Reducing the reliance on the public cloud

Reducing the reliance on the public cloud

To reduce costs and improve data security, marketing analytics firm Acxiom is bringing public cloud capabilities to its own data center.

Acxiom’s business has been growing for decades. What started as a small marketing services firm in Little Rock, Arkansas, is now a global powerhouse with operations in Europe, Latin America, and Asia-Pacific. Its Audience Operating System™ (AOS™) enables marketers to connect all types of traditionally disconnected data, both online and offline, to create a truly singular view of the consumer. It helps marketers derive better insights to more clearly understand their audiences and more accurately anticipate what will appeal to them.

To accommodate growing demand, Acxiom had been leaning heavily on one of the largest public cloud services. While those services deliver exceptional scale and flexibility, increased usage had a natural impact on cost.

“The public cloud was great in the beginning, but at our scale, it presents challenges from both a cost and data security perspective,” says Kamal Kharrat, director of platform engineering at Acxiom. “Data security is paramount for Acxiom and we strive to take all necessary steps to keep client and consumer data safe.”

To balance cost, flexibility, and security, Acxiom looked at different options in search of the right solution, and according to Kharrat, the company found it.

Evaluating SDN
In order to reduce its reliance on the public cloud, Acxiom evaluated a number of software-defined networking (SDN) options and found some disconcerting limitations. Most are proprietary, for example, and would never be able to integrate with portions of Acxiom’s infrastructure.

“It’s difficult to find tools that integrate with both public and private clouds,” Kharrat explains. “We have a big, mature data center and utilize a hybrid cloud environment. Buying new firewalls, load balancers, and switches would require a significant investment, so we wanted to leverage our existing systems and have the ability to interface with new environments as needed.”

Other SDN solutions Acxiom considered rely on a centralized controller, which creates a potentially debilitating process bottleneck.

“We move thousands of terabytes at a time,” says Chuck Crane, principal network and security architect for Acxiom. “We need the ability to support extremely high capacity and large Hadoop environments, without a bottleneck or single point of failure. The SDN options we initially considered wouldn’t work for our purposes.”

Enter Cisco® Application Centric Infrastructure (Cisco ACI™), an open standards-based system that integrates with virtually any environment and distributes the processing and decision-making burden among a host of switches. Cisco Application Policy Infrastructure Controllers (APICs) act as orchestrators, managing the policies and pushing instructions to those intelligent edge switches.

“ACI is exactly what we needed,” says Crane. “It allows much better scalability and redundancy instead of putting the entire load through a single controller.”

Speed, flexibility, and control
According to Kharrat and Crane, Cisco ACI brings speed, flexibility, and control to Acxiom’s data center and private cloud. A key differentiator is that the time to deploy a new application or product feature is reduced significantly—hours rather than days.

“We make applications that are simple to use, but that has nothing to do with the complexity behind the scenes,” says Kharrat. “ACI allows us to automate what was previously a manual process. We can create an application blueprint—defining policies, firewalls, load balancers, and security—and then automate the configuration of the entire stack down to the application layers, including virtual and bare metal environments.”

In addition to reducing the time it takes to provision the network for application development, quality assurance, staging, and production purposes, Cisco ACI also automates routine infrastructure changes.

“We perform more than 20,000 network and security changes every year, and that number is only growing,” says Crane. “If we can reduce the amount of time per change by 10 or 20 percent, that represents a huge time and cost savings that will allow us to refocus our engineers on architecture and application improvements that push our company forward and give us a competitive edge.”

With Cisco ACI, Acxiom is bringing the flexibility and scale of the public cloud into its own data center—featuring the Intel® Xeon® processor-based Cisco Unified Computing System™—supporting billions of transactions without compromising cost, control, or data security.

“I’m a true believer in ACI,” says Kharrat. “I expect ACI will revolutionize traditional network and infrastructure provisioning in the same fashion that electronic switchboards replaced manual telephone exchanges. ACI pushes infrastructure technology 50 years forward.”

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