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Citrix: ‘This is the year’ of self service for virtualized enterprises

Self-service provisioning is beginning to take hold in academic environments, and Citrix thinks enterprises will soon follow suit with the self-service portal in XenServer 5.6.

Citrix Systems Inc. is talking up its XenServer virtualization roadmap, and predicts that 2011 is the year of self service for the enterprise. However, at least one XenServer customer says self service is a work in progress.

In some organizations, business units  or end users are favoring public cloud services over internal IT, said John Humphreys, the senior director of product marketing for Citrix, because they can provision their apps faster and cheaper through self-service portals than they can through IT. Humphreys compared this to the early days of client computing.

This is the year that [self service] starts to make it into the corporate environment.

John Humphreys, senior director of product marketing for Citrix

“When client servers first emerged, and relatively low cost x86 servers were starting to be introduced, all the business unit and department owners had enough money in their budget to go out and get their own servers, and sort of circumnavigate IT,” he said. “Now we have IT saying, ‘what are the aspects of public cloud that are so compelling to people, and how can we mimic those as an internal IT [department]?’ One of those things is [allowing users] to control [their] own destiny,” Humphreys said.

As an example of this trend, Humphreys said self-service concepts are already emerging in academic environments. Specifically, he cited Texas A&M University’s Computing and Information Services (CIS) department.

“They’ve got a centralized infrastructure group, and that group is really focused on this concept of being able to provide cloud-based services for the university,” he said. With it, “a researcher or student…can come in, through this portal, make requests, have that infrastructure built, set a timeline for the project…and then have it automatically archived, and those resources reallocated back to the pool.”

Enterprises are very different from academia, of course, and colleges and universities are more likely to be on the “bleeding edge” than corporate environments, Humphreys conceded.  Specifically, enterprise users face hurdles around infrastructure integration and chargeback when trying to offer fluid Amazon-like environments.

But, he added, Citrix is confident enterprises will follow suit this year. “This sort of operational philosophy is really starting to permeate out there…this is the year that it starts to make it into the corporate environment.” Some users at financial services firms “are looking very heavily at how they can mimic [public cloud self-service provisioning].”

In part, Humphreys based this conclusion on a recent global survey of 500 IT directors about their current virtualization strategies, but he also said Citrix has plans to become more aggressive with the self-service portal introduced with XenServer 5.6 last year, a.k.a., Project Cowley.

The initial version “was really about, just, ‘how can we enable people to make requests, and get those resources automatically built in the back end?’” Humphreys said. “Now we’re at a point where we can consistently and accurately take in requests, have them reviewed, and if approved, have those environments built."

Next, “we can wrap around that [self service] some of the corporate policies corporate customers require. Those are things you’ll see in the next year and [beyond],” Humphreys said.

Texas A&M: Working toward richer self service
The CIS department at Texas A&M has consolidated between 200 and 300 servers to about 100 physical machines and another 120 XenServer virtual machines, most of which run SUSE Linux.

This consolidation has opened up space within CIS to potentially host more services for other departments, but only to a certain point, according to Tom Golson, the chief systems engineer for the infrastructure systems and services group.

As a “cost recovery center” for the university separate from University Operations, CIS is under strict rules to provide only services for which there is an established budget, and independent departments must choose to use them rather than maintaining their own completely independent IT environments, according to Golson.

There are strong forces pushing departments in that direction, including strict energy management policies and the desire for researchers to keep more of their funding dollars.  But, Golson said, there has not been a mandate to consolidate all IT services into a private university-wide cloud -- and offering more centralized services to departments on campus remains a work in progress.

“I can’t go all Amazon and just let anybody log in, create a VM and go, ‘oh, this is cool,’ and then walk away -- I need some more accounting and accountability,” he said.

Right now, users must still get in contact with someone from CIS and demonstrate proof of funding.  IT then assigns an IP address and associates the VM with a department group within the Web portal. “It’s self service after resources are allocated within XenCenter,” Golson said.

CIS is open to the idea of adding more autonomy for user self-provisioning, but is currently more interested in the OpenStack application programming interfaces (APIs) Citrix may be able to offer to improve a CIS-designed Web portal than the portal shipping with the latest version of XenServer, to which it has not yet upgraded.

Even then, there are a lot of “ifs” involved in doing self-service provisioning well, according to Golson. “If Citrix can…provide us some API hooks, and do things in a somewhat modular fashion so that we can hook in a registration page…to get information from [users] up front, so they can provision resources without having to talk to someone, it would be nice to be able to offer an Amazon-style service,” he said.

XenServer to offer ‘in-flight translation’
Citrix introduced another product last fall called CloudAccess, which is meant for centralized management of private and public cloud environments together, with a single sign-on. The initial version of the project supports only Citrix’s own XenServer hypervisor, but Humphreys said that’s also going to change this year.  

“If you’re going to be running a VMware infrastructure in your data center, that shouldn’t limit your choices as to what cloud provider you can use externally,” he said.

Citrix has already announced plans to collaborate with Amazon Web Services around Windows and cloud management, according to Humphreys. The plan going forward is to collaborate with Amazon to deliver “in-flight translation,” meaning that a VM set up in one format on the private side of a hybrid cloud can be moved and run on a different type of hypervisor on the public side, without downtime.

But the jury is still out on hybrid clouds. Texas A&M’s Golson said a hybrid cloud could be intriguing for disaster recovery purposes, but that bandwidth, security and regulatory compliance are still barriers. “I can imagine there are use cases for it,” he said. “But it all depends on the context. Contracting with someone to create a cloud instance where I could replicate for disaster recovery purposes…where the content is relatively static, and it’s a little more straightforward in how you’d enforce security and access controls, so there’d be some process to bring stuff to life,” would be more appealing, he said. “But for things like surge capacity, or different workloads, I’m not sure that would be valuable for my organization.”

Beth Pariseau is a senior news writer for Write to her at

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