nGenX understands the needs of small and midsize businesses. It gets that these organizations want to be able to provide their employees with powerful accounting, sales, and other line of business (LOB) applications, as well as state-of-the-art office productivity applications such as Microsoft® Office Word 2007 and Microsoft Office Excel® 2007. It also gets that an organization with between 15 and 200 users would prefer to do all this without a dedicated IT staff and, if possible, without having to worry about servers, backups, maintenance, upgrades, or anything else resembling system administration. After all, they have real businesses to run; they do not want to be distracted by all the technical details.
nGenX is in the business of—and has been quite successful—helping such companies meet these needs. Its nFinity 1.0 service has long provided small to midsize organizations with hosted computing resources and support. nGenX loads an organization’s LOB and Microsoft Office applications on a server in its hardened data center in Evansville, Indiana. nGenX also has access to redundant data centers in 18 states through an affiliated company. Customers then access those applications using the Microsoft Terminal Services technologies built into Microsoft Windows Server® 2003. Under terms of the Microsoft service provider licensing agreements, nGenX could charge for these services on a monthly basis, which helps its customers manage their cash flow more effectively and predictably.
For nGenX and its customers, nFinity 1.0 was proving to be a sound solution. Its customers gained access to the applications they needed without the need to support and manage those applications on their own. They always had backups in case of emergency. They could bring new users up to speed quickly, without having to provision new applications on a new machine, join it to a network, and so on. nGenX benefited too: it is generating positive cash flow by delivering a service that businesses clearly need.
Indeed, the clear demand for this kind of hosted application service prompted nGenX executives to start thinking about scaling its hosted application service to satisfy the needs of greater numbers of customers around the country—which is when nGenX realized that they had a problem. Because of the way applications were loaded and delivered through Terminal Services, each client had one or more dedicated servers—which typically were not running at full capacity all the time. Scaling its services to a broader customer base would mean adding hundreds, even thousands, of servers to its data center. It would also mean a huge build-out of its monitoring and management infrastructure as well as the need to add more server administration, help desk personnel, data center floor space, and power.
In short, there appeared to be no way to scale this service efficiently to deliver a robust service to large numbers of clients. Until, that is, Microsoft introduced Microsoft SoftGrid Application Virtualization for Terminal Services (SoftGrid for TS).
SoftGrid for TS transforms applications into virtualized, network-available services, providing the dynamic delivery of software that is never installed, never conflicts, and minimizes costly application compatibility testing. It enables nGenX to prepare and deliver customer applications using Windows Terminal Services and presentation virtualization services of Windows—but in a way that eliminates the conflicts, complications, and management overhead that nGenX had been encountering. With SoftGrid for TS, applications and files are not installed directly on a dedicated terminal server. When a customer needs an application, SoftGrid for TS streams the application and the files to the terminal servers, where the application runs in a virtualized environment that ensures that the application does not affect the operating system, file system, or registry. The customer’s data is also protected from intrusion from other applications running in virtualized networks of other customers.
Streaming the applications to a virtualized execution environment enables applications to co-exist without conflict on any single terminal server—even multiple versions of the same application can run simultaneously on a single server if needed. SoftGrid for TS also makes it possible to capture and package an application only once yet stream that application to as many different servers as demand requires at any time. This effectively creates a truly dynamic system that can eliminate underutilization of servers and increase the efficiency with which nGenX can scale its hosted services.
The unique ability of SoftGrid for TS to virtualize all key components of any Windows application also enables nGenX administrators to accelerate each step of the application management process. It compresses the time necessary for packaging and preparing applications, deployment and delivery, patch management, updates, support, and termination. If an nGenX administrator updates or deploys a patch to an application, users automatically receive the updated application version the next time they start the application on the terminal server.
nGenX uses HP ProLiant servers running Microsoft Windows Server 2003 to support its SoftGrid-based service delivery environment. Its customers’ key LOB applications, as well as familiar Microsoft applications such as Office Word and Office Excel, have been sequenced and reside in the SoftGrid repository, which is located on a network-attached storage device in the state-of-the-art nGenX data center. Load balancing technologies from Barracuda manage all user interactions with these servers, ensuring optimal resource utilization across the server farm as well as optimal performance for the user experience.
SoftGrid for TS has made it possible for nGenX to deliver a new generation of hosted application services—which it calls nFinity 2.0—in a far more efficient manner than it has been able to deliver its nFinity 1.0 services. The company no longer needs to provision server silos dedicated to individual applications and customers. It can maintain applications in the SoftGrid repository and enable customers to access those applications through a shared server infrastructure. It can deliver applications and perform maintenance on an as-needed basis, without interrupting the customer’s service.
This ability to use shared, generically-configured hardware, in turn, makes it possible to balance traffic among the servers through the Barracuda load balancing technologies. These enhancements enable nGenX to support a far greater number of users on its existing infrastructure—and put it in a position to scale out its services without having to scale out its infrastructure in parallel.
More efficient server use
Because SoftGrid for TS stores each sequenced application in its own repository, the applications that nGenX customers use no longer have to be installed on a server in the traditional manner. For nGenX, this has significant positive ramifications. When it had been using Windows Terminal Services alone and installing applications directly on a server, nGenX frequently ran into situations where it could not install all the customer’s applications on the same server due to conflicts among application-specific Dynamic Link Library (DLL) files. Often nGenX would have to configure multiple servers to support different applications—which frequently resulted in an underutilized server infrastructure. When a customer required two or three servers because of DLL conflicts, yet had only 20 or 30 users, none of the servers ever ran at full capacity. For nGenX and its customers alike, this was a costly scenario.
A similarly inefficient scenario arose when a larger company required multiple servers to support different applications and one server might support only one or two users and run at two percent of capacity while another server might be running at 95 percent capacity to support the majority of the company’s users on a more popular application.
With the virtualization enabled by SoftGrid for TS, though, nGenX has overcome both these conflicts and the inefficiencies they created. The virtualized applications can be installed on any of the servers in the nGenX server farm—on demand. And, because none of the servers in the farm have to be preconfigured with specific applications for a specific customer, nGenX can use load balancing technologies to send its customers to any server in the server farm. This ensures better resource allocation across all the servers, and better responsiveness and performance for each user interacting with a server.
A more scalable infrastructure
The increased efficiency enabled by SoftGrid for TS and the Barracuda load balancers means that nGenX can support its existing customer base with only a fraction of the servers that it previously required. As it migrates customers to its nFinity 2.0 product, nGenX is finding it has server capacity to spare, which puts it in the perfect position to go after new business. It has more than enough server capacity even now to expand its business without having to add new servers in parallel—which is precisely the model of efficiency that nGenX officials had wanted.
“SoftGrid for TS is really helping us to scale,” says Bob Bye, executive vice president and general manager of nGenX. “We can deliver a new product line in a national offering that we would not have been able to deliver, given the limitations of our old environment.”
“It also saves us infrastructure costs, which in turn increases our overall margin and cash flow,” adds Curtis Bakker, vice president of business development at nGenX. “Using Microsoft SoftGrid for TS we can support more users on our existing server cluster, which reduces our underlying costs by approximately 30 percent. We simply don’t have to scale our servers at the previous rate.”
At some point, of course—assuming an enthusiastic response to its nFinity 2.0 offering—nGenX will find itself reaching capacity with its existing server infrastructure. But when that time comes, the advantages of using SoftGrid for TS to stream the applications to generic servers running Terminal Services will present themselves again: “We can just plug in additional servers as needed,” says David Gibson, director of operations at nGenX. “The servers running Windows Terminal Services are completely generic. There’s nothing special about any one server. As customers come on board and we reach capacity in the cluster, we just plug in another one. There’s no configuration required.”
When customer demand requires the addition of a new server which joins the cluster, the load balancing system can immediately begin to send customer traffic to it. “How quickly you can put a new server into service is not an insignificant matter,” adds Bakker. “SoftGrid for TS allows our customers to be brought online faster, which provides nGenX the needed scalability for a national offering.”
A more stable service delivery environment
Microsoft SoftGrid Application Virtualization for Terminal Services has also helped make the nGenX service delivery environment more stable and highly available. In the past, if a server needed maintenance, nGenX would have to take the server offline and perform the necessary work. As long as that server was configured to support a specific customer, that customer could not access its applications while the server was offline. But with SoftGrid for TS, all this has changed. When nGenX has to perform server maintenance, the load balancing technologies enable it to take individual servers offline at any time without preventing customers from accessing their applications. As soon as nGenX completes the work on the server, it can put the server back in service and the load balancing system will begin sending customer traffic back to it, and it will return to supporting the SoftGrid applications though Windows Terminal Services. Similarly, nGenX can update the applications in the SoftGrid repository itself, not on the terminal server machines—which enables the company to update an application once and then make the updated application available to all users. As soon as the update is complete, any user requesting the application gains access to the latest version after the user exits the old version.
“It’s a real benefit to us to be able to do updates without taking servers offline and to be able to do server maintenance during regular business hours,” says Bakker. “That cuts down on our overtime as well as our headcount because we don’t need to keep extra staff around to do these updates in the middle of the night.”
“We’re building our infrastructure for the future,” Bakker goes on to say. “Virtualization is going to be a key part of our future infrastructure. Microsoft SoftGrid for TS is a first step in automating and increasing the efficiency of our service delivery infrastructure, and that’s crucial for a nationwide delivery of hosted application services.”
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