Can you understand what you just paid your cloud provider for? Did your accounting staff have to invest significant amounts of time deciphering the costs and figuring out how to bill each department for their usage? There is often an unexpected human cost of cloud computing and billing is one area where you may end up frustrated if you don’t have a plan in place. At CenturyLink Cloud, we’re trying to ensure that our customers have an easy to understand bill that can be consumed in multiple ways.
There are five focus areas of our billing approach, and we believe that you should look for these from ANY cloud provider you work with.
1. Embrace the dynamic nature of the cloud
Paying for resources in the cloud is unlike anything that enterprise IT has experienced before. Unlike traditional servers where you pay an upfront cost, cloud servers are pay-as-you go and resizable on the fly. Need to double the CPU on a database server during an intense processing period? It’s easy, but it alters the cost of the server as originally provisioned. Cloud servers are inherently easy to create, easy to delete, and easy to scale. This can wreak havoc on financial projections and we try to make that easier to understand actual and projected costs.
On most pages of our Control Portal, users can see a billing widget that shows monthly charges to date, the previous and current hour costs, and projected monthly estimate. The projected number is based on three figures: the actual charges so far, the remaining hours of the month, and the current hour’s bill rate. Hourly charges capture every billable component that the customer has provisioned, minus bandwidth. This data helps our customers track their platform usage in real-time and prevents surprises at the end of the month.
To help visualize the monthly spend and projections, we also have a graph that shows “actual” and “projected” costs for the current month. Customers can view their costs for the last 12 months, 6 months or 3 months to gauge if their current spend is in line with recent history, or if they are trending up or down.
When you first get started with cloud computing, it can be challenging to get your head around the various costs that make up a real-life cloud investment. CenturyLink Cloud tries to make it easier on our customers by showing all the system costs in real-time. Looking out a bit longer, we plan to add embedded analytics to these reports and help the user optimize the spend further!
2. Aggregate information where it makes sense
The more information, the better, right? Only if the data is properly organized. Each CenturyLink Cloud electronic invoice includes line items for charges such as virtual servers, bandwidth, storage, and external IPs. However, server costs are aggregated by the Group that contains them. So if you have 10 servers organized into a Group for easier management and isolation (like “SharePoint Servers”), it’s simple to see the total charges as well as the cost of each server that comprises the Group.
We also make sure to roll up items like archived servers and deleted servers into buckets by data center. This provides a straightforward view into assets that are no longer in use but contributing to the overall monthly cost. Similarly, instead of cluttering an invoice with line items representing each individual public IP or hosted DNS instance, we show how many units of each were purchased and the total cost associated.
All of this is designed to provide rich, relevant data while supporting at-a-glance assessments of the total cloud spend.
3. Make chargebacks easy by supporting hierarchies
To truly deliver IT-as-a-service to your organization, you need a way to establish a chargeback model that doesn’t introduce a lot of overhead and bureaucracy to an already-overburdened IT department. Fortunately, CenturyLink Cloud was built from the ground up with enterprise use cases in mind, so we have a number of native capabilities that make chargeback simple. First, CenturyLink Cloud customers can created nested hierarchies of accounts with unique (or inherited) billing settings. At the end of each month, account owners receive an invoice with the incurred charges. This has proven to be a great way for consulting companies to isolate their customers, and enterprise organizations to split cloud control across complex org charts and departmental lines.
Secondly, besides sophisticated account management, CenturyLink Cloud also uniquely offers the ability to collect servers into Groups. A Server Group offers much more than simple organization; Groups have permission policies, scheduled tasks, capacity limits, power operations, and much more. CenturyLink Cloud customers regularly use Groups to segment business departments, IT projects, or different system environments. As discussed earlier, the CenturyLink Cloud customer invoice aggregates server costs by Group, which makes it simple to assess the cloud spend of each unit.
4. Offer multiple ways to access and process billing data
Rarely – in fact, never – is CenturyLink Cloud the only service provider used by a customer. Rather, the corporate IT landscape is made up of a complex ecosystem of partners, services, and applications. We want to make sure that the “parent account holder” can easily consume their monthly invoices in whatever way fits their existing business processes. To that end, CenturyLink Cloud offers multiple channels to consume invoices. Users of the Control Portal can print or download their per-account invoices. If you want invoices in an electronic document format, you can download it as a PDF file. Conversely if you want a computer-readable format that can be consumed by your financial applications, download all of the invoice data as a comma separated file (CSV).
Many organizations also want a way to programmatically access their billing data, and surprisingly, few cloud providers offer this. CenturyLink Cloud is one of them. Late last year we added a billing API so that customers could retrieve billing information and manipulate it before loading it into their own financial systems. Billing API users can retrieve billing history, invoice data, Group cost projections, server cost projections, and more.
This is a key feature for our other customer segments as well, including ISVs who use CenturyLink Cloud for cloud hosting and our reseller partners who need visibility into how their customers are consuming cloud services.
5. Be available for questions and respond to additional data requests
There will definitely be times when you have questions about your bill or are looking for even more granular information. Simply contact us and we’ll help you understand specific charges, or even provide you hourly charges for the month. CenturyLink Cloud prides itself on a consultative experience where customers get personal attention and guidance whenever needed. We think it’s important to be accessible and help our customers take full advantage of the cloud and clearly understand the cost – and value – of the CenturyLink Cloud cloud!
Billing isn’t the most interesting topic in the world unless you are a long-time subscriber to the Journal of Accountancy. However, it can be a key source of unexpected human or software costs if you need extensive effort to digest and allocate cloud charges. Regardless of whether you want to put your business-critical workloads on CenturyLink Cloud or another cloud, make sure that you demand cloud-friendly billing, logical aggregation, support for chargebacks, numerous access channels, and a responsive customer experience. If this is primarily provided with an add-on provider, make sure you factor that into your TCO analysis. It’s an area where surprises can crop up, which we explored in the “What is REALLY costs to run a cloud app” post on the blog recently.
Last week, CenturyLink Cloud attended the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference in Houston, TX and hosted a booth where hundreds of attendees stopped by to talk about the cloud. Besides seeking what one attendee called “the best t-shirt from any conference, ever”, most people wanted to have a discussion about how the cloud could positively impact their business. With over 15,000 attendees from over 150 countries represented, this conference offered us a prime opportunity to hear about the interests and needs of a diverse audience.
Over the course of four days, I noticed a theme among the conversations I had with software vendors, Managed Service Providers, consulting companies, and even Microsoft themselves!
#1 - We’re past the “cloud 101” discussion
It appears that a vast majority of technical staff now understand the basics of the cloud value proposition. There was no “what is this cloud thing people are talkin’ about?” types of questions from any of the attendees. Rather, the questions and conversations were more nuanced as Microsoft partners were trying to figure out how they could capitalize on the cloud, and where the cloud was forcing them to change their existing set of products and services. Most people understood that the cloud brings agility, and that it may not result in an explicit cost savings. It was fun to brainstorm and debate the merits of cloud computing for specific scenarios and workloads and help people find the right uses for cloud platforms.
#2 – The market seems interested in much more than CPU cost and massive scale
Price drops and eye-popping case studies dominate the tech press, but these conference attendees were more focused on looking at the whole picture. Cheap CPUs and storage are nice, but there’s a lot more to running applications in the cloud than that. Likewise, the stories of customers running 50,000 core clusters or scaling to thousands of machines are fantastic, but those represent a small fraction of the daily workloads being run by small and large businesses. Instead, I heard again and again that organizations are looking for all-up value in a maintainable package. Many were asking about flexible provisioning options (i.e. locations, VM sizes, application services), enterprise-class management options, and a monthly bill they could understand.
The partners and users we talked wanted solutions, not just components.
#3 - The reseller market is a huge, unaddressed space
CenturyLink Cloud was at the show to tout our Reseller Edition capabilities that let customers rebrand and white label our cloud for their own needs. A handful of other cloud providers offer some type of reseller program, but few offer a comprehensive – and lucrative – set of services for offering someone else’s cloud as their own. I spoke to many software vendors who have to send their potential customers elsewhere to get temporary infrastructure to try their software. These vendors were very interested in being able to offer software AND a globally distributed set of infrastructure to run it on.
I also heard numerous consulting companies complain about the challenges of migrating the infrastructure of small customers to the cloud. They loved the idea of being able to offer “their” cloud to their customers and centrally manage and maintain modern and legacy systems – including those running Microsoft software – using the CenturyLink Cloud platform. Managed Service Providers were also looking to complement their existing product portfolio’s with cloud services and I saw that many of them are shopping around for a partner to collaborate with.
Building clouds is hard. Many smart companies have failed doing it. However, being able to rapidly white label someone else’s world-class cloud infrastructure is compelling and I heard that over and over again at the conference.
#4 - Usability matters
Cloud providers aren’t selling services, they’re selling an experience. Just about every cloud infrastructure provider is offering the same base capability to provision virtual servers. There are differences to be sure, but most providers are selling an experience delivered through programmatic APIs, web-based management tools, professional services, and a support organization. For the self-service options like APIs and web-based tools, usability is an enormous factor in the long-term success of the customer.
The easiest way for me to get people to stop at our booth was to do a demonstration of our platform. We are still one of the only cloud providers who features our software on our company home page. Why? Because we spend a significant amount of time crafting and optimizing a user experience that helps our customers quickly and efficiently provision and manage cloud assets. Organizations are asking their existing staff to maintain more (transient) infrastructure without adding new headcount, and we think it’s important to introduce thoughtful design and usability-focused enhancements wherever possible. The WPC attendees really responded positively to time-saving CenturyLink Cloud features like Group-based server management, server environment orchestration, server scheduling, global search, simple billing, and much more.
#5 - Cloud race is FAR from over
Some have said that we’re in the first inning of a nine inning game, and I agree. Cloud computing is in its infancy and while leaders are emerging, the market is constantly expanding. CenturyLink Cloud was attending a Microsoft conference where Windows Azure and Office 365 were front and center, and we STILL had hundreds of people approach us about partnering with us on their cloud efforts. That’s not an indictment of Microsoft’s cloud, but rather a fantastic example of the diversity of customer needs and the ability of cloud providers like CenturyLink Cloud to address unmet demand. I talked to VERY few people who had a fully committed cloud strategy and found that scores of attendees had workloads spread around different clouds, or were simply trying things out.
Want to partner with a successful, globally available cloud provider that delivers a well-engineered and easy to use platform? Give CenturyLink Cloud a try!
Companies embrace the cloud because it offers agility, speed to market, self-service, rapid innovation, and yes, cost savings. There are plenty of cases where organizations can save money by using cloud resources, but it’s easy to focus on vendor compute and storage pricing, and forget about all the other financial components of a cloud application. See Joe Weinman’s Cloudonomics for an excellent analysis of how to assess the economic impact of using the cloud. An application can very easily cost MORE in the cloud – but that might still be just fine, since it helps the business shed some CapEx and remove servers from corporate data centers. In this post, we’ll talk about the full scope of pricing cloud applications and give you a useful perspective for assessing the overall cost.
Businesses deploy applications, not servers. A typical application is comprised of multiple servers that perform different roles. For instance, let’s consider an existing, commercial website that receives a healthy amount of traffic. It uses a load balancer to route traffic to one of multiple web servers, leverages a series of application servers for caching and business services, and uses a relational database for persistent storage.
To maximize revenue and customer satisfaction, the application is replicated in another geography for availability reasons and traffic can be quickly steered to the alternate site in the case of a disaster or prolonged outage.
“Hidden costs” often bite cloud users. This is especially true for those who buy from a cloud that offers “cheap virtual cores!” but also require you to buy countless other services to assemble an enterprise-class infrastructure landscape. Let’s look at each area where it’s possible – and likely – that you will incur a charge from your cloud provider.
- Application migration. If you are doing greenfield development in the cloud, then this won’t apply. But if you have existing applications that are moving to the cloud, there are a few migration-related costs. First, there can be a labor cost with doing virtual machine imports. Some cloud providers let you import for free, others charge you. In most cases, there is also a bandwidth charge for the transfer of virtual machine images. Finally, there’s likely a cost for storing the virtual machine image during the import process.
- Server CPU processor. This – along with RAM – is the number most frequently bandied about when talking about the costs of running a cloud application. Some providers let you provision the exact number of virtual CPU cores desired; others provide fixed “instance sizes” that come with a pre-defined allocation of CPUs and memory.
- Server memory. Cloud providers are ratcheting up the amount of RAM they offer to address memory-hungry applications, caching products, and in-memory databases.
- Server storage. There are many different types of storage (e.g. block storage, object storage, vSAN storage) and costs vary with each. Don’t forget to include the cost of storing data backups, virtual machine templates, and persistent disks that survive even after servers have been deleted.
- Bandwidth. It’s easy to forget about bandwidth, but it’s a charge that can bite you if you’re not expecting it! You may need to factor in public bandwidth, intra-data center bandwidth, inter-data center bandwidth, CDN bandwidth, and load balancer bandwidth. Not all of these may apply, and some may not be charged by your cloud provider, but it’s important to check ahead of time. Most cloud providers use the “GB transfer” model, charging for all data transferred – and penalizing customers for bursting above their commitments. CenturyLink Cloud utilizes the 95th percentile billing method, preventing surges in traffic from grossly affecting costs.
- Public IP addresses. Nearly every cloud provider offers a way to expose servers to the public Internet, and some charge for the use of public IP addresses. This is usually a nominal monthly charge, but one to consider for scenarios where there are dozens of Internet-facing servers.
- Load balancing. There is often a charge to not only use a load balancer, but also for the traffic that passes through it.
- VPN and Direct Connect. Cloud users are looking for ways to connect cloud environments to on-premises infrastructure, and vendors now offer a rich set of connectivity options. However, those options come at a cost. Depending on the choice, you could be subjected to fees for setup, operations, and bandwidth associated with these connections.
- Firewalls. This is usually baked into each cloud provider’s native offering, but you will want to check and make sure that sophisticated firewall rules don’t come with an additional charge.
- Server monitoring. Even those cloud servers aren’t in your data center, it doesn’t mean that you don’t need to monitor them! Depending on your monitoring needs, there can be a range of charges associated with standard and advanced monitors for each cloud server.
- Intrusion detection. Given that cloud servers are often accessible through the public Internet, it’s important to use a defense-in-depth approach that includes screening incoming traffic for potential attacks. CenturyLink Cloud is a bit unique in that we offer this at no cost, but you can still get this sort of protection from other vendors – but rarely for free.
- Labor for integrating with on-premises assets. You don’t want to create silos in the cloud, and you will likely spend a non-trivial amount of time integrating with your critical applications, data, identity provider, and network. If this effort requires assistance from the cloud provider themselves, there could be a charge for that time and effort.
- Distributed, disaster recovery environments. Applications fail, and clouds fail. If you require very high availability, you may need to duplicate your application in other geographically-dispersed cloud data centers. You could choose to keep that environment “warm” by synchronizing a data repository while keeping web/application servers offline. Or, you may choose to build a truly distributed system that leverages active infrastructure across geographies. Either way, it’s possible that you’ll incur noticeable charges for establishing replica environments.
- Development / QA environments. Applications may run differently in the cloud than in your local data center. Hence, you could choose to provision pre-production environments in the cloud for building and running your applications.
- System administrator labor costs. One of the wonderful things about the cloud is the widespread automation that makes it possible to provision and maintain massive server clusters without adding to your pool of system administrators. However, there are still activities that require administration. This may involve server patching and software updates, deploying new applications, and scaling the environments. Some of those activities can be automated as well, but you should factor in human costs to your cloud budget.
Places to save money
Given the various charges you may incur by moving to the cloud, how can you optimize your spend and take full advantage of what the cloud has to offer? Here are five tips:
- Don’t over-provision. Gone are the days when you have to request a massive server from an internal IT department because you MAY need the extra resources in the future and don’t want to deal with the hassle of upgrading the server later. CenturyLink Cloud makes it simple to change the number of virtual CPUs, amount of RAM, or amount of storage in seconds. Only spend money on what you need right now, and only pay more when you have to scale up. In addition, don’t settle for cloud providers who force you into fixed “instance sizes” that don’t deliver the mix of vCPU/RAM/storage that your application needs. CenturyLink Cloud encourages you provision whatever combination of vCPU/RAM/storage that you want! In fact, we usually tell customers to under-provision to start with, and ratchet up resources as needed.
- Turn off idle servers. If you decide to create development or QA environments in the cloud, it’s likely that those environments will be fairly quiet over weekends. By shutting those down – and doing it automatically – you can potentially save hundreds or thousands of dollars per year.
- Automate mundane server management tasks. Running maintenance scripts or installing software on a cluster of servers is time consuming and tedious. CenturyLink Cloud provides an innovative Group capability that makes it possible to issue power commands, install software, and run scripts against large batches of servers.
- Add resource limits to prevent runaway provisioning. Elasticity is a foundational aspect of cloud computing, but it’s not a bad idea to establish resource caps. With CenturyLink Cloud for example, customers can define the maximum amount of vCPUs, memory, and storage that any one Group can consume.
- Carefully consider uptime requirements and disaster recovery needs. Even though the cloud makes it easier, it’s still not cheap or simple to build a globally distributed, highly available application. Evaluate whether you need cross-data center availability, or, a defined disaster recovery plan. The simplest solution for CenturyLink Cloud customers is to provision Premium block storage which provides daily snapshots and replication to an in-country data center. In the event of a disaster, CenturyLink Cloud brings up your server in an alternate data center and gets you back in business. If you want to avoid nearly any downtime, then you can architect a solution that operates across multiple data centers. To save money, you could choose to keep the alternate location offline but synchronized so that it could quickly activated if needed.
When considering all the services you need to deploy and operate enterprise-level business applications, the “cheap virtual cores!” pitch is less compelling. It’s about finding a cloud provider that offers an all-up, integrated offering that gives you the set of services you need to deploy and maintain a robust, connected infrastructure. Give CenturyLink Cloud a try and see if our innovative platform is exactly what you’re looking for!
Innovative Cloud-Based Group Management Features Mitigate Server Sprawl and Further Optimize Management, Monitoring and Reporting
BELLEVUE, Wash. — August 28, 2012 ― CenturyLink Cloud, Inc., the enterprise cloud platform company, today introduced a new set of Server Group Management features that make it easier to maintain large server environments located in its Cloud. The newly unveiled capabilities provide users with a consistent and intuitive way to organize and manage virtual machines through group-based permissions, policies, bulk execution actions, and more.
As organizations move more of their workloads to the Cloud, organizing and managing those server farms can become challenging, expensive and time-consuming. The CenturyLink Cloud Cloud Server Group Management capability gives system administrators the tools they need to navigate these challenges starting with the ability to logically group and manage their large-scale cloud deployments. Groups are intuitively integrated within both the CenturyLink Cloud Control Portal and programmatic API, allowing administrators to create collections of servers that have their own permissions, policies and default server configuration settings. In addition, actions performed against the groups, such as rebooting or taking snapshots of a server, can be performed in bulk—allowing administrators to spend less time maintaining individual servers and more time optimizing their overall cloud environment.
The CenturyLink Cloud Cloud Server Group Management capabilities include:
Server Grouping: Rich, yet approachable features that allow system administrators to efficiently work with collections of servers, including grouping systems, to create logical containers of systems and sub-groups that are arranged by role or function, project or team.
Server Management: Execute server management tasks faster and more consistently across all systems in a group and save time by scheduling activities, installing software and managing server lifecycles in bulk instead of one at a time.
Reporting: Create monitoring and maintenance profiles at the group level for a more consistent application of proper monitors. Quickly access reports showing health and performance of each server within a group or see historical metrics and trending from the last hour through the last year. Use this information to make better decisions about whether to scale their environment up or down or identify which environments could be stopped, thus saving per-hour billing charges that would have otherwise been incurred.
Utilization and Cost Controls: To prevent runaway provisioning and the subsequent higher-than-expected bills, specify resource allocation thresholds for each groups to proactively control cost. By managing servers as a collective unit, administrators have a better perspective of the overall utilization of their environment
“Delivering IT operational agility and cost efficiencies while also enabling our customers to get further down the path toward experiencing true IT-as-a-Service capabilities is at heart of each of our technology innovations,” said Jared Wray, CenturyLink Cloud chief technology officer. “With the Group Management capabilities unveiled today our customers can better manage even the largest scale cloud deployments, saving time, saving money and further improving security.”
The group management features are generally available today. See a Server Group Management demonstration this week at VMworld booth 531 or read the groups customer use cases.
About CenturyLink Cloud
CenturyLink Cloud unleashes business agility through unique, enterprise-class cloud services and software that puts global companies on the path to IT as a Service. The company’s virtual private cloud services combine both infrastructure (IaaS) and platform as a service (PaaS) in a comprehensive platform. The CenturyLink Cloud Cloud increases IT operational efficiency and flexibility through advanced cloud orchestration and management capabilities. Global enterprises and service providers find the CenturyLink Cloud Cloud ideal for their entire business application portfolios, from development to production environments and mission-critical applications. The Company is based in Bellevue, WA, with regional presence in multiple locations in North America and Europe.
Organizations continue to invest heavily in data center expansion even while IT staffing has remained relatively flat. Every day, system administrators are being asked to do more with less. With that in mind, CenturyLink Cloud is introducing Group Management so that cloud users have a simple, efficient way to administer, secure and monitor collections of CenturyLink Cloud cloud servers as a single unit. This capability helps organizations with large clouds spend less time on routine maintenance and governance, and more time optimizing their environment and investment.
What happens once your cloud footprint expands beyond an initial block of servers? It’s no fun trying to manage individual servers in massive, scrolling lists. CenturyLink Cloud Group Management offers an organization scheme for customers who want to pool their servers based on business unit, system, or any arbitrary designation. We wanted to make sure that even the most complex landscape could be accommodated, so Groups support a very deep (32 level!) nesting structure.
This feature alone may not save users any significant time. Many cloud providers (and infrastructure management suites) offer metadata tags or other ways to create virtual collections of servers. However, CenturyLink Cloud Groups are a foundational part of the cloud platform and offer much more than a visual organization structure, including:
Time-saving administrations tasks
Personalized security settings
The administration aspects of Groups offer significant time savings for cloud users. First of all, users can apply a full range of power options to any or all of the servers in a Group (or sub-Group). Imagine using a temporary 50-node cluster for a compute-heavy data processing job, and using a single command to power down every machine at once. If only a subset of servers in the Group need to be rebooted, for example, then it’s easy to select which servers should respond to the command. Similarly, consider the case of putting a large block of servers into maintenance mode so that they can be patched and brought back online. Using Group Management, it’s simple to make this happen.
Another valuable administrative capability provided by Groups is the ability to install software or run scripts against any or all of the servers. This feature, called bulk execution, is expected to save countless hours of a previously manual task. Consider the scenario where you want to add a new firewall policy rule to a set of production Windows servers. Instead of logging into every machine and running a particular PowerShell script, CenturyLink Cloud users can issue a single command to simultaneously update all servers.
Third, Group Management makes administration easier by letting users define default settings for new Group servers. While every cloud infrastructure provider starts the server provisioning process with a default resource allocation (e.g. “2 CPUs, 4 GB RAM”), CenturyLink Cloud lets you personalize this default profile for each Group through a feature we call server defaults. These settings are inherited from their parent but users can quickly override this inheritance and configure unique server settings for networking, DNS, operating system, memory, CPU and storage. Each organization, or group owner, can define an ideal server profile and encourage administrators to build servers that best fit those needs.
How can administrators make sure that users don’t accidentally over-provision and incur unexpected charges? Traditionally, these administrators would have to actively monitor utilization and server counts. Using CenturyLink Cloud Group Management, our users can set capacity limits for each Group which prevents over-provisioning and free administrators from playing “cloud cop.”
Group Management also makes your cloud more secure. Each Group can have its own permissions policy which dictates who can access the group and who cannot. These permissions support inheritance, so administrators can set up an overarching policy for a Group that affects every sub-Group within it. We see many companies use the cloud to service multiple business units and we want to make sure that our customers have the freedom to secure their assets without having to create entirely new accounts in our system. We think that Group Management makes it much easier to secure logically distinct clusters that all reside in the same customer cloud.
Finally, Group Management offers time-saving monitoring tools that let you record and observe server performance at the Group level. CenturyLink Cloud users configure foundational monitors at the Group level, although by default, these are inherited from the parent Group. Alert recipients get identified for each Group (or are inherited from the parent) and this person receives an email message when a particular monitor has been exceeded its threshold. Administrators have access to reports that show the performance of each server in the Group. Using this view, the administrator can see both historical trends (up to one year) and live utilization information and make decisions about whether to scale their environment up or down.
We’re very excited about Group Management as it forms the foundation for many other innovative features in our product pipeline. Our customers are already using Groups to quickly perform maintenance activities, create unique permissions for their business units, and install or update software en masse.
If you’re a CenturyLink Cloud user, you should have full access to all the great Group Management features today. Keep an eye out for even more to come!