Network Monitoring for the Private Cloud: A brief guide

3rd May 2018
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Private Cloud Computing

‘Cloud computing’ as a concept has been around for over 10 years. Up until about 5 years ago many business and not for profit organisations shunned the “cloud” as all they could see were problems and challenges with the implementation of a cloud first policy such as – insufficient processor performance, enormous hardware costs and slow Internet connections making everyday use difficult.

However, today’s technology, broadband Internet connections and fast, inexpensive servers, provide the opportunity for businesses and not for profit IT teams to access only the services and storage space that are actually necessary, and adjust these to meet current needs. For many small and medium sized organisations using a virtual server, which is provided by a service provider, introduces a wide range of possibilities for cost savings, improved performance and higher data security. The goal of such cloud solutions is a consolidated IT environment that effectively absorbs fluctuation in demand and capitalizes on available resources.

The public cloud concept presents a number of challenges for a company’s IT department. Data security and the fear of ‘handing over’ control of the systems are significant issues. If an IT department is used to appropriating its systems with firewalls and to monitoring the availability, performance and capacity usage of its network infrastructure with a monitoring solution, it is much more difficult to implement both measures in the cloud. Of course, all large public cloud providers claim they offer appropriate security mechanisms and control systems, but the user must rely on the provider to guarantee constant access and to maintain data security.

Because of the challenges and general nervousness around data security in public clouds, many IT teams are investigating the creation of a ‘private cloud’ as an alternative to the use of public cloud. Private clouds enable staff and applications to access IT resources as they are required, while the private computing centre or a private server in a large data centre is running in the background. All services and resources used in a private cloud are found in defined systems that are only accessible to the user and are protected from external access.

Private clouds offer many of the advantages of cloud computing and at the same time minimise the risks. As opposed to many public clouds, the quality criteria for performance and availability in a private cloud can be customised, and compliance to these criteria can be monitored to make sure they are achieved.

Before moving to a private cloud, an IT department must consider the performance demands of individual applications and usage variations. Long-term analysis, trends and peak loads can be attained via extensive network monitoring evaluations, and resource availability can be planned according to demand. This is necessary to guarantee consistent IT performance across virtualized systems. However, a private cloud will only function if a fast, highly reliable network connects the physical servers. Therefore, the entire network infrastructure must be analysed in detail before setting up a private cloud. This network must satisfy the requirements relating to transmission speed and stability, otherwise hardware or network connections must be upgraded.

Ultimately, even minor losses in transmission speed can lead to extreme drops in performance. At Wanstor we recommend IT administrators use a comprehensive network monitoring solution like PRTG Network Monitor, in the planning of the private cloud. If an application (which usually equates to multiple virtualized servers) is going to be operated over multiple host servers (“cluster”) in the private cloud, the application will need to use Storage Area Networks (SANs), which convey data over the network as a central storage solution. This makes network performance monitoring even more important.

In terminal set ups in the 1980s, if a central computer broke down it was capable of paralyzing an entire company. The same scenario could happen if systems in the cloud fail. Current developments show that the world has gone through a phase of widely distributed computing and storage power (each workstation had a ‘full-blown’ PC) and returned to centralized IT concepts. The data is located in the cloud, and end devices are becoming more streamlined. The new cloud, therefore, complies with the old mainframe concept of centralized IT. The failure of a single VM in a highly-virtualized cloud environment can quickly interrupt access to 50 or 100 central applications. Modern clustering concepts are used to try to avoid these failures, but if a system fails despite these efforts, it must be dealt with immediately. If a host server crashes and pulls a large number of virtual machines down with it, or its network connection slows down or is interrupted, all virtualized services on this host are instantly affected, which, even with the best clustering concepts, often cannot be avoided.

A private cloud (like any other cloud) depends on the efficiency and dependability of the IT infrastructure. Physical or virtual server failures, connection interruptions and defective switches or routers can become expensive if they cause staff, automated production processes or online retailers to lose access to important operational IT functions.

This means a private cloud also presents new challenges to network monitoring. To make sure that users have constant access to remote business applications, the performance of the connection to the cloud must be monitored on every level and from every perspective.

At Wanstor we believe an appropriate network monitoring solution like PRTG accomplishes all of this with a central system; it notifies the IT administrator immediately in the event of possible disruptions within the private IT landscape both on location and in the private cloud, even if the private cloud is run in an external computing centre. A feature of private cloud monitoring is that external monitoring services cannot ‘look into’ the cloud, as it is private. An operator or client must therefore provide a monitoring solution within the private cloud and, as a result, the IT staff can monitor the private cloud more accurately and directly than a purchased service in the public cloud. A private cloud also enables unrestricted access when necessary. This allows the IT administrator to track the condition of all relevant systems directly with a private network monitoring solution. This encompasses monitoring of every individual virtual machine as well as the VMware host and all physical servers, firewalls, network connections, etc.

For comprehensive private cloud monitoring, the network monitoring should have the systems on the radar from user and server perspectives. If a company operates an extensive website with a web shop in a private cloud, for example, network monitoring could be set up as follows: A website operator aims to ensure that all functions are permanently available to all visitors, regardless of how this is realised technically. The following questions are especially relevant in this regard:

cloud-computing-lightbox

  • Is the website online?
  • Does the web server deliver the correct contents?
  • How fast does the site load?
  • Does the shopping cart process work?

These questions can only be answered if network monitoring takes place from outside the server in question. Ideally, network monitoring should be run outside the related computing centre, as well. It would therefore be suitable to set up a network monitoring solution on another cloud server or another computing centre.

It is crucial that all locations are reliable and a failover cluster supports monitoring so that interruption-free monitoring is guaranteed. This remote monitoring should include

  • Firewall, HTTP load balancer and Web server pinging
  • HTTP/HTTPS sensors
  • Monitoring loading time of the most important pages
  • Monitoring loading time of all assets of a page, including CSS, images, Flash, etc.
  • Checking whether pages contain specific words, e.g.: “Error”
  • Measuring loading time of downloads
  • HTTP transaction monitoring, for shopping process simulation
  • Sensors that monitor the remaining period of SSL certificate validity

If one of these sensors finds a problem, the network monitoring solution should send a notification to the IT administrator. Rule-based monitoring is helpful here. If a Ping sensor for the firewall, for example, times out, PRTG Network Monitor offers the possibility to pause all other sensors to avoid a flood of notifications, as, in this case, the connection to the private cloud is clearly completely disconnected.

Other questions are crucial for monitoring the (virtual) servers that are operating in the private cloud include:

  • Does the virtual server run flawlessly?
  • Do the internal data replication and load balancer work?
  • How high are the CPU usage and memory consumption?
  • Is sufficient storage space available?
  • Do email and DNS servers function flawlessly?

These questions cannot be answered with external network monitoring. Monitoring software must be running on the server or the monitoring tool must offer the possibility to monitor the server using remote probes. Such probes monitor the following parameters, for example, on each (virtual) server that runs in the private cloud, as well as on the host servers:

  • CPU usage
  • Memory usage (page files, swap file, page faults, etc.)
  • Network traffic
  • Hard drive access, free disc space and read/write times during disc access
  • Low-level system parameters (e.g.: length of processor queue, context switches)
  • Web server’s http response time Critical processes, like SQL servers or Web servers, are often monitored individually, in particular for CPU and memory usage.

In addition, the firewall condition (bandwidth use, CPU) can be monitored. If one of these measured variables lies outside of a defined range (e.g. CPU usage over 95% for more than two or five minutes), the monitoring solution will send notifications to the IT administrator.

Final thoughts

With the increasing use of cloud computing, IT system administrators are facing new challenges. A private cloud depends on the efficiency and dependability of the IT infrastructure. This means that the IT department must look into the capacity requirements of each application in the planning stages of the cloud in order to calculate resources to meet the demand. The connection to the cloud must be extensively monitored, as it is vital that the user has constant access to all applications during operation.

At the same time, smooth operation of all systems and connections within the private cloud must be guaranteed. A network monitoring solution should therefore monitor all services and resources from every perspective. This ensures continuous system availability.

For more information about Wanstor and PRTG network monitoring tools please visit – https://www.wanstor.com/paessler-prtg-network-monitor.htm

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Is your private cloud strategy really working? What is your framework for success?

22nd December 2017
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Is your private cloud strategy really working? What is your framework for success?

Whether you want to take your IT operations to the public cloud, keep them on-premise, host off-premise using a private cloud model, or indeed choose to invest in a hybrid configuration, the IT Manager must start with a clear understanding of what they are trying to achieve from an IT and business perspective before embarking on their cloud journey.

This may seem like stating the obvious, but at Wanstor we have seen several cases recently where businesses have invested in cloud computing models without thinking about the outcomes they want from a cloud computing strategy.

It can be tempting to get caught up in debates and discussions about “cloud technology”, after all it is a major IT trend which lots of IT and business leaders are talking about in various online and offline publications. However just because something is a hot topic doesn’t mean the fundamental questions of business need are not addressed:

  • What are the key drivers for change?
  • Do we need to change?
  • Are we trying to reduce operational costs?
  • What do we need to do to improve the IT infrastructure environment to better support the business?
  • How can we make staff more productive through IT?
  • What is the right approach for achieving IT objectives over the next 12 months?

Obviously these are not simple questions with simple answers. As Wanstor has learned from our experience of working with 100’s of businesses across the UK on private cloud migration projects, the unique challenges of cloud computing require new ways of thinking, planning, and cross business collaboration to achieve common IT and business goals.

We’ve also seen that success can happen early in a cloud computing engagement by those IT leaders who are able to frame a realistic strategy at the beginning, which has definition and appreciation for the capabilities and limitations of the businesses they lead.

At Wanstor we say business decision makers need to have a “cloud frame of mind.” We believe a “cloud frame of mind” should be used to tackle the various strategic considerations required in a private cloud deployment project.

So let’s start at the beginning, what are you trying to do with your private cloud project?

Generally private clouds are invested in for one of 3 major business reasons:

Agility

  • Reduce time to market: Implement new business solutions quickly to accelerate revenue growth.
  • Better enable the solution development life cycle: Speed up business solutions through better development and test, and a fast path to production.
  • Be more responsive to business change: Deliver quickly on new requirements for existing business solutions.

Cost

  • Reduce operational costs: Optimize daily operational costs like people, power, and space.
  • Reduce capital costs or move to annuity-based operational costs: Benefit from reduced IT physical assets and more pay-peruse services.
  • Make IT costs transparent: Service consumers better understand what they are paying for.

Quality

  • Consistently deliver to better defined service levels: Better service leads to increased customer satisfaction.
  • Ensure continuity of service: Minimise service interruption.
  • Ensure regulatory compliance: Manage the compliance requirements that may increase in complexity with online services.

Where businesses locate their needs amongst these primary drivers and define their objectives as they consider their cloud computing options is a basic starting point in the process. For many in IT the private cloud is proving especially attractive, mainly for what it offers in terms of control over matters of security, data access, and regulatory compliance. Their primary interest in a private cloud architecture revolves around the pressures to cut costs without sacrificing control over essential data, core applications, or business-critical processes. The main secondary interests around private cloud computing are more to do with business growth and the possibilities it offers in terms of scaling workloads at different times of the year. This shows that IT leaders are beginning to think seriously about cloud computing as a way to turn IT into a business enabler rather than being seen as a costly department by other business unit leaders.

As identified above there are several drivers IT leaders are investigating as a means of reasoning to move workloads to a private cloud model. Once the IT leader has identified business needs and objectives, they should take the time to understand the capabilities, limitations, and complexities of their current IT environment, which starts by performing an analysis of technical and organisation maturity vs different capabilities of cloud computing. The next step is then to determine where you want to take your IT team and the business it is serving, and assessing the prerequisites for the desired objectives.

Many of the businesses we work with, start at a basic stage along their cloud optimisation journey. Usually they have already managed to consolidate infrastructure resources for better cost efficiencies through virtualization. If your business fits this profile, an acceptable outcome might be to advance your business to the next stage by implementing more sophisticated infrastructure level resource pooling, which would achieve still greater cost savings as well as a measure of improved time to market. Similarly, your current business capabilities may put you somewhere in the middle of the cloud maturity model, with a relatively high degree of sophistication in business areas you consider your top priorities, such as being able to respond to seasonal shifts in demand for example.

While your ultimate goal might be to bring platform as a service (PaaS) and software as a service (SaaS) architectures so you can leverage a larger set of hybrid cloud capabilities, such as anytime, anywhere access for your customers built on a unified set of compute, network, and storage resources, your near-term focus in the context of an infrastructure as a service (IaaS) model may just be in moving the dial specifically on automated provisioning and de-provisioning of resources. It’s in this approach, by making deliberate, incremental progress in the service of a longer-term strategy that real IT transformation occurs on a private cloud model.

The way forward is to recognise that changing to a functional private cloud model is an evolutionary process, where the investments you make in technology solutions must be evenly matched at each step by the maturity of your business in managing them. Your strategy must be carefully applied in those areas where your business is likely to benefit most. Indeed, not all capabilities of a private cloud need to be, or should be exploited.

The real task lies in balancing the potential goods of a private cloud solution against actual business needs, understanding your capabilities and limitations at each stage of the process, and putting a plan in place that charts a realistic, achievable course of action for getting it done.

The objectives you choose for your private cloud will raise a number of questions about the various technical and organisational implications of implementing your solution. Below are some examples of the kinds of questions IT Managers need to be able to ask in order to frame a comprehensive and realistic strategy for achieving private cloud objectives.

Self-service – Do you want to allow your users to provision the resources they need on-demand without human intervention? How much control should you relinquish? What are the potential consequences of offering a self-service model for common tasks? Will cloud computing be left unchecked and unused if individual users can select their own licences and usage limits, if so how much money will this cost the business, if accounts are left unused?

Usage-based – Pay-per-service, or “chargeback,” is one of the hallmarks of cloud computing, and if your private cloud strategy includes driving greater transparency of costs for better resource planning, you need to know the incentives you are trying to drive. Are you trying to reward good behaviour and punish bad? Do you wish to push more round-the-clock workloads to night time operations for power savings that support your company’s environmental initiatives?

Elasticity – Being able to respond efficiently to fluctuations in resource usage can represent a major selling point for cloud computing. It is important to consider first whether you really need a sophisticated system of automated provisioning and de-provisioning of servers to deal with fluctuations in demand. If significant and relatively unpredictable, then this capability may be appropriate. If the need is regular and predictable, straightforward automation may be sufficient for your purposes. Other questions you need to ask: Which applications are priorities, and which can be pushed back in terms of priorities?

Pooled resources – Consolidating resources to save on infrastructure, platform, and/or software costs is a common goal for large-scale IT operations. If you’re in a medium/large business with several independent departments potentially with their own IT operations, you are likely to encounter critical questions of process: E.g. Will independent groups deal with the inherent limitations of shared infrastructure and services? Will standardised configurations come at the cost of the optimised systems to which they’ve grown accustomed? As you move forward in the process of pooling your resources to get the benefits, you need to be aware of the likely trade-offs in putting everyone on a standard set of services. It may well be worth the cost to the business as a whole, but it may not seem that way to those who lose capabilities or levels of service to which they’ve been accustomed.

Comprehensive network access – As you move out from behind the business firewall and away from tightly controlled client configurations and network access scenarios, there are several important considerations that will need to inform your strategy, beyond the obvious concerns over security, such as the nature and extent of supportability: What kinds of personal devices will you support and to what degree? How will mobile clients (smartphones, operating systems and tablets) access network resources, and will you have the right levels of bandwidth to service them? What forms of authentication will you support?

Whatever objectives you are aiming to achieve, the important point to note is that building a private cloud is a process for which there are numerous tactical and strategic considerations. A successful private cloud implementation relies on the ability to think through all facets of the undertaking, clearly understanding the dependencies, trade-offs, limitations, and opportunities of any particular strategy. The reality for most businesses is that an incremental private cloud strategy is the only realistic path, given the technical and organisational complexity of current IT operations which exist as the business has invested large sums of money into them over a period of time.

Expectations and realities of cloud computing in a business IT context can prove a challenge to resolve. Many IT leaders understand why an incremental approach is needed, but those outside IT, are less clear about the real implications of implementing a cloud solution. The right strategy for achieving private cloud objectives must also include an appropriate communications strategy for setting and managing expectations for the business as a whole. With the whole business informed, from the board room to the front office, the hard work of defining and executing on your private cloud strategy is far more likely to achieve its objectives and set your business on the path to long-term success in the cloud.

For more information about Wanstor’s private cloud services click here.

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6 Steps for a successful Private Cloud Migration

1st March 2016
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6 Steps Private Cloud Migration

Migrating to a Private Cloud Infrastructure can feel daunting, with any move or change to your existing setup appearing fraught with danger. At the same time though, you have done all of your due diligence checks and realise that off-premise resources are the way of the future as they are cost effective, provide unprecedented levels of convenience and allow you and your team to collaborative effectively from anywhere in the world.

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