by Megan Santosus

USTA Scores Cost Savings, Agility with Amazon Cloud Service

Oct 20, 20118 mins
Cloud Computing

USTA CIO Larry Bonfante explains why his organization moved its back-office systems to the cloud, why he selected Amazon Web Services (AWS), and the many benefits the USTA has been reaping from the decision.

Two days of rain may have wreaked havoc with the 2011 US Open tennis tournament schedule, but clouds of another sort are coming up aces for the United States Tennis Association (USTA).

The USTA, which runs the US Open, last year moved its internal back-office systems to Amazon Web Services (AWS), and the results have been nothing short of superb on multiple fronts. For one, the move has cut operating expenses by 70 percent annually—even more than expected—and dramatically increased the organization’s agility, according to Larry Bonfante, CIO for the USTA.

“The cloud has provided us with a level of flexibility we didn’t have before,” Bonfante says. “We have the quickness to respond to the market and the ability to reinvest in innovative solutions for our end users.”

Not every company can expect to garner the benefits that the USTA has from the cloud, Bonfante and other experts are quick to note. The technology is still in relative infancy, analysts say, and may not be quite ready to take on a role as an at-the-ready backup for, say, major retailers who may want to use it to augment their own data centers during peak shipping periods.

But cloud has certainly fit the bill for the USTA, based in White Plains, New York. Supporting the US Open, which Bonfante says is “the most highly attended annual sporting event in the world” (it attracted 650,000 fans this year) is only part of what Bonfante and his staff of 25 IT employees are charged with. They also provide basic IT services and systems for 17 sectional and four national offices in the United States. And as the non-profit governing body for tennis in the United States, the USTA provides 765,000 members nationwide with online services; members register for tournaments, check their results and track their rankings courtesy of the USTA’s IT department.

USTA Nails a Winner

In early 2010, the USTA was facing a situation familiar to many IT shops; in response to increasing demands, the USTA was continuing to build out its computing infrastructure resulting in ongoing and increasing capital expenditures. Earlier in his tenure at USTA, Bonfante opted to nix the organization’s internal data center and turn over that infrastructure to a third party hosting company. As infrastructure investments increased, operational expenses followed suit. “Hosting costs were very significant for a company of our size,” Bonfante recalls.

To reign in both capital and operational expenses, the USTA looked to the cloud. Bonfante targeted the USTA’s internal back-office systems first, as those were the systems that were hosted by the third-party provider and also didn’t pose PCI compliance-related challenges. While trimming costs was top-of-mind, Bonfante says that he wouldn’t turn to the cloud for purely economic reasons; he had to be comfortable with reliability and availability levels, and he needed to ensure that he would be able to deliver equivalent quality to USTA employees.

After doing due diligence in which he investigated a number of cloud providers, Bonfante selected Amazon Web Services (AWS) in 2010 to host back-office systems. One of the AWS’s major selling points, Bonfante says, was the fact that the company handled billions of dollars of ecommerce transactions in the cloud. The depth and breadth of the AWS infrastructure was also something that impressed Bonfante. And finally, “Amazon was the easiest to work with, and it was also the most cost efficient for us,” Bonfante says.

It didn’t take long for the USTA to be sold on the merits of the cloud. Within two months of the initial pilot involving a few systems, the USTA had migrated all of its back-office systems from its hosting company to the AWS infrastructure in the cloud. Today, the workload of about 70 physical servers run on much fewer virtual machines in the cloud, and Bonfante says the USTA’s reliance on cloud-based servers will only increase with time.

“We continue to build new systems and solutions for our internal community, and every time we do that we continue to add to our environment in the Amazon cloud,” Bonfante says.

While the USTA’s consumer-facing systems don’t currently reside in the cloud, that could change. Bonfante says his initial concerns about PCI compliance have subsided since 2010 as cloud providers introduce new PCI-focused solutions. In the case of AWS, companies can now build a secure and seamless bridge between their existing IT infrastructure and the cloud through the Amazon Virtual Private Cloud (Amazon VPC). VPC is designed to enable organizations to connect their existing infrastructure to a set of isolated compute resources via a Virtual Private Network (VPN) connection. In addition, companies can extend their existing management capabilities such as security services, firewalls, and intrusion detection systems to include their cloud resources.

Bonfante continues to talk to third party providers about the advantages posed by the cloud; if those providers opt to run USTA’s systems in a cloud environment, Bonfante says he will support the move.

The USTA’s bullish stance regarding the cloud is understandable. The 70 percent reduction in operating costs hes experienced far exceeded the 40 percent that Bonfante expected. These cost savings result from moving operations from the hosting provider to the cloud and don’t include savings in capital investments that USTA has realized as a result of eliminating hardware purchases.

Another noteworthy benefit has been a speedy time-to-market for new systems. With no servers to procure, configure, install and monitor, Bonfante says the time it takes for the USTA to get a new system up and running has been reduced from days or weeks to only a few hours.

Considering the USTA’s migration to the cloud, which Bonfante says was relatively seamless, and the ongoing operational cost advantages, it is little wonder that public cloud services like those offered by Amazon face a rosy future. IDC predicts that spending on public IT cloud services will exceed $72 billion in 2015, up from the $21.5 billion spent in 2010.

Cloud Limitations and Risks

The USTA’s experience notwithstanding, Bonfante says public cloud services are not for every organization. Those that have significant investments in their own data centers may opt for private cloud services, offering computing resources on-demand and over the Internet but expressly for one organization.

“What a private cloud can do is transform IT to become more efficient,” says Kent Christensen, practice manager of virtualization at Datalink Corp., a provider of data center infrastructure services in Chanhassen, Minn. In effect, a data center serves as a cloud provider to the organization.

In some cases, an organization can combine public and private clouds into a hybrid model. Maybe the company runs a transactional database on a private cloud, for example, and uses a public cloud to alleviate pressure on its data center for things such as data storage and additional compute cycles during peak times.

In theory, Christensen says, using a private-public cloud hybrid for any data center “overage” promises significant cost and efficiency benefits, but he doesn’t think the concept is quite ready for mainstream adoption. For one thing, Christensen asserts that even the largest cloud providers like Amazon and Google can’t handle the load on a wide scale should lots of retailers, say, want to complement their own data centers with cloud services between Thanksgiving and New Year. And it’s relatively early in the game for private cloud adopters to be thinking in terms of designing a bridge between their clouds and the public ones.

“I don’t know if it’s practical to do in production this year,” Christensen says about the private-public cloud model, “but it is getting close.”

At USTA, Bonfante concedes that going to the public cloud in general and Amazon in particular did require a leap of faith, as there are inherent risks involved.

“There’s no question that there is a potential for outages,” he says, and indeed Amazon experienced significant disruptions earlier this year in both the U.S. and Ireland. “But you have that potential when building internally,” he adds.

Another caveat: SLAs. “No one has great SLAs in place in a public cloud environment,” Bonfante explains. You are in a community and you can’t hold people’s feet to the fire the same way as if your systems are hosted in a separate and discrete environment.”

For other CIOs contemplating a similar migration to the cloud, Bonfante advises they pay particular attention to compliance and security concerns up front. While the cost advantages of cloud services can be compelling, they alone should not inform a move to the cloud. And as a relative cloud veteran, Bonfante is aware of the uncertainty that other CIOs may feel. He says, “Don’t let fear of the unknown stop you from at least exploring this if not putting your foot in the water.”

Megan Santosus is a writer and editor in Natick, Mass.