Digital Fortresses: A Paradigm For Thinking About Your Network
Even before the Coronavirus pandemic, a company’s network was the center of its operations. Few companies in the US use paper primarily for communicating information anymore. Even if paper order forms are used, they’re punched into a computer, which tracks the progress of the order, and sometimes even fulfills it. Internal communications, be it phone calls, emails, or video conferences run over the network.
Whether you’re looking at your existing network, or building a new one from scratch, you can think about your company’s network as a kingdom of virtual castles, providing the key services your employees need, a place for your customers to come to interact with you, and a bastion to protect your business’s data and processes from the increasingly dangerous online world.
When building a castle, one of the first decisions to be made is where it will go. I’ll look at the three most common choices for small and medium businesses here. First, self-hosting from your own office. Secondly, using a cloud service like AWS. Third, using a colocation service.
You don’t always get to choose where you live, but oftentimes, you can fortify where you live to an impressive extent.
Many companies with technically inclined personnel start from their own office or storefront. This is “office” often consists of just a computer sitting under a desk and a commercial-grade internet connection as their initial online bastion. Remote workers can VPN in using cheaply available solutions, access files stored at the office as if they were there, or even take control of the computer on their desk from home. Often a simple website can also be run from a home location, saving a few dollars a month in hosting costs. For very small businesses, this works well.
This tiny setup has a few advantages. First, it stretches existing resources; almost any business with a physical office or storefront will already have Internet running into that store. Secondly, if there are already computers in the office, it usually means all that needs to happen is for some software to be installed and configured to get it up and running. There’s no complexity in setting up site-to-site VPN’s or securing communications with other facilities. Everything is in one place, and you can see and touch every part of your online presence at once.
One major drawback is that it’s entirely self-managed; if it breaks, the business needs to fix it. A good MSP can alleviate this issue, but most MSPs will usually recommend one of the other available hosting locations. Secondly, commercial-grade internet connections aren’t designed for hosting. They are often asymmetric (they download data to your business much faster than they upload it) and don’t have the same guarantees of service that connections at data centers have. Regardless, this is usually the cheapest option for small businesses, since it leverages resources they usually already need.
Of course, some businesses have multiple offices, or no offices at all. What happens in that case?
A Castle in The Cloud
Although a castle in the sky is usually reserved for fantasy, building your electronic castle in the Cloud is a very popular choice. As cloud services evolve, the gaps in their capabilities grow smaller by the month, and they offer a few advantages that no colocation service could ever provide. For castles that don’t have a physical place to be or need to look much bigger than they actually are from outside, few things can hold their own again the Cloud.
Amazon AWS or Microsoft Azure are the two leading cloud providers, but there are many out there. Almost everything you can do with an office set up, you can do usually virtual computers, networks, and even workstations in their environment. These cloud services have evolved considerably over the past decade, and now there are very few applications they cannot run for your business if necessary.
Cloud providers have a real benefit in that they take all of the upfront costs and hassles of buying and maintaining hardware off the table entirely. Whereas with an in-office setup you need to think about how your router works, and replacing hard drives and keeping backups yourself, cloud providers take care of most of that for you, either automatically or with relatively minimal setup. The other advantage is that they scale down very, very low, so you can switch over to a cloud model at almost any stage of your business.
The drawback to a cloud provider is that they tend to be very expensive for what you get. Although they do have enormous economies of scale that help them bring down costs, you pay a premium for their engineers keeping and replacing your hardware, maintaining the networks, and providing power, cooling, and all the other necessities of computation. Once you scale past a certain level, you have a lot of work to do. In addition, the virtual location of all of these cloud services are well-known, and their sites are almost constantly scanned by various malicious actors for weaknesses. A misconfiguration on an AWS site that’s open to the public at all is likely to be exploited in days or even hours.
A Green Field of Possibilities
Finally, there’s colocation. Think of this like a broad green field, full of possibilities. You can accomplish almost anything in a collocated environment, build it into almost anything you want.
Colocation makes an attractive option for companies that have either very specific requirements that they need to fulfill or prefer to concentrate most of their costs in capital rather than in monthly expenses. With colocation, you rent space, power, and internet connectivity from a data center, and then place hardware you purchase in their space. Space is sold by the “rack”, 19-inch-wide street structures that almost all modern IT equipment aimed at business or commercial users is designed to fit neatly into. Both the racks themselves and the equipment put into them are measured in the creatively-named Rack Unit, so as the owner you need to make sure to manage your hardware to make sure you don’t exceed the amount of space, power, and network capacity you need.
Colocation can be expensive to start up and is usually less flexible than the other two options. Typically contracts for Colocation last years, and are much easier to size up than size down. Security and maintenance outside of the internet, power, and facility is usually entirely on the tenant as well. Colocation can make a great deal of sense for companies with an internal technical staff or a good MSP, as it makes those groups more efficient, and allows you to avoid the premiums of paying an entirely different technical staff at Microsoft or Amazon to maintain the equipment you’d be using in their data centers.
Colocation allows long-tail use of hardware that can greatly increase the value of capital assets. While most server hardware is usually planned for 3-year or 6-year lifespans, in practice it often can run much, much longer. For example, running an 8 core, 32 GB server at Amazon for 3 years would cost about $4,000. A similar 1U server from Dell might cost $1,500, plus $1,700 over 3 years in rack space, power, and internet. So, if the hardware lasts 3 years, you’ve already saved about $800 on colocation over Cloud services, but if the server last another 3 years, you’ve saved another $2,300. Multiple that by 40 U’s of rack space, and you could be netting a savings of over $30,000 per year by using colocation over cloud services. Although running hardware to failure is not historically recommended, the rise of containerized systems makes it a much more viable strategy than in previous eras.