ACI Builds a Private Cloud with VMware


“You can sit in a La-Z-Boy and change your IT infrastructure with VMware”

Not every enterprise is comfortable with the public cloud. ACI Specialty Benefits has built its own private cloud and is reaping many of the benefits others get from the public cloud. ACI CIO Ryan Fay is one of those who believes in the old saying: “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” “What we have created is very similar to what AWS is doing,” says Fay. “It’s our own private virtualized cloud infrastructure. Everything is stored, backed up, expandable, and elastic.”

ACI Specialty Benefits is a privately-owned manager of benefits and wellness solutions for employees. Based in San Diego, Fay supports 14,000 employees and providers, delivering employers a range of “perks” and benefits for their employees. The perks include small things like dry cleaning or babysitter services but it’s proven that these little things can have an impact on employee retention. ACI delivers highly responsive service to over five million subscribers, including benefit providers and insurance brokers.

As technology became a larger part of the business, Fay struggled with re-architecting his IT operation to take on more responsibility and cope with the challenge of annual double or triple-digit growth. His first challenge was building a stable IT team. With at tight market for experienced IT people, he was suffering from constant turnover. “I quickly realized that for consistency, we need a consistent group of people. There’s no way you can do that today in IT internally.” The result was a decision to partner with a number of consultant firms and contractors. “Our internal IT team has shrunk, but now we partner with about 150 employees at consultants and together we have a solid group,” he says.

Ryan FayRyan Fay: private cloud good value for money.     ACI promotes “concierge” benefits as a hot new perk for employees

is next challenge was backup. Four years ago, the local San Diego data center at ACI HQ suffered a power outage. Ryan Fay thought he was covered—he had a backup facility at a major, well-known public cloud provider. All his data was backed up to the cloud using Veeam, the industry-leading disaster recovery software provider. However, it didn’t turn out that way. “The cloud provider had an issue and we couldn’t pull our data down. It took 16 hours before we were able to go back online.”

As a result of that experience, Fay decided the only reliable way to build a cloud infrastructure would be to build it himself. The first step was to move to a new data center, one run by ScaleMatrix, which has better processes for reliability, and also has other geographically diverse locations providing backup. Fay’s next move was to build a virtualized infrastructure in his facility at ScaleMatrix. He met with all the major virtualization providers, including Microsoft (MSFT), Citrix (CTXS), and VMware (VMW). He found that only VMware demonstrated the deep knowledge and expertise on virtualization that gave him the comfort he wanted. “You sit down with VMware and you can see that the way they built their infrastructure, they were going for a scalable model from Day One. We are growing so fast and technology is changing so fast, that you need to be planning ten years out to be a good partner.” He continues: “I asked each of the companies for their roadmap, and VMware’s was very impressive. Other companies have no idea what they’ll be doing in a few years.”

The result was that Fay adopted VMware vSphere for a fully virtualized infrastructure, and layered virtual desktops with VMware Horizon on top of that. He monitors the entire infrastructure from four monitors on his desk. He says that virtualization is the key technology because it delivers capex savings (fewer servers), it delivers opex savings (lower electricity consumption), and most importantly, it enables ACI to scale quickly and effectively. “In the old days, we were always on the phone to HP or Dell, because if a server broke, we needed to replace it and configure it and all that. Now that’s a thing of the past. Today, servers break down, but nothing goes down. With the cloud model, if you want to add RAM to a server, you go onto the VM [on a screen], and you add V-RAM [virtual RAM] in a matter of seconds. You don’t have to physically do anything. You can sit in a La-Z-Boy and change your IT infrastructure without moving. It’s the lazy man’s IT, much more agile and more effective.”

“Call me a control freak”

In short, Ryan Fay has achieved pretty much everything the public cloud offers, while retaining control over his own infrastructure. One of his next projects will be to build his own backup facility in a geographically diverse data center somewhere. “We’ll use vMotion to move workloads between the locations,” he says, citing yet another VMware product extension to the core vSphere virtualization platform.

Would he consider trying the public cloud? His answer is a clear negative: “Call me a control freak, but we cannot afford to go down, even for a minute. If we go down, I lose my job. If I’m in the public cloud and they go down, they lose one customer. It’s not the same.” He says the public cloud is grossly overhyped: “It’s not faster, it’s not more secure, it’s not cheaper.”

He has met with many public cloud providers, from giant AWS (AMZN) to smaller ones. He concedes the public cloud is making progress: “Of all of them, Microsoft Azure (MSFT) is the closest to being a contender, but they’re not there yet. They just don’t understand the nuances of issues like HIPAA compliance the way we do. They are not in our business. They may be right for others but they are just not right for us.”

For his networking infrastructure, including switching and load-balancing, he says he relies on Cisco (CSCO). Again, he looked at smaller, cheaper vendors and found Cisco had the broadest solutions and the most robust roadmaps. The Daily Cloud points out that he relies on two vendors, VMware and Cisco, who share a reputation for high prices. His reply is clear and unequivocal: these vendors deliver good value for money. Their products are reliable, well-supported, with broad functionality, and they are pushing the boundaries forward regularly.

“You can say a Mercedes is more expensive than a Kia. But if you buy a Mercedes, it just works better. It’s a faster, more efficient machine. They’ve been in business a long time and they know what they’re doing. And if you buy something cheap and it goes down and you’re paying a consultant $300 an hour round the clock to fix your issue, it’s not so cheap any more.”

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