Upfront benefits of the SoftCo Cloud model are simple and transparent - no IT costs, no capital spend and no hassle. Using the SoftCo R8 platform as its foundation, it delivers a suite of wide-ranging business process solutions - from Account Payable and Electronic Requisitions to an Online Safe - as an intuitive easy-to-use service that will cut costs and save time.
Gartner predicts that 80 per cent of large enterprises will pay for some elements of cloud computing by 2012, but CIOs and IT managers still have concerns about availability and security. Smaller firms are similarly circumspect when it comes to entrusting business critical applications to the web.
Responding to these issues, SoftCo Cloud combines the proven R8 platform with other leading edge technologies that addressed storage, power and security challenges, creating an infrastructure that delivers on the promise of SaaS without any of the perceived risks.
Virtualisation was a core technology that made it possible. "A key component of our cloud computing platform is virtual machines built around a SAN infrastructure for high availability and unprecedented performance levels," explained Robert Hickey, Senior Project Manager, SoftCo.
In a ground-breaking move that builds on SoftCo's long-standing relationship with Microsoft, the innovative SaaS architecture behind it's SaaS model uses Microsoft's suite of virtualization software coupled with best of breed hardware and SoftCo R8.
Virtualization has led to the development of IT environments where hardware simulation enables virtual machines to run software more effectively. Under-utlisation of physical servers has been a long-standing challenge in the data centre where individual servers running different applications are expensive and inefficient to maintain. With virtualization, multiple servers can be consolidated on to a single virtual machine, allowing applications to be run much more efficiently.
"Before virtualization SoftCo would have had one server for every customer, running at 10 per cent utilisation if they were lucky. With its on-demand platform they run fewer servers that are much better utilised." said Dave Northey, Principal Systems Engineer, Developer & Platform Group, Microsoft Ireland.
Northey and his team worked with SofCo for eighteen months to deliver the SaaS platform. "SoftCo Cloud is at the forefront of what can be done with virtualisation and the best example I've seen of how the infrastructure can be used to revolutionise software delivery," he said.
The launch of Hyper-V server virtualization technology in 2008 was a significant moment for the IT industry. Microsoft entered a market where it was playing catch up to VMware, the market leader that dominated the first wave of virtualisation.
To make inroads into a fast emerging market, Microsoft launched a suite of software starting with Windows Server 2008 which embedded Hyper-V into the operating system.
"We use a completely different architecture to our competitors and have integrated driver support for any box with a Windows logo on it," said Northey. "It is there for everything from network cards and printers to any disk sub system, which makes for a very compelling business case."
The Microsoft proposition is based on delivering virtualized machines at a lower cost and making them easier to manage. The ability to run the environment is an element that should not be underestimated. "A Gartner analyst said that virtualization without good management is more dangerous than not using virtualization in the first place," said Northey.
These management tools are of paramount importance to SoftCo and its on-demand platform.
Infrastructure for web delivery has made important strides with the growth of consumer internet sites and social networking channels, but the business requirement for SaaS is very different and is best achieved with virtualization technology.
Robert Hickey explained: "You're not trying to build web applications for millions of users, like Facebook or Google, you are trying to deliver applications for different companies or different instances of the application for different companies."
Multi-tenancy sites have everybody on the same system. With SoftCo Cloud the challenge is to segregate the different business users. Each client that signs up for the service must have complete security around their documents and associated data and have infrastructure that isolates them from the activity of other companies using the platform.
"Multi-tenancy is like staying in a hostel and sharing the dorm and the bathroom," said Hickey, "with virtualization you get your own room in a five star hotel."
A client must never experience a performance lag around accessing a database, for example, caused by another company carrying out lots of searches or reports. Virtual machines are perfect for an architecture that needs complete isolation and Microsoft emerged as the obvious vendor to deliver the solution. It isolates client data on the hosted side which means SoftCo can effectively present one machine to one organisation.
"It is also very flexible, allowing clients to take it as far as they like in terms of security and access control," said Hickey. "You can have a VPN link between the customer and cloud with designated IP addresses and lock it down with SSL Certificates." Access control is reinforced at the perimeter with a Cisco firewall that provides another layer of security.
Failover, the ability to switch from one server or system to another in the event of a disaster, is a big IT challenge in any environment but becomes more important with SaaS. Businesses that entrust critical applications to the cloud must have assurances that the service provider can deliver on a 24/7 basis and seamlessly overcome any hardware downtime.
Virtualization has transformed backup and disaster recovery to deliver new levels of business continuity. SoftCo Cloud uses Microsoft SCVM to centrally manage a cluster of virtual machines that run off the Storage Area Network (SAN). If any physical server should fail, another server picks up the workload and executes a switchover in just 17-18 seconds. A subtle blip on the browser is all that the client will see.
Best of breed EMC storage is a key component of the architecture but it is the virtualization software that makes the real difference. "In the past, maintaining high availability with multiple physical servers was a major challenge. Trying to replicate data between them and ensure fast and effective pick up of workload could be a nightmare," said Hickey.
"VMs let you build a whole server complete with a database and if it fails it just switches over to another system. It has transformed the process to the benefit of both parties. For us it is much easier to manage, and for the on-demand customer it is seamless - they don't even know it's happening."
In the SoftCo Cloud technical architecture they are seamlessly integrated to Data Protection Manager 2007 that sits at the bottom of the stack. "We run it two ways," said Hickey. "We take a snap shot locally every 15 minutes so we can get back to any point in time to restore a document or file, and we also run it on a 24-hour basis for full off-site recovery," said Hickey.
With a hard-earned reputation for being the best in its field, any move made by SoftCo into the SaaS market would depend on wrapping the service in powerful technologies that would fulfil customer expectations.
SoftCo has combined the best of both worlds in a way that new entrants to the SaaS market will find impossible to replicate. Twenty years of experience in software development, delivering the proven R8 Business Process Automation platform, has been coupled with leading edge virtualisation technology from Microsoft to create a SaaS infrastructure where redundancy, security and speed are integral.
Hyper-V and its family of virtualization software enabled SoftCo to develop and build a technical architecture that delivers its applications on-demand in an environment that will satisfy every business requirement.
"The outcome is a platform that will deliver a range of critical business applications to customers, small and large, at an affordable price," said Hickey. "It's technology doing what it does best."
Robert HickeySenior Project Manager, SoftCo
Senior Project Manager, SoftCo