If you host and operate large-scale Web sites, or negotiate contract agreements with vendors that provide such services, you need to understand what should be included in a Web hosting infrastructure. This knowledge will help you in three areas:
- Providing reliability, scalability & good performance
- Minimizing risks via security, privacy, regulatory compliance and reduction of vulnerability to potential lawsuits
- Reducing and controlling costs
This guide is meant to help you review upcoming contracts as well as existing services.
Likely audience for this article: Managers, directors and vice presidents of technology, operations or finance at organizations operating large-scale Web sites; Executives supervising technology: CTO, CIO, CFO, COO.
Seven Aspects of Large-Scale Web Hosting
Large-scale Web hosting infrastructure and services can be organized into the following seven areas:
- Servers & Environments
- Network & Other Appliances
- Managed Hosting Services
- Third-party Provided Services
- Program Management Office, PMO
- Account Management
- Infrastructure & Facilities
Checklist for Review
You can use the following checklist to review your hosting services or a vendor’s proposal.
What to look for
When you review each item below, consider:
- Is this item included in the vendor’s proposal or in the services we are currently receiving? If it is not included, what are the good reasons it isn’t included?
- Is this needed for my organization’s current business requirements? Can we do without it? Is it a must have or nice to have for present and reasonable future needs?
- What are the alternatives?
- What is the unit price of this item? How does the price scale up as needs grow? How does the price scale down when need for this item decreases?
- What level of fault-tolerance does this item need? i.e. redundancy, standby backups, time to recover
Some of the above review questions may apply only to things and not apply to services and processes.
Servers may be physical hardware servers and/or virtual servers managed using software such as VMWare, Parallels Virtuozzo or Xen. The services listed below can each run on separate servers or multiple services can run on a server. It is generally better to have servers running only one (or minimum number) of the major services listed below. That reduces complexity and saves expensive staff time saved maintaining, troubleshooting and recovering. Virtualization makes it economical to have multiple virtual servers on the shared physical hardware economize costs.
The following is a list of commonly found services at large-scale Web sites that require servers.
- Content Management software. This is the software that the Editorial and Production teams use to submit, edit, package and manage articles, photos and other Web site content
- Dynamic Content Assembly. Typically done using Portal Server software, either third-party supplied or in-house developed
- Data Processing. E.g. workflow engines, jobs/tasks processing servers
- Other applications. These are applications that happen to be separate from the main content management system. They could be separate for any number of reasons. E.g. blogs, forums
An environment is a self-sufficient set of servers assigned to serve a purpose as described below. Large-scale Web sites typically utilize multiple environments.
- This serves the Web sites to the customers and public.
- Typically has 99.9% or higher uptime guarantee in the Service Level Agreement
Please refer to the accompanying table titled Understanding SLA Uptime Guarantee Percentages to compare different time windows when the SLA Uptime measurement gets reset. I recommend that you ensure that the reset window you get is the same duration as your billing cycle (usually monthly) or shorter. This will help avoid having long downtimes without penalty.
- This is the environment where content packages are developed, integrated and previewed by Editorial, Design and Production teams before they are published to the end-users. For example, when working on a major site redesign or relaunch for several months. Since the tech teams are often making changes to the Development Integration and QA environments, they are not suitable for content integration work by the Editorial and Design teams. Staging is used in large-scale Web sites where mutiple Editors, Designers and Production staff are collaboratively creating content packages and new sections. In smaller Web sites or in cases where just one or two Editors are working on a piece of content like an individual article, previewing is done in the Production environment itself with access controls.
- Quality Assurance (QA)
- The QA engineers perform Functional Testing and Load Testing here. Doing functional testing while a load test is running is sometimes a good idea as it simulates usage closer to live production.
- Development Integration
- Software product code developed by different engineers is integrated here. There could be continuous integration or nightly builds.
- This is where developers ensure that their code works with other developers’ code (does not break the build, and does not conflict resulting in undesired functionality)
- Programmers should ensure that the product works here before handing it off to the QA engineers for testing
In a virtualized system the environments may not be physically separate and may regularly grow and shrink at different times. For example when hosted at a cloud computing provider, the QA environment may scale up during load testing and shut down completely during the hours the QA team is not working.
Network & Other Appliances
These are devices to which various servers are directly or indirectly connected.
- Load Balancers
- Shared Storage (Storage Area Network, SAN; Network Attached Storage, NAS)
- Backup & Restore systems
- Bandwidth (at origin hosting)
- Bandwidth is not a physical thing, but since like electricity, fuel or cell-phone minutes, is something that is metered and paid for monthly, bandwidth usage and charges need to be carefully managed.
Managed Hosting Services
- Systems Administration
- This typically includes all the management of the physical hardware up to and including the operating system and popular applications that complement the operating system.
- Database Administration Services
- Applications Management Services
- This typically includes all the administration of the applications that run on top of the operating system.
- Systems Monitoring, Alerting & Reporting
- Web Support Help Desk, 24×7
- Content Delivery Network, CDN (e.g. Akamai, Limelight, CDNetworks)
- CDN Network Storage
- CDN Bandwidth Rates for HTTP and Streaming
- External Monitoring, Alerting & Reporting (e.g. Gomez, Keynote)
Program Management Office, PMO
- Project Management
- Change Management Processes & Tools
- Documentation system
- Tools for source control, build & deployment
- RASIC Matrix Describing Roles & Responsibilities
- Escalation Flowcharts
- Crisis Management & Emergency Procedures
- Customer service
- Relationship management
- Master Services Agreement, MSA
- Statements of Work, SOW
- Service Level Agreement, SLA
- What to look for in the SLA is the subject of a separate article in this series.
- Billing & Service Level Agreements
- Monthly bills provided by telecommunications (telco) and hosting companies tend be extremely complex and lengthy. As a result, they are difficult and time-consuming to review.
- Always factor in one-time setup fees and any implementation fees paid to the vendor and/or their partners in the total cost of the contract. Don’t look only at the recurring charges. A simple way to do this is this:
contract cost = implementation fees + (estimated recurring fees x number of recurrences committed to)
e.g. contract cost for 1 year = setup fees + (estimated monthly charges x 12)
For most hosting / telco contracts I recommend this simple calculation over more sophisticated methods that factor in time value of money because the recurring fees are estimates anyway.
- Make sure that 1-year contract is really a 1-year contract and not effectively a 13-month, 15-month or even longer contract by ensuring the following:
- The contract’s start date is the first date for which the recurring billing begins. This is useful in determining the default end date of the contract. For example:
If you agree to a 1-year contract with monthly billing when the first monthly bill will be for services provided April, 1, 2010 through April 20, 2010, then the default termination date for the contract is March 31, 2011. If the service provider estimates 3 months for implementation that ends on June 30, 2010 and they charge you the monthly services for April, May and June, don’t let the vendor tell you the contract start date is July 1. If you paid the monthly fees for services provided on April 1, then the start date is April 1.
- If the vendor charges you fractional monthly fees for the implementation period and/or charges you one-time set up fees, then you should negotiate and agree on a contract end date that is fair to both parties. Use this guideline: The contract commitment should aim towards a certain money target (revenue for the vendor). If the implementation fees are equivalent to say, 3 months of recurring billing, you might agree that end date is after 9 months of the first recurring billing cycle.
Tips for Reviewing Technology Vendor Contracts and Service Level Agreements (SLA)
- Don’t let the vendor use a lower monthly rate for calculating SLA credits.
An example: The vendor’s contract section X.YZ1 states that the customer’s service credits will be calculated against a monthly rate of $6,000.00 per month. However, the vendor’s estimated total charges seem to be at least $10,000 per month. Don’t let the vendor calculate service credits based on a lower monthly bill than the actual monthly bill.
- Don’t get locked into a deal where you could be stuck with overages every month.
An example: The vendor’s contract section X.YZ2 locks the customer into the vendor’s service for two years for a total of between $80K/month to $100K/month if the customer remains at under 100 million page views per month. If the customer’s page views go over 100 million in any month, then there will be additional overage charges. There is no out clause nor a pre-determined next rate tier in the customer’s favor in the contract. If customer s traffic rises to regularly being over 100 million page views per month, the customer will be trapped in a contract with recurring overage charges. Make sure that if you have overages in the future, you can move into the next tier, preferably at a better rate.
- Beware of vaguely defined scheduled maintenance and make sure scheduled maintenance needs customer’s prior approval.
An example: The SLA section X.YZ3 states that the vendor can schedule maintenance downtime with 48 hours notice. They can give the customer notice by one of many means. There is no requirement for the customer to review or even acknowledge receipt. This is slanted too much in vendor s favor. The customer should have some ability to reschedule scheduled maintenance or ask for it to be shorter in duration if it interferes with the customer’s business.
- Make sure that service credits can also be redeemed as cash.
An example: The SLA section X.YZ4 states that service credits are not cash. Such credits will only be applied to future service billings. This is usually fine, except if it happens in the last month of the contract or if there is not enough future usage to use up the credits. In such instances, service credits should be payable as cash.
- If the vendor will charge you for overages, the vendor needs to be responsible for service at the overage usage levels too.
An example: The SLA section X.YZ5 states that response time service credits will not apply if monthly page-views exceed 120 million. This is not fair to the customer. The vendor is fine with charging the customer overage fees, but not being responsible for level of service at those levels. If the vendor charges overage fees, it should bind them to providing full service at the exceeded usage as well.
Infrastructure & Facilities
This item, infrastructure & facilities, is beyond the scope of this article. It includes the buildings, electric power, generators, climate control, physical security and related staffing.
This article is part of a series titled “Guide for the CTO: A compilation of articles on how to lead and manage technologies, projects and people”.