Private cloud: Self-service IT at your command

Private clouds set to eliminate unecessary work for IT pros

The definition of "private cloud" tends to vary from source to source, but at First American Corp. in Santa Ana, Calif., which is building a private cloud, the benefits are crystal clear: the project will eliminate busy work for IT professionals while giving users more control over their IT resources.

First American began moving from a physical to a virtual environment four years ago, and now has 5,000 VMware virtual machines running most of its critical business applications. While the virtualization project was designed to reduce the burden of managing physical hardware, Jake Seitz, chief enterprise architect at the financial services firm, says the company is going a step further with an internal cloud that will reduce the time IT spends spinning up VMs.

"I don't think it makes a lot of sense for us to be paying tier 3 engineering folks and so on to bush a button to spin up a VM," Seitz says. "I think it's foolish and it's one of the first ways of using resources."

First American is building a self-service interface -- powered by VMware on the back end and Microsoft SharePoint on the front end -- that will let employees provision their own resources. Another key vendor is F5 Networks, whose BIG-IP devices provide content delivery, load balancing and disaster recovery between First American's two data centers in California and Texas.

"For us, self-service means we'll let the user interact directly with the cloud," Seitz says. "The end user can provision their entire environment. We're not limiting them to 'you can only build Windows or SQL or a development environment.' They can literally say 'I need to add 2,000 people for mailboxes.' They don't need to know all the things on the back end."

First American, a services provider in the insurance and mortgage industries, has about 45,000 users worldwide. The private cloud is in beta, and Seitz hopes to have most IT services delivered through the cloud within two years. After introducing the self-service interface, the next major step is to roll out a metered billing system to charge users for the cloud resources they consume.

Public cloud services didn't make sense for First American, which must deal with numerous legal and compliance issues.

"There are a lot of laws we have to abide by," Seitz says. Not using the public cloud "had nothing to do with technology. It came down to where is the data and what do we do if something happens."

Seitz expects the biggest challenges in implementing the private cloud to revolve not around technology but user awareness and training. When First American started using virtualization and delivering applications from a multi-tenant environment, "people got really nervous when they didn't own a specific piece of hardware in that rack, in that row," he says.

"Now we're moving into what we call cloud computing and again were going through the same cycle of user awareness and 'don't worry about it, it's here, you have the same SLA you had before, but it's actually a little better and financially it makes more sense for you,'" he says.

Eventually, Seitz expects users to embrace the private cloud and self-service attributes because "most of our folks, they don't want to deal with IT, quite simply."

With virtualization, First American initially set it up so users could opt in only if they wanted to, but eventually made virtualization the standard that everyone in the company used. Ultimately, Seitz says it will be the same with First American's private cloud.

"I suspect that cloud computing will be the same way two years from now, where you have to make a business case for not being in it," he says.

Not every application can be moved into the cloud, at least initially, however. First American has not been able to move every application onto VMware-based machines, and since the private cloud is backed by virtualization the same policies will hold true there.

Telephony and other First American applications that require specialized hardware have not been moved into a virtualized environment, and some Microsoft and Oracle applications have not been virtualized because of problems with vendor support.

"Even if things are good candidates for virtualization, it's a completely different story if the software or hardware vendor will support them," Seitz says. "In some applications we have to have that support, so it doesn't make financial sense [to virtualize]."

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