizon due to the cloud.  We feel having the early experiences here at Westcon, as well as at your own organization, with the impact of these newer offerings, will only help solidify your relationships with your customers.

DC Consolidation, UCS and BPOS

If you have been a steady reader of this blog you know Westcon/Comstor is in the midst of a data center consolidation project, moving our production infrastructure to the new Cisco UCS platform with EMC Clariion.  The past two weeks were wins, on a couple of levels.

Westcon’s Single Global ERP system runs on three instances.  Our most recent win was the completion of the migration of our North American instance to the Cisco/EMC platform.  We had a number of challenges along the way, and it will be a couple weeks before we declare complete victory, but there were immediate performance benefits that are immediately helping our sales, operations and finance colleagues.  We are really seeing queries that would take 3 minutes now return results in 30 seconds.  Batch jobs are running significantly faster.  This translates into the potential for larger windows of uptime.  And, as Comstor’s/Westcon’s business continues to grow, and the transaction volume continues to increase, we have the headroom to take on the volume without increasing our batch windows.  The performance of the platform has so far been living up to its expectations.

In addition to having a very smart, tireless, group of application’s, infrastructure and engineering colleagues inside Westcon, and great support from Cisco, EMC and CBTS (our data centers are being consolidated as a managed service within Cincinnati Bell – another great story for another post someday soon), one of the key reasons we were able to make the move in a relatively calm manner was our use of BPOS.  For those of you who are not familiar with BPOS – BPOS is Microsoft’s cloud offering combining Exchange, Sharepoint, OCS, LiveMeeting and Forefront.  Except for a couple of special mailboxes, everyone in North America was migrated to BPOS last year.  Why is this important?  Well, it was nice that we did not have to move all the Exchange servers from our old data center to our new data center.  We had slowly been de-commissioning the servers these past few months as part of the data center consolidation, but you have to love it when a plan comes together.  We only moved one.  The natural, high-level stress associated with a data center move was mitigated just a little bit because we did not have to manage the move of our messaging platform.

Why do we talk about this?  This blog is written for many different audiences, but one of the objectives of this blog is to help Westcon’s and Comstor’s customers (Resellers, Service Providers, and Systems Integrators around the world) understand what their customers are going through, and how the cloud can help as companies migrate to virtualization and new data-center converged platforms such as UCS/EMC.  Helping Westcon’s customers and Comstor’s customers provide a complete vision, optimized for the customer’s business situation, that leverages sound architectures, is a large part of the Westcon/Comstor value proposition.  We are literally eating our own dogfood.  We run our company on the products we distribute, sharing those experiences with our customers, part of which is why we write this blog.  We get many responses here from customers and suppliers, and encourage you to send your comments or questions any time on what we are going through if it can help you help your customers.

Crowd Sourcing and Cloud Services

Recently we met with a firm that provides crowd sourcing for enterprise systems development.  Crowd sourcing as a concept has been around for a while but perhaps it is about to take another step in its maturation cycle.  The reason we think this is because of the acceleration in the wider acceptance and usage of cloud services. 

IT management has already gone through a maturation of its requirements and specifications processes.  Any weakness in their internal development process was exacerbated with the advent of offshoring.  If your specs were not high quality when you offshore’d your project, you could be assured you would get back a poor quality solution.  So, firms have improved substantially in their requirements definition and specifications processes.  That evolution could now pay dividends in the crowd-sourcing environment, since the enterprise can place those specs in a crowd sourcing development environment and can expect a high quality product in return.  Now with the advent of cloud computing, the cultural acceptance of using crowd sourcing becomes more acceptable if we were to consider crowd sourcing as a cloud service. (For those of you with a religious commitment to the definition of “cloud services”, you may want to stop reading here.  We recognize we are stretching the definition, but if Mother Nature can stretch volcano ash across Europe and shut down air-traffic for 5 days, we figure we can stretch the definition of the sacrosanct phrase “cloud services” for this post!)

The crowd sourcing platform, conceptually, is another cloud service in the arsenal of weapons that an IT leader now has at her disposal to provide high-quality/low-cost solutions to her enterprise customers.  You could take this situation and stretch it into an argument for the business user to go straight to the cloud, bypassing IT, but I don’t buy that portion of the argument.  (Any organization that allows its business users to bypass its own IT organization to provide an IT solution should look in the mirror with regards to how they are managing and utilizing IT).

Anyway, there is clearly an opportunity here for crowd sourcing to take the next step in utilization.  Combining that service with other cloud services (Infrastructure as a service, for example), can lighten the IT CAPX load even further.  “Application development as a service” environments in the cloud can benefit not only from enterprises who use them today, but could be the shared environment for heterogeneous development environments that utilize portions of the cloud for development and crowd sourcing and their own internal teams tomorrow. 

Westcon has been utilizing the Amazon cloud for almost a year now, both as its storage as a service solution and its elastic computing environment.  We have been quite successful in utilizing it for application development.  We can spin up new environments quickly, and working with our offshore partners, it is quite cost-effective.  Now the question is, how can IT leaders take that platform, and expand the number of development resources to speed up delivery time and reduce costs through the use of crowd sourcing on a cloud service platform.

As IT becomes more comfortable in these mixed environments,  IT can focus on higher business value initiatives such as business process optimization and delivery of optimal business solutions that can give their organization a competitive advantage.  To me, the benefit of cloud services and crowd sourcing is not just the agility and cost effectiveness it affords IT, but how the enterprise transforms its IT organization to focus more on competitive advantage and value add for its own customer base and the markets in which they compete.

Business Process in the Cloud

Westcon is going through the a migration from an in-house Exchange environment to a cloud service, provided by Microsoft, as part of their BPOS offering. From time to time we will share our progress, starting with this posting.

No IT shop is perfect.  We share below the trials and tribulations at Westcon to hopefully help you make sure you grow from our experiences.  That’s part of Westcon’s mantra – help our customers succeed through every avenue possible.  And that includes Westcon’s commitment to being on the cutting edge of many of these technologies – we experience it first, in order to help our customers (and their end users) achieve success faster and more profitably.  So, I will open the kimono here a bit about Westcon in the hope that it help you learn from our experiences.

Westcon was originally a Lotus Notes shop, and a few years ago we migrated to Exchange.  At the time, it appeared to make sense to replicate business processes on the Exchange environment in a similar manner to how those business processes functioned under Notes.  This approach had a negligible negative impact on performance since the servers were local.  There were some shared workspaces with inherent workflow with few storage limitations.  People did not notice the negative impact on performance in an Exchange environment when you tried to make Exchange act like Notes. 

I am not going to get into a discussion of Notes over Exchange.  I think Notes was, and is, one of the more misunderstood technologies.  Notes is so much more than messaging.  I am actually old enough to remember a distant past when you didn’t even use Notes for “email”, there were other tools use for messaging. And, Notes is one of the most powerful collaboration/database technologies out there, when used properly.  Exchange too is an excellent technology.  A world class messaging platform.  But, Notes is not Exchange and Exchange is not Notes. 

Why is this important when migrating to the cloud?  Simply put, once the servers are in the cloud, performance of the servers was trumped by bandwidth and latency.  And now, what was an “imperceptible, but somewhat unnatural use of Exchange” became a perceptible problem.  There is nothing wrong with the cloud service, and there is nothing wrong with the platform.  The challenge is identifying the most effective technology to support a particular business process.  So, although Westcon has successfully migrated 85% of its employees to the Exchange environment, there are a handful of shared mailboxes that have performance problems when put in the cloud.  These shared mailboxes should, and will, be migrated to alternative platforms (e.g. Sharepoint) in order to allow the software that supports those business processes to function appropriately and perform acceptably. 

Ironically, Westcon has a parallel project underway that is globally mapping each business process for the firm.  This “touchmap” project will be covered in detail in a later post, but the project has produced significant savings for Westcon globally, and once we pointed the projects attention towards the abovementioned shared mailbox problem, the touchmap team helped us identify the end to end process, implications and solutions, very quickly.

Here’s the point – when migrating to cloud services, it’s not simple.  Even though you may be using the exact same piece of software, except now its “just in a cloud”, the conversion must be considered as you would the introduction of any new piece of technology – no matter how familiar you are with the underlying platform.  Our experiences clearly indicate that any technology introduction or migration is best tested through an impact analysis on business processes.  The migration of the technology to the cloud is the easy part, the more difficult part is the quantifiable assessments of business impact associated with the migration.  Hopefully anyone having read this far realizes the explosion in business advisory and consulting services that must now accompany any cloud services migration. The conversion to the cloud requires a deep understanding of the target company’s business processes.  Many organizations have been able to avoid doing this type of work in the past, since everything was controlled within their own 4 walls.  But now they can’t necessarily mitigate business process disruption through sheer IT brute-force.  Now companies must really OWN their business processes.  They need to understand how their business flows, in detail, in order to successfully achieve all the savings that cloud services dangle in front of their eyes.  Many end users will require help in nailing down those process definitions.

New Zealand

We spent this past week meeting with CxO’s and IT leaders in the country of New Zealand.  As a country, New Zealander’s are considered on the forefront of using technology, and are a good indicator of what technologies will be taking the lead in the industry in the near future.  It also doesn’t hurt that the country is beautiful and the people are wonderful.

In every meeting, the key issues that came up were Cloud Services, Desktop Virtualization and Unified Communications.  The conversation on Cloud Services was focused on the management of the plethora of services that are arising every day, and how to create the most frictionless, integrated portfolio of services in an aggregated fashion.  Many of the folks are expecting  the distributor to play the key role in the distribution of cloud services.   And work in partnership with the resellers, service providers and systems integrators that focus on meeting customer needs.  Specifically, the role of Westcon is to provide services for our customers and not to compete with them to meet the needs of the end-user/enterprise.

In the area of Desktop Virtualization, New Zealand has real examples of real projects underway.  These projects have tangible, measurable, common-sense ROI that shows how the technology is being used to help the end-user enterprise reduce costs and provision desktops more efficiently.  These are not pilots, nor are they technology projects for technology’s sake.  They are desktop projects that meet the needs of the enterprise using the right technical approach.

In the area of Unified Communications, there are similar challenges with regards to getting the most out of the technology investments that have been made, and how can video play a larger role in the UC eco-system.  Not the larger telepresence-like systems, but the smaller desktop, point-to-point solutions.

New Zealand is clearly a country that leverages technology advances to the betterment of its enterprises.  And, in many examples, New Zealand is taking a lead role in how these technologies are being used.  We look forward to seeing more of what comes from this country that can be used as leading examples around the world.

Hyper Cloud Storm

As with anyone in IT, we study the many different articles every week on the major trends in technology – the business aspects, implications and the pure geeky bits and bytes of being in one of the most exciting industries in business today. And, right now within the industry, you can’t go 5 minutes without getting a twitter message, blog post or news article on Cloud Computing.  The hype can be overwhelming. 

So, of course, we are now starting to see articles that indicate that cloud technology is lagging behind the hype.  Specifically, xAAS technologies.  If you can ignore the hype, you would hear us completely disagree.  Cloud-based services are working, and will continue to improve the agility and ROI of most IT organizations.   Westcon itself  has developed some significant experiences in Cloud-based services. We utilize Microsoft’s BPOS technology as well as Amazon’s EC2, as just two examples.  And, we are very pleased with the technology – though there have been bumps in the road.  The bumps in the road have not been serious, and the benefits have thus far outweighed the bumps in the road.  This is not an advertisement for either of the above-mentioned products per se, but it is a statement of fact that these technologies have worked very well for us and provide our organization with significant value.  (I will go into the cost-benefits in future posts.)  

The reason for this post was to point out that as the hype pendulum over cloud technologies swings from ecstasy to agony, we want to point out that the hype is just that – hype.  The technologies work, we have been using them for quite some time, and can work with our customers confidently, speaking from experience, about how these technologies can help an organization and what those bumps in the road will probably look like.

Basically the message is this – we don’t want to lose the very real, very genuine value associated with these technologies just because the hype-machine is hungry for something new to hype about.