INTEL IS RAMPING up a program they call “Intel Hybrid Cloud”, a lease program for remote control servers aimed at small businesses. They feel that this is the future of small business computing. It leverages several Intel management technologies, and of course their hardware. Lets take a look at what is Hybrid Cloud.
The first thing to think about is that there are two customers for the Intel Hybrid Cloud (IHC) program, Managed Service Providers (MSPs) and end users (SPUDs). Intel leases all the hardware on a three year term to the MSP, and they resell or release it to the end users (SPUDs), i.e. their clients (SPUDs) while adding service and support. Technically the only client for Intel is the MSP, but the relationship gets a bit more complex as you will see.
What is IHC? It is not really a cloud, nor is it really hybrid, but Intel is good at marketing, so that is the name it gets. The machine itself is more of a remotely managed server with a bunch of VMs running on it, and a usage monitor for billing. There really isn’t anything groundbreaking here, but until Intel stepped in, no one had done it all in a slick package before. Think of the Hybrid Cloud as an amalgam of good ideas sold as a package.
Intel Hybrid Cloud
The hardware itself is currently based on a Lenovo ThinkServer TS200V, with some slight modifications. The IHC SKUs are slightly tweaked from the standard SKUs, but nothing you can’t option yourself if you want to get that specific box.
There currently are two machines, one with a Xeon 3450 (2.66GHz) and one with a 3460 (2.8GHz). Other than that, the only changes to the box are a few BIOS tweaks to support secure communication to a central server and some added hashing to keep Intel from learning who about the customer’s (MSP) customer (SPUD) is. All the user needs to do is plug in power and two network cables to get up and running.
On the software side, the machine runs Xen Server as a VMM, and has an Intel written console above that. The MSP gets as simple interface that they can use to load up VMs until they get bored, and manage the server. Intel provides a bunch of pre-rolled VMs for OSes, firewalls, backups, and various other functions in an app store like environment. Because the program is still in the pilot phase, there is no neat list of VMs available, but from what S|A has seen there are enough to keep most people happy already.
Software comes from Intel, the MSP or you
If there is anything missing, the MSP that sells to the SPUDs can roll their own VMs and add those to the mix. If the end user has a particular need, they too can roll their own and just install it. The box sits on the end user premises, and can have whatever hardware or software the user wants installed on it. The box is not locked down, and not proprietary in any way, if you want to format the HD, fine, feel free, that is your call.
MSPs have a console, basically Xen tools skinned with a nice easy interface to start, stop, add, remove and tweak the VMs. If the MSP needs to get into the box itself to look at the hardware, they can do so with the built in vPro/AMT functionality. Remote KVM is not available this round, but it is on the short list for the next generation of hardware. Lenovo also offers it’s own PC Doctor tool to query the hardware and some software as well.
Those BIOS tweaks we were talking about earlier come in to play on the billing side of things. There is a small piece of Intel code that runs in DOM0 that talks to the Intel pre-rolled VMs. IT monitors what is running, how many users, and so on. This data is combined with a hash of the user ID and periodically sent to Intel. Intel never knows who the end user is, just an anonymized identifier and software use statistics.
Intel does know which MSP controls which box, so the report is then sent to the MSP so they can bill their client. Basically, Intel bills the MSP, and the MSP adds their services on top and bills the client. So far, it is all pretty transparent and automated.
Why bother with the MSP in the first place? Well, they do several important things, like run the server. IHC is aimed at companies with 2-50 users, and those are unlikely to have a full time computer person on staff. The MSP fixes problems remotely, and if necessary, they can put boots on the ground at the customer site and really break things with a screwdriver.
For the end user (SPUD), they get a box that ‘just works’, and someone they can call for help when something goes wrong. VMs can be ramped up or down on a monthly basis, and new ones can be added with a phone call to the MSP. They press a button and the VM is DL’d from the net and spun up. Think of it as a big app store for VMs that the MSP has to authorize.
As we mentioned earlier, the Intel Hybrid Cloud is still in the pilot phase of deployment. Right now, they are not really looking for many more MSPs to jump on board, but they will be before the end of the year. Right now, they are answering questions like “How much service does one box require on average?”, and “What VMs do people want?”. None of these are technical in nature, more just figuring out the minor service and accounting issues before the program is rolled out in a big way.
For now, it is confined to the US and India, but it will be opened up to more countries shortly. In addition, several other hardware manufacturers and even some white box vendors are going to be enlisted soon, so after the pilot, the hardware choices should be fairly broad.
On the software side, things are growing fast, with VMs added on a regular basis. As the pilot moves forward, new needs are identified and niches are filled. Some of the problems yet to be worked out are things like what happens to the software and hardware when the lease is up, and other logistical issues. Nothing major, just some things that need to be codified while things are still a manageable size.
How much will all this cost? That is another thing being worked on, and there are a lot of caveats. Intel only sells to the MSPs, and that price is NDA’d. The MSP then adds whatever management and support services they offer to the tab, and the software you use is put on top of that. The end result is an exact list price of “it varies a lot.” The entry point is unlikely to be above $300 and goes up from there, software isn’t cheap.
The one big question I had was about security and anonymity, and Intel seems to have done a good job there. They stressed that they never know who the end users (SPUDs) are, just an identifier that can only be traced to the MSP for billing purposes. Intel has no passwords and no control over the box, just billing data.
In the end, the Intel Hybrid Cloud looks like an interesting solution to the small business support problem. Almost everything can be managed remotely, and the price isn’t far off what a full server would normally cost. The few unknowns at this point are being ironed out with the pilot, and software is being added at a steady pace. By the time the pilot ends, there should be a lot more hardware and software available too.
If you want to know more about the Hybrid Cloud, there is a web page here, and a talk on it on Monday at IDF. It is titled, “Using Intel® Technologies to Provide Managed Services Solutions for Small Business Customers SOLS002” and starts at 2:10pm in room 2011. I’ll be there.S|A