Manx elastic computing

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For his fortnightly column IT expert Steve Burrows puts the spotlight on thriving Isle of Man data centre business Netcetera which has expanded from being an underdog to one of the big boys in the island.

We’re fortunate in the Isle of Man to have several very good data centres, and several offer cloud computing.

Cloud computing is a very broadly interpreted buzzword.

An acquaintance collated 37 different definitions from cloud suppliers while he was Her Majesty’s chief information officer responsible for all the UK Government’s computing.

But a common thread is elasticity - to properly meet the general understanding of cloud computing a service provider must allow the customer to rapidly (on demand) scale up and scale down the capacity (and cost) of their cloud systems.

A true cloud service is elastic, not just a fixed size of contract to buy hosting in a datacentre.

Elasticity has obvious advantages for cloud customers, they can scale up their usage when they need to cope with a big event such as the TT, and scale down again afterwards - perhaps doubling or trebling capacity for a few weeks without having to pay for all that power to be sitting idle the rest of the year.

The downside lies with the cloud suppliers, who take all the financial risk of providing the extra server capacity without any guarantee that it will be used and paid for.

Obviously providing elastic cloud works better for big suppliers with many customers as this helps them to spread the load of fluctuations in customer demand, consequently only a minority of datacentres actually offer a true elastic cloud service.

Netcetera, based in the south of the island, has more than 8,000 customers spread across 75 countries.

They host over 15,000 websites and are regularly listed as the one of the world’s ten most reliable hosting providers in the Netcraft global hosting benchmarks.

This success is one of the factors which has given Netcetera the strength to recently announce the Isle of Man’s first true elastic cloud service, where you can simply and ‘instantly’ buy server capacity by the hour, online with your credit card, 24 x 365.

Starting at 0.7 pence per hour for rental of a minimalist server to run Linux, Netcetera’s hourly tariff is competitively priced when compared with global cloud providers such as Amazon, and a world away from the fixed cost corporate data centre rental model where a single server rack (provide your own computers) can cost over £10,000 per annum.

The development of an on-island elastic cloud offering is very significant for the Isle of Man economy, and directly complements the island’s economic strategy of encouraging start-up and early-stage tech business to locate here.

Cash-strapped early-stage / pre-profit businesses cannot easily afford the commitment of dedicated server hosting; pre-launch they often only need servers intermittently for release testing and to demonstrate capability to possible funders and prospective customers.

In the early stages of business they need minimal capacity at low cost and the ability to scale up quickly and easily as customers come on board and business grows. Until now Isle of Man businesses have only been able to gain this flexibility by hosting off-island, for instance with Amazon in Dublin, which is an obvious problem for regulated business in the eGaming and finance sectors which are generally expected to keep their data on-island.

Elastic cloud also provides significant competitive advantage for more mature businesses; it is common, especially for regulated businesses, to have a substantial investment in duplicate systems for disaster recovery purposes. With elastic cloud these DR systems may be shut down for most of the time, being activated periodically during the year for software updates and DR tests, meaning that using elastic cloud can massively reduce the business overhead of maintaining a duplicate set of systems for emergencies.

disaster recovery

And speaking of disaster recovery, Netcetera seems to have that covered too. Early this year the company launched its ‘planB’ business continuity offering, by making a large proportion of the upstairs floor space in their data centre available as business recovery space, fully kitted out with desks, telephone systems, high-specification desktop PCs etc.

At the moment capacity is for up to 100 emergency seats, but when this capacity becomes fully reserved there is additional floor space for expansion to a potential of 200 seats, making the facility one of the largest on the island and sensibly located away from Douglas and convenient for the airport.

The provision of business continuity capacity immediately above the data centre makes a lot of sense; having the DR servers and the BC seating in the same building is a major advantage when a company’s crisis management team is trying to make the backup systems live and get the business working again.

Netcetera have invested heavily in desktop standardisation and disk imaging systems so they can convert the desktop PCs into exact replicas of a customer’s standard office PC quickly, enabling them to have the whole business continuity platform of PCs, networks, printers and telephone systems up and running for a customer in under four hours.

Netcetera’s announcements of elastic cloud and the planB business continuity service are naturally complementary, and coming on top of the company’s opening of its second data hall last year make it look as though Netcetera has hit an exponential growth curve.

It would be easy to suspect that this rush of innovation is the product of new money, but no.

The company, founded in 1996, has grown organically and steadily over 20 years making it one of the older Internet hosting providers still operating under its original (and 100 per cent Manx) ownership.

The move into the current data centre building, in 2006, was obviously a major investment and far-sighted commitment given that 10 years ago they must have been rattling around somewhat in this huge space. Continued growth, with a worldwide customer base, meant that the first data hall was full by the end of 2014, perhaps spurred on by the 2013 decision to switch to 100 per cent renewable energy from the Manx Utilities Authority’s hydro-electric generation plant.

As the first carbon neutral data centre in the Isle of Man, and one of very few in the British Isles, Netcetera has a definite appeal to environmentally conscious businesses and those looking to make positive contributions to sustainability as part of their corporate social responsibility strategies - since switching to ‘green’ electricity Netcetera reckons to have eliminated around two million kilograms of carbon emissions.

In building their second data hall Netcetera have taken green computing a stage further, employing a very modern ‘cold aisle’ approach to the problem of absorbing the huge heat produced by computer servers, with the latest passive evaporative cooling systems used by Facebook and other data centre leaders.

This new cooling technology has enabled the new data hall to achieve a world-leading Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) of 1.12 - hugely better than the data centre industry average of c. 2.5, and significantly better even than the 1.2 which industry giants like Google and Microsoft are working towards.

Understanding PUE is very simple, the lower the PUE number the better. A PUE of 1.0 would mean no energy wastage at all, which is probably impossible, but Netcetera are rightly very proud that their new facility is achieving world-class performance. Obviously it’s not all about tree-hugging, energy is expensive so reducing consumption makes sense for both Netcetera and its customers. Whilst the first data hall was substantially filled with the SME customers that have been Netcetera’s traditional market, the second data hall seems to be filling rapidly with larger corporate customers buying multiple racks and whole cages, so plans for the third data hall are already on the drawing board.

As one would expect from any leading data centre, Netcetera has full Tier 3 redundancy systems including redundant (spare) uninterruptable power supplies and a pair of huge standby diesel generators each able to run the whole data centre in the event that the MUA mains electricity supply fails. Similarly over 40 gigabits of Internet connectivity is spread across multiple circuits and covered by DDoS protection to ensure that the data centre is never cut off.

The company that many in the Manx IT sector will remember as being the underdog, a small player, has grown into one of the big boys and is an Isle of Man technology success story with 90 per cent of its business coming from off-island. It’s going to be interesting to see where the business goes from here - increasingly rapid growth seems almost inevitable.

Despite having become one of the island’s cornerstone technology businesses, the Netcetera team haven’t lost their sense of fun and are currently offering free you@iom.tt email addresses to anyone who loves bikes and racing.

www.netcetera.co.uk or https://planB.im

For a free @iom.tt email address go to http://iom.tt and sign up.

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