The public cloud is nearly uniformly an Intel x86 instruction set environment. But when Xerox quietly launched public cloud services aimed toward small and midsize business (SMB) users in early January, it needed to host IBM iSeries (the former AS/400) and IBM Power Systems AIX servers, as well as those from Intel and AMD.
Previously, Xerox's services unit had carried some of its existing IT services customers forward into its infrastructure-as-a-service that it had been building out over 24 months. By the time of the Jan. 3 announcement, it had five data centers in the United States, one in Telford, United Kingdom; and one in Kuala Lumpur, Malayasia. Its U.S. locations are: Dallas, Pittsburgh, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, and Tarrytown, Pa., outside Philadelphia. The latter two are organized as a high availability cluster, with one site backing the other up.
"There's a lot of midsized businesses on midrange equipment that's getting fairly old, and they're looking for alternatives" to buying another round of proprietary servers, said Rob Schilperoort, Xerox's VP of cloud product management, in an interview.
Since January, Xerox's growth as a supplier of public cloud services has been "ahead of forecast." Schilperoort said. Few cloud providers, outside of IBM itself, have considered including midrange servers. The former AS/400 and AIX servers have proprietary operating systems and break up the uniformity of an Intel and AMD based server environment. Amazon Web Services, Google Compute Engine, and Microsoft Windows Azure are straightforward x86 environments.
[ Want to learn why it's difficult to compare the cost of one cloud service with another? See Why Cloud Pricing Comparisons Are So Hard. ]
The inclusion of non-x86, midrange servers makes the Xerox cloud a more complex infrastructure to run. Instead of a uniform x86 environment, it needs 10-15% of its environment to be AIX or iSeries, and it needs its own expertise in those systems. Customers want to run legacy workloads on those machines in the cloud, even if they're planning on moving to the x86 environment eventually.
But offering midrange systems "is a big item that sets us apart," said Schilperoort. He says it's a sweet spot in the public cloud market right now because many SMBs are looking to upgrade their computer systems when the economy recovers.
"We focus on building services for existing enterprise IT. That means having more than just one technology," Schilperoort acknowledged in a recent interview. Overall, Xerox is shooting to provide services it's learned inside large IT shops "and make them available to SMBs as cloud services."
Schilperoort cited the example of an SAP ERP user running AIX servers on-premises who wants to migrate, but doesn't want to do so all at once. By moving into Xerox public infrastructure, it can transfer groups of users from AIX to Intel servers in a gradual process that doesn't risk an ERP software failure. The customer decided to migrate because it has many ERP users, and the system occupies large servers with multiple CPUs that must be supported with the proper number of software licenses, "whether you need them all the time or not," he said. In the cloud, when the system is lightly used, some of the CPUs can be turned off.
Xerox offers a small server running CentOS Linux with two virtual CPUs and 2 GBs of RAM and 70 GBs of storage for $143.75 a month. (It charges by the month, not hour, and a change in server scale that changes its pricing will also occur on a monthly basis.) There are no charges for moving data around. If it runs 24 hours a day for 30 days, that charge comes down to just under 20 cents per hour.
While that's higher than Amazon Web Services, Microsoft, or Rackspace entry-level prices, the basic Xerox cloud server has two physical cores--more CPU power than most other entry-level virtual servers. Xerox doesn't put multiple virtual servers on each CPU. Rather, its virtual CPU is the equivalent of a recent-issue AMD or Intel core. "We do not subdivide cores," he said, and each cloud customer gets a core as the minimum CPU.
Rackspace offers a roughly equivalent "small" Linux server of 2 GB of RAM and 80 GB of storage for 12 cents per hour, or a Windows server at 16 cents per hour. But it's harder to compare the CPUs.
Schilperoort names Rackspace as Xerox's closest competitor, but Rackspace does divide up cores and even does it in a unique way. It defines a virtual CPU as a four-core AMD 2350 HE at 2 GHz, then assigns percentages of that total to different virtual machines, depending on size. When other customers aren't using all the available cycles, however, Rackspace releases the surplus to a tenant that needs them, regardless of size of server that customer initially ordered. In other words, there's no governor restricting the throttle for any user, if the compute power is sitting idle. Once there's contention, the host divvies up CPU cycles on a strict server-sized basis.
Another factor that makes direct comparison difficult is that the physical cores referenced, say the Rackspace 2007 AMD model versus a Xerox 2011 or 2012 core, have different speeds and other operating characteristics.
As part of its service offering, Xerox provides backup and recovery services and disaster recovery services. It supplies a federation of directories as a service, whether a business is using Active Directory or LDAP-based directories, or both.
Schilperoort says he is less concerned about direct comparisons than attracting the kind of business that Xerox is designed for. The IaaS portion of the Xerox Cloud has grown from 20 to 150 people over the past year. It's built up its x86 infrastructure quickly by adopting Vblock units from the EMC, VMware, and Cisco consortium, Virtual Computing Environments.
Vblocks are considered the high-priced alternative by advocates of OpenStack, but Schilperoort says Xerox built out its own software to provide provisioning, load balancing, and decommissioning of servers. "Because of our large relationship with all the participants in the VCE coalition, we are able to purchase that equipment at a very competitive price," said Schilperoort, while taking advantage of its extensive integration of storage, networking, and compute resources.
With its midrange approach added to its x86 Vblocks, Xerox has moved from 200 cloud customers to over 1,000. As Schilperoort's cloud division launches additional services needed by SMBs, he expects that number to continue to grow rapidly. Xerox will strive to present "a more flexible cloud infrastructure" than other vendors can provide, he claimed, even if means breaking the x86 mold used by other major vendors.