I like to think of the cloud as sort of like the monoliths from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Used correctly, it’s a revolutionary, game-changing piece of technology. At the same time, it’s surrounded by so much hearsay and mysticism that it’s a wonder anyone knows how it actually works.
Unlike those monoliths, the cloud can be explained, however. It’s possible – albeit difficult – to sift through the fog surrounding the market understanding of cloud computing and drill down to what it actually represents, and what it can actually do for your business. And that’s what we’re going to do today.
See, one of the biggest advantages of cloud computing is that you can spin up cloud infrastructure to act as a stand-in for in-house, physical hardware, a facet of the cloud known as Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS). Let’s talk about that – what it is, how it works, and what it can do for your organization.
What Is IaaS, Exactly?
We’ve already sort of touched on the basics of IaaS. In broad terms, it’s a service model of cloud computing that lets businesses outsource their hardware needs to the cloud. Everything from networking to storage equipment to servers can be moved off-premises, allowing businesses to scale their needs up and down as required, and eliminating the complexities associated with traditional infrastructure.
Not surprisingly, IaaS is sometimes known by another term – Hardware-as-a-Service (HaaS).
As for how IaaS works? That’s where things get a little complicated. Every IaaS product provides its services to clients a little differently – but generally speaking, most involve virtualization of a kind. You’re basically using a provider’s platform to create virtual hardware which functions almost exactly as it would if you physically installed it in your office.
Of course, some IaaS platforms use baremetal servers and physical storage arrays as well. Like I said, different hosts provide their services in different ways. Honestly, I could probably write an entire piece on the nuts and bolts of IaaS.
Some providers use “white box” servers which can be anything from a bench-built piece of hardware using pieces and parts bought from your local MicroCenter to other non-brand name servers and SANS. We actually had a customer in the data center buy an inexpensive SAN just for the enclosure. So inexpensive, they trashed all the drives and replaced them with faster drives purchased separately. Liberty Center One invests in proven hardware platforms such as Compellent, VNX, Data Domain, Unity and Nimble to name but a few.
For now, let’s move on. The explanation should suffice in granting you a basic understanding. You can check here if you want to go a bit more in-depth.
What Are The Advantages of IaaS?
The most significant advantage of Infrastructure-as-a-Service is cost. Like other cloud services, IaaS generally works as a subscription-based model, where you only pay for the infrastructure you use. There’s no need to worry about maintenance costs or lack of hardware utilization – IaaS infrastructure functionally ceases to exist when you aren’t using it.
Mind you, some IaaS vendors tend to be kind of sketchy, and weigh down their contracts with a ton of hidden fees and limitations, which can drive the costs through the roof. For that reason, you need to be careful who you work with (more on that later).
IaaS also allows for far greater scalability than traditional infrastructure – making it ideal for small businesses that experience periods of extensive growth. Rather than having to worry about installation and setup, you can simply spin up more virtualized infrastructure as your needs expand. This also makes an IaaS platform much more mobile than traditional infrastructure – employees can remotely access resources with much greater ease than they would if your business operated its own infrastructure.
Finally, IaaS infrastructure tends to be much more reliable than on-premises, as the cloud allows for a level of redundancy that’s incredibly difficult for a traditional hardware setup to match. Even if one portion of an IaaS platform ‘fails,’ resource demands can immediately failover to a secondary platform. And if that platform experiences issues, they can move to a tertiary – and so on and so forth.
Are There Any Drawbacks?
A few. Your IT team will need to be trained in the ins and outs of managing IaaS to use it effectively. The biggest challenge will be in changing how they think about infrastructure. IaaS requires a different approach than traditional infrastructure if your organization is going to truly see gains from it.
In businesses with established infrastructure, IaaS requires some pretty big changes for implementation – changes which can introduce considerable complexity into application development, systems management, and disaster recovery. This is especially pronounced with hybrid applications, which can be extremely onerous to run without proper training.
Finally, if you go in with unrealistic expectations of what IaaS is and does, it can end up becoming little more than a time- and moneysink. You need to look closely at how you build and scale systems, and consider how you’ll adjust this with the move to IaaS. Otherwise, it might be better to stay with traditional infrastructure.
What’s The Difference Between IaaS, PaaS, and Saas?
IaaS is one of the trifecta of acronyms in the cloud space, alongside Software-as-a-Service(SaaS) and Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS). I know, it can get a little confusing. No, I’m not sure why we’ve got such a love affair with acronyms either.
In simple terms, here’s how the three differ from one another:
- IaaS is, as we’ve already established, primarily tied to hardware. It provides on-demand, automated, scalable computing resources.
- The simplest way to describe SaaS is to say it’s application-based. Similar to the old thin-client model of software provisioning, SaaS applications are deployed and managed entirely in the cloud. There’s a good chance you already use several in your day to day – Box, Google Drive, and Salesforce are all prime examples.
- PaaS provides clients with a platform or operating environment rather than IaaS’s raw hardware and resources. It’s typically used in software development, as it provides a streamlined method through which programming languages can interact with file storage, web servers, and databases.
Where Is IaaS Best Deployed?
The versatility of IaaS means you can use it for pretty much anything with a bit of legwork. I’d say small and mid-sized businesses with minimal infrastructure investments probably have the most to gain from IaaS. As for what you can use it for?
The short answer is ‘a lot.’
IaaS provides an excellent means of failover if your own hardware goes down, and IaaS backups are relatively inexpensive to maintain.
Development and testing
While you might argue that PaaS is a better option, a lot of companies look at IaaS to provide their developers with development and testing environments.
As mentioned earlier in the piece, IaaS can provide a cost-effective means of scaling your business’s infrastructure – especially if you’re a startup. Liberty Center One provides “on demand” resources which can be used (and paid for) in increments as small as an hour. This model is perfect for businesses that may need to supplement their existing resources for short time periods.
Embedded sensors and traditional endpoints are pumping out more data than ever before – and analyzing that data can lead to some huge benefits. Unfortunately, it generally requires huge amounts of processing power. IaaS can provide the necessary computing resources to do so, typically at a lower cost than if the business operated the hardware themselves.
As you’ve probably gathered, you can basically use IaaS to do anything you could with traditional hardware. That said, there are certain things that are best left out of the cloud. Highly resource-intensive databases, for example, are ill-suited for IaaS.
What Can You Do To Secure Your IaaS Implementation?
Most organizations have by this point accepted that the cloud is no less secure than any other system. What’s more, in the case of small businesses, cloud vendors often provide better security than would be possible in-house. That isn’t to say IaaS isn’t without risk – it does still carry with it certain security challenges.
They are as follows:
Data leakage via unsecured wireless networks
You need to ensure that your staff has a means of securely-accessing your business’s cloud resources. Some providers do offer data-in-transit encryption, while others might expect that you handle it yourself. Either way, you need to make sure you’ve got a secure tunnel or VPN up and running.
Unhealthy employee attitudes towards security
Cloud computing gives employees more power than ever before. That’s a double-edged sword – on the one hand, they’re happier and more productive. On the other, most probably still believe security is something best left to the IT team.
Through employee education initiatives, it’s imperative that you let your staff know security is everyone’s responsibility. Teach them to be proactive in protecting both their own data and your business’s data.
Lost or Stolen Devices
The ease of access provided by the cloud means that if an employee loses a device – or worse, if an employee device is stolen by a bad actor – your data is that much more at-risk. Luckily, this is something that’s easily handled through authentication and access control. Create a robust set of access management policies that ensure only people authorized to access your infrastructure can do so.
Multi-factor authentication is a must here. Consider incorporating behavioral-based authentication, location-based authentication, device-based authentication, and password-based authentication as part of a cohesive whole. There are plenty of security providers that allow you to accomplish this without impeding your employees.
How Do Bandwidth and Latency Factor In?
If there’s one thing I frequently see companies forget when considering a cloud solution, it’s bandwidth. Using the cloud doesn’t necessarily mean you can throw all physical hardware out the window. You’ll likely still need networking appliances – and those appliances will need to be robust enough to handle the resource demands of your IaaS implementation.
Talk to your provider about their data communications policies, and check your own pipelines before signing up. It’s no good implementing IaaS if it immediately brings your network to its knees.
What Do You Need To Consider When Choosing An IaaS Service Provider?
You likely already know the importance of due diligence when choosing a host. It’s doubly important with IaaS. You’re potentially entrusting this company with the future of your business – with some of your most critical infrastructure. You cannot afford to make a bad choice here.
To that end, here are a few things you’ll need to take into account before you sign that contract:
- Is the host ISO 27001/ISO27017 registered? This is a security question. If the host cannot answer in the affirmative, or their security isn’t at least on-par with either of the regulations, you should probably look elsewhere.
- Does the host have a formal quality management system? Do they perform regular audits for quality and security? Do they have a process for ensuring maximum uptime?
- How will billing work? You need to know exactly what you’ll be paying for – including surcharges and additional usage fees. Ask your host directly about their billing model. If they’re flighty or evasive in their answer, simply walk away – they aren’t worth your time.
- What managed services do they provide, and what services do I need? This one’s pretty self-explanatory. Services might include data backups, performance monitoring, CDNs, VPNs, and load balancing. Make a checklist of which ones you need, and try to find a host that offers all of them.
- What sort of reputation do they have? As always, you should look into the history of your host before choosing to sign on with them.
A Few Final Considerations About IaaS
Whew. That was a pretty long one, wasn’t it? Good news, though – now you know the basics of IaaS. You’ve all the information you need to know in order to determine whether or not it’s a good choice for your business, and how to select a provider that works for you.
Well…almost. There are a few more things you’ll need to consider if you’re looking into implementation. I’d like to leave off with a few final questions I’d advise you to ask yourself:
- What systems do you want to outsource?
- How important are those systems to your business’s core objectives?
- Can the vendor you’re considering provide you with everything you need?
- Do you have the necessary resources to train your staff in the use of IaaS?
- What processes, systems, and applications will you need to change in order to implement IaaS?
- Will you need to upgrade any of your existing infrastructure to use IaaS?