AcXess has built its business around the promise and power of virtualization technologies, operating in a specialized market where customers value a dynamic, high-performance, and customizable virtual machine environment above all else. Technology companies such as Microsoft and Citrix rely on AcXess to provide on-demand demos, proof-of-concept (POC) labs, and training sessions in virtualized environments for thousands of their employees, partners, and customers. AcXess leases space to host its customers’ virtual machines at a Savvis data center in Atlanta, Georgia that is certified to the Statement on Auditing Standards No. 70 (SAS 70) auditing standard for service organizations.
Technology companies value AcXess cloud services because they save the time and money required to provision in-house demo, POC, and training environments. By subscribing to AcX Live Cloud Services including Demos On-Demand for automated, real-time software demonstrations, Labs On-Demand for integration and consulting projects, and Training On-Demand, AcXess customers can enjoy the benefits of a predictable monthly payment schedule based on usage. AcXess then takes care of all infrastructure management through its proprietary virtual workspace management platform called V-Works.
“We are not a typical ‘rack and stack’ data center,” says Tom Elowson, President and Cofounder of AcXess. “We serve up large, complex enterprise-level software for demo, sales, and training purposes in highly dynamic circumstances. Today, we are 98 percent virtualized. We have more than 10,000 registered professional users, and every month we provision more than 5,000 enterprise-class demos on virtual machines created on demand, or restored from a customized saved state. In the process, we move more than 20 terabytes of data from our virtualized storage solution to live production servers and back. These virtual machine instances are used for a short period of time as needed, and then are either deleted or resaved in their new state.”
AcXess didn’t get to this level of business by installing and maintaining physical servers to host its customers’ solutions. Rather, the story of its development roughly parallels the evolution of virtualization technologies. Although the company began by offering traditional disaster recovery services, Elowson and Cofounder and Chief Technology Officer Helge Solberg wanted to differentiate their company by building a sophisticated, cloud services architecture for high-performance, customized virtual machine management. Early on, they had to make a strategic decision that would have long-term ramifications for the success of their endeavor: choosing the right virtualization solution for their business.
“The business driver for deploying virtualization technologies came down to cost,” says Elowson. “We could never accommodate the fluctuating demand and offer the reliable and dynamic services that we do today by using the old paradigm of physical hardware. Virtualization would enable us to offer enterprise-class cloud services for our customers at a competitive price point. We could also reduce hardware costs, data-center costs, and storage requirements, and increase agility. Virtualization is the very foundation of our business, so finding the right solution was one of the most important decisions that we had to make.”
In mid 2006, AcXess evaluated virtualization technologies from Microsoft, VMware, and Citrix before deploying Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 R2 running on HP servers with Intel Virtualization Technology. AcXess chose a Microsoft Virtualization solution for several reasons: cost-effective pricing, interoperability with Windows-based technologies, a promising product evolution based on continued investment and innovation, and a large partner network. These reasons form the basis for a lasting relationship between the two companies.
“We chose a Microsoft solution over VMware because it saved us approximately [U.S.]$500,000 a year in licensing and support costs,” says Solberg. “We liked the Microsoft option because it interoperated with our existing Windows-based environment and fit with our in-house developer talent. At the time, we were building our own virtual workspace management platform, V-Works, based on the ASP.NET web application framework that is part of the Microsoft .NET Framework. It made sense to align ourselves with virtualization technologies that would interoperate seamlessly with V-Works. Plus, we knew that with the next version of the Windows Server operating system, Microsoft would be offering its own hypervisor-based server virtualization technology.”
So in 2007, when Microsoft released a beta version of Windows Server 2008 Enterprise with Hyper-V virtualization technology, AcXess decided to take advantage of the scalability and performance offered by the new microkernel hypervisor. Then Microsoft deployed the release to the manufacturing version of the operating system in December 2007. Multicore support, which enables each virtual machine to access four logical processors, and enhanced 64-bit support added incentives for the move. “At the time, we had 25 servers in our data center running Virtual Server 2005, each capable of hosting up to 5 virtual machines,” says Solberg. “With the move to Windows Server 2008 and Hyper-V, we could increase that number up to 50 virtual machines per server in some instances.”
Integrated Management Tools
Also, AcXess was interested in Microsoft System Center data center products to supplement its own V-Works virtual server management platform. The company deployed System Center Operations Manager 2007 R2 to monitor the overall health of its physical and virtual environments at the data center in Atlanta, including servers and applications. Using System Center Operations Manager, AcXess administrators can take advantage of customized alerts so they can respond more quickly to issues should they arise.
AcXess is using System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2008 R2 to gain a centralized view of the virtual environment, scalable to thousands of virtual machines. Administrators can use integrated tools for complete health monitoring and reporting. “The self-service portal within System Center Virtual Machine Manager is interesting to us, and we are looking at ways to integrate it with our V-Works platform to offer additional management capabilities to our customers,” says Solberg.
Finally, the company is testing System Center Data Protection Manager 2007, with plans to deploy it as the primary backup tool for virtual machines and databases. “Most of our virtual machines are for demo, lab, and training purposes, and they are re-created over and over from a master image for different users so we don’t need to back them up,” explains Solberg. “We do back up data on other servers that have a more operational function, and for that we were using scripts that we created in the past. System Center Data Protection Manager would automate that whole process and make it more comprehensive.”
Scalability and Flexibility
When Microsoft released Windows Server 2008 R2 in 2009, AcXess upgraded all its servers to take advantage of increased performance to handle growing customer demand and higher levels of concurrent users. The latest version of Hyper-V supports up to 64 logical processors in the host processor pool. Not only could AcXess administrators increase the number of virtual machines per host but they also gained more flexibility in assigning CPU resources to each virtual machine
“A big reason for moving to Windows Server 2008 R2 with Hyper-V was the ability to support a variety of guest operating systems including Windows Server 2008 x86 and x64 Edition, Windows Server 2003 R2 x86 and x64 Edition, Windows 7, and Windows Vista,” says Solberg. “This gives us maximum flexibility in hosting different systems for our customers.”
Extend Virtualization to Storage
As a purveyor of cloud-based services, AcXess faces sudden, unpredictable demands on disk space. The company felt an uneasy dependency on the availability, performance, and scalability of its storage hardware. The kind of equipment originally considered to handle its storage requirements was expensive and inflexible and represented a recurring cost factor that could jeopardize the company’s business plans.
“Because we are creating and deleting labs and training scenarios hundreds of times a day, we need a storage environment that’s responsive and integrates with our Microsoft-based services, but that wouldn’t generate recurring costs tied to our growth,” says Solberg.
AcXess turned to Microsoft Gold Certified ISV Partner DataCore Software for help. DataCore storage virtualization software takes advantage of much more economical hardware configurations to build out a dynamic, virtual storage infrastructure. It includes a Microsoft Management Console snap-in so AcXess administrators can control and monitor the storage portion of their infrastructure using the same System Center data center management tools that they employ for the rest of their virtualized environment.
“DataCore SANsymphony software proved to be the ideal solution,” says Solberg. “It runs on Windows Server, and offers great features such as high-speed caching, non-disruptive snapshots, and thin provisioning that we can use to dynamically allocate storage capacity.” These device-independent virtualization techniques substantially reduce the disk space required to run very large, concurrent workloads.
AcXess dedicated two servers running Windows Server 2008 R2 to SANsymphony, from which all storage is pooled and virtualized. The host servers running Hyper-V access virtual disks over a storage area network.
AcXess benefited from choosing a Microsoft Virtualization solution in another way: access to best-of-breed third-party software that ties into, and builds on top of, the Windows operating system. This benefit underscores the value of an interoperable, standardized environment that is divorced from the underlying hardware.
“We’ve always tried to keep things simple, and our decision to standardize on Windows and Hyper-V is a case in point,” says Elowson. “The fact that our operating system, our hypervisor, our data center management products, and our DataCore software all work together simplifies our environment so that we can focus on driving our services’ performance and reliability—the two biggest reasons our customers keep coming back.”
The Microsoft Virtualization solution at AcXess touches almost every aspect of its business and is linked to the company’s consistent growth year over year, despite the recent economic downturn. Using Microsoft Virtualization, AcXess has saved money and built a competitive advantage, setting its company apart through highly responsive virtual machine services and high-performance application delivery.
Reduced Hardware and Data-Center Costs
With every iteration of its Microsoft Virtualization solution, AcXess has increased server consolidation to reduce hardware and data center costs at the Savvis facility. “Hyper-V has made all the difference,” says Elowson. “We have saved more than $5 million in the last three years in hardware costs alone compared to if we had to build our environment with physical servers. In that case, our yearly data center costs would be 10 times higher than what we are paying today.”
Increased Performance and Capacity Facilitates Growth
Since upgrading to Windows Server 2008 R2 and Hyper-V, AcXess has seen a significant increase in the performance and capacity of its cloud services. The company is running more complex software with better performance in labs with higher numbers of concurrent users.
“Last fiscal year we more than doubled our number of users while simultaneously having to triple core system capacity,” says Elowson. “There is no doubt that Microsoft is a leader in cloud services. It is amazing to think we have grown our business 300 percent over the last few years with Hyper-V. Over that period of time, we’ve seen an average 80 percent top-line revenue growth, year over year.”
Because the company’s Microsoft Virtualization solution includes integrated System Center data center management products, AcXess gained a consolidated environment that is easier to manage than a physical environment, reducing the need for new employees.
“Despite our growth, we have kept costs in line by avoiding an estimated 80 percent increase in number of employees, hiring only 2 additional people in the last year, instead of the 10 people we would have needed to manage a physical infrastructure,” says Elowson. “Using additional tools from System Center that interoperate with V-Works, our administrators are managing the environment better. Now they have a better overview of the total system’s health, progress, and history.”
Increased Competitive Advantage
According to Elowson, all the efficiencies and cost savings that AcXess has gained from its virtualization solution laid the groundwork for the company’s healthy competitive advantage. Not only can it pass on cost savings to its customers in the form of lower prices, but AcXess also can offer high levels of service and performance.
“Our customers are amazed at the performance that we can offer at our price point,” concludes Elowson. “We built AcXess around the promise of virtualization and its potential in the data center for reliable, high performance systems. Our success or failure hinged on our product decisions. Hyper-V and System Center products have been key success factors for our competitive advantage in cloud services.”