Infocrossing and S/390 Linux: An ASP's Story
A Visit to the Co-Lo PenitentiaryThey keep their computers in cages at Infocrossing, like a gigantic prison for miscreant microchips. The cages aren't to keep the computers in, though, but to keep intruders out. Infocrossing, Incorporated, headquartered in Leonia, New Jersey, is in the Application Service Provider (ASP) hosting business. With a strong background in traditional mainframe environments, IBM's System/390 architecture was a natural choice for Infocrossing as they started branching out into the Linux hosting business.
Application Service Providers, for those not familiar with the term, are companies that offer application software to clients on a centrally-located (and centrally-managed) host. The idea is that businesses gain the benefit of running sophisticated applications while avoiding the cost of deploying the needed hardware and software in-house. In the days before the Internet, such arrangements were common and were built using mainframe computers and remote timesharing connections. It was in this environment that Infocrossing was born, over twenty years ago. Now the Internet -- and virtual private networks (VPNs) that exploit its ubiquity -- give companies like Infocrossing a new way to bring their services to customers. At the same time, ASPs are creating new opportunities for mainframe systems, especially now that Linux is a reality at the high end.
Tom Laudati, Senior Vice President for Enterprise Engineering at Infocrossing, says that the company brought mainframe lessons into a distributed world, unlike some companies which moved in the other direction. "All the disciplines we learned as far as backup and recovery and implementing new pieces of software to make sure they work with your other software, we've learned over the past twenty-five years. When you put that PC on the desktop, this all goes out the window." They realized that distributed infrastructures, such as intranets, weren't being managed adequately for mission-critical business needs, and decided this gap represented an opportunity. Over time, Infocrossing started offering managed hosting of UNIX and NT systems, and eventually they branched out to provide colocation facilities as well.
The colocation business, housed in three large, geographically dispersed data centers, is the reason for the cages. They prevent one colocation customer from gaining console access to another customer's equipment, and they are an essential part of physical security at the site. "Customers are allowed access to the facility," says Laudati. "We're a blended environment." The part of the site that handles traditional mainframe (timesharing) outsourcing not accessible to customers, but the colocation facility is. The standard environment has a 7x8 foot cage for each customer's own equipment. The S/390 Linux host, by contrast, is accessible to customers via remote login only. Even when you understand the purpose of those cages, though, the effect is somewhat surreal.
Between their traditional mainframe hosting services, and the new UNIX, Linux, and NT managed hosting, and the colocation facilities, Infocrossing has grown into a US$40 million company with several hundred employees. About three-fourths of the employees are technical people, according to Laudati. The company operates a thirty thousand square foot (about 2800 square meters) facility in Leonia, New Jersey and a fifty-two thousand square foot (about 4800 square meters) facility in Norcrosse, Georgia. They are building an even larger facility in Sterling, Virginia.
Though the company is nominally operating system and hardware agnostic, they have a definite preference for IBM hardware and infrastructural software and are a long-term partner with IBM. Laudati says the mainframe bias is a result of two factors, scalability and reliability, and cites the specific example of ACTS, a company that provides an educational testing and scoring service to many clients, including a statewide public school system. Laudati says this kind of customer needs a very dynamic hosting environment because the workload of the system can vary widely. "One time in the public schools it could be ten students," he remarks, "and the next time it could be ten thousand."
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