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The Planet launches virtual racks

The largest privately held dedicated hosting provider reported that it has launched a new service designed to make one of the services most popular among its high-end customers available to its general population of customers.

The Planet said Wednesday that it has launched its new "virtual rack" solution, designed to make the features of its popular private rack solution available to customers running as few as two servers.

The private rack, says Urvish Vashi, The Planet's director of product management, is the dedicated hosting company's answer to colocation - not to mention the company's fastest-selling product.

The Planet is best known for providing dedicated hosting of the basic unmanaged variety. And that environment, where the great majority of the company's customers are, necessitates a certain uniformity of features in an automated setting.

"With our private rack product," he says, "we wanted to provide complete customisation. Once you're in a private rack, you pick the servers you want. You pick which advanced network and security technologies you want, whether it's advanced firewall from our line of Cisco ASA firewalls or load balancers from server iron. You can tell us how you would like that configured, and how you would like that wired, exactly what IP arrangement you want."

Physically speaking, the private rack solution is just that - a separate rack of servers within the company's data centre. The other advantages of the private rack include, for instance, the fact that the servers are physically interconnected means that a customer isn't charged for server-to-server communication.

Vashi says the company's largest customers wanted the functionality of the private rack, but sometimes were being forced into a private rack solution that wasn't the best use of their resources, or The Planet's.

"When you get into a rack, you have to pay to reserve that space in the data center, whether you use that space or not," he says. "If you buy a rack that holds 20 servers even though you only need 8 of them, because you wanted some of this advanced functionality, you're kind of forced to pay for the remaining 12 spots. And from our perspective, that's 12 spots in the data centre that we can't use. It's bad all around."

In many cases, he says, the key reasons for moving to a private rack came down to two or three things: the unlimited server-to-server transfer; the access to some advanced networking technologies, such as being able to put multiple servers behind the same firewall or load balancer; and being able to pool the bandwidth allotted to multiple separate servers.

"Virtual racks," he says, "will enable all those things, and it's going to do that on a pay-as-you-grow sort of model. The benefit of that is if you have two or three servers that need this functionality, you pay a simple fee for each server that needs to be in the virtual rack. For a modest charge, you basically now have access to these advanced functions without being in a private rack."

The virtual rack solution is available starting Wednesday, May 07, 2008, for customers with as few as two servers. According to the press release announcing the service, "for a limited time, the company is offering the first month free on all Kentsfield servers hosted in a virtual rack."

The company has set up an information page for the new offering.

"We basically have re-architected our network so we can provide this functionality and the requisite performance that these technologies require," says Vashi. "We've kind of built that into the network, so that we can do that all through software as opposed to having to go physically allocate a rack and build it by hand."

One of the major advantages of virtual racks for The Planet, is it increases the company's addressable base. That is, it makes a new service available to a whole range of customers that previously couldn't afford the private rack solution. It's the kind of growing-from-within strategy that has been responsible for much of the new profit in the web hosting business recently.

Of course, the virtual rack solution is not an outright replacement for the private rack. There are things the private rack customers can do that simply aren't possible in the virtual rack format.

"One is gigabit networking," says Vashi. "Some of the really super high performance applications our customers run require a gigabit network. That's a very small subset of customers, but it does exist. A virtual rack product is going to be limited at 100 megabits. There are also some advanced technologies that are only available in private racks and not virtual racks. The most notable one is our dedicated storage area network appliance. So for all the reasons a customer might want a SAN, it's only available to customers utilizing a private rack."

The virtual rack architecture may enable The Planet to introduce some new services down the road. There are certainly possibilities associated with scale. Whereas the traditional private rack solution has the obvious physical limitation - 20 servers per rack - there is no such limit on the virtual racks.

"This is one of those things that's a win for us in that we were are going to be able to profitably take business that couldn't afford to take before," says Vashi. "And secondly, the name of the game for any hosting provider you talk to is data center utilization. So we'll be able to service these customers without having to, in many cases, waste data center space. That's a win for us."

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