What's behind AT&T's Synaptic 'cloud' initiative?

The term "cloud" as a metaphor for parts of the network that users don't need or want to comprehend, may have been coined by AT&T's own labs. So when the company said this week it's entering the "cloud computing" business, what did it mean?

What sets AT&T's Synaptic Hosting apart from other "cloud" initiatives? Jim Paterson, VP of product development for hosting and application services, said that Synaptic is using technologies ranging from VMWare to virtual local area networks (VLANs) to let AT&T move to an "on demand," pay-as-you-go approach with its existing Web hosting, storage, software as a service (Saas), and network management services.

With Synaptic, an offering unveiled this week, AT&T is now sharing resources dynamically across the 38 Internet data centers in its global network, permitting compute power and network bandwidth to go up or down whenever a customer's needs change. Under an accompanying "utility" model, customers now pay only for the resources they use, Paterson said, in an interview with BetaNews.

Paterson offered as an example of changing customer requirements, the case of the US Olympics Committee, one of Synaptic's early customers. When the Committee first opened its Web site for the 2008 games a few months ago, the site didn't offer as much content as it does today, and it wasn't drawing as many visitors.

"But now, each athlete has its own page in the blog, for instance. As traffic levels increased, we saw ourselves ramping up," Paterson said.

Paterson wouldn't comment directly on cloud initiatives from the likes of Microsoft, or search engine giant Google, or storage specialist EMC, or Dell -- which reportedly tried to trademark the phrase for itself. But, he suggested, the number of definitions of cloud computing might even be equivalent to the number of cloud initiatives announced in recent months.

Unlike some of the other recent cloud entrants, AT&T has been offering network-based services for a lot of years. Paterson noted that, outside of the company's long-time status in the voice communications business, AT&T began offering Web hosting about a decade ago, and other services -- such as remote network management -- much further back than that.

Although Microsoft HealthVault, Google Health, and some other cloud initiatives are offering services to both consumers and businesses, you shouldn't look to Synaptic for that. Paterson said that AT&T is Synaptic is geared specifically to SMBs, enterprises, and other organizations.

In another point of differentiation, Synaptic is offering hosting and other managed services from directly within AT&T's "network cloud," as opposed to the Internet at large. "I don't think that many competitors have a network that matches the robustness and reliability of AT&T's," Paterson contended.

What, specifically, is Synaptic providing that AT&T didn't offer before? Essentially, in the traditional manner of of service providers, AT&T previously offered services on a "dedicated" basis, meaning that resources were assigned to specific customers.

"So if a customer had wanted to start running a new application, this might have meant that we'd need to install new servers," Paterson said.

Alternatively, in the case of co-located implementations, the customer might need to do likewise. (In co-located scenarios, some resources are located in the provider's data center, whereas other are located on the customer's own premises.)

"Today, if a customer initially decides to use one of our CPUs, the customer can also allow this to 'burst' to two or four CPUs if needed," he said.

When asked about the origins of Synaptic, Paterson pointed to AT&T's buyout of US Internetworking (USi) back in 2006. "USi had started a project around using virtualization for managed application hosting," BetaNews was told.

In launching Synaptic, AT&T has converted five of its 38 IDCs to "super IDCs" outfitted with a range of large-scale virtualization capabilities. One of these five super IDCs -- in Annapolis, MD -- was once a USi data center. The other super IDCs are located in San Diego, CA, Piscataway, NJ, Amsterdam, and Singapore.

Now, AT&T is using server virtualization from VMWare to run multiple OS on a single Windows- or Linux-based server, if needed. VLANs are used to segment the network traffic of individual customers into temporary virtual network connections, eliminating the requirement to set up -- and then sometimes dismantle -- permanent network connections.

In its labs, he said, AT&T is now experimenting with products from two competing makers of server virtualization software: Microsoft and Xen.

"We're also now working with 'thin provisioning' technology for storage, so that we can grow storage on the fly," BetaNews was told.

To this mix, AT&T has added various technologies developed in-house over the years, including application acceleration techniques and AT&T's Business Direct portal for customer control and visibility into their own computing and network environments.

Also with Synaptics, AT&T is offering a single end-to-end service level agreement, covering all of the Synaptics services used by the customer.

Beyond further building out its super IDCs, he said, AT&T now plans to to extend Synaptics to cover the company's other existing network services, such as dynamic backup and restore, unified communications, and on-demand retrieval of CT scans and other medical images.

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