How can you secure real savings on cloud in this COVID moment?

Reducing cost has suddenly become top of mind for all IT decision makers. In the space of a short few weeks their priorities have changed dramatically. Their business as usual tools and techniques have made them ill-prepared for this very moment. The days of squeezing on price points to reduce IT cost have largely gone when most of the cloud hyperscalers operate already at competitive prices between each other, with regular systematic reductions.

The focus then moves towards the professional and managed services for cloud cost management 

Here significant cloud cost saving can be made for sure. The single biggest drive for unit cost economics improvement is the level of genuine software and automation within the migration to and setup of a cloud environment. Typically we find, the more native the service provider, the more they have embraced the “born in the cloud” tooling within both the hyperscaler stack and on the market. 

The more traditional providers (an example is the category of system integrators), the more that they typically approach the problem with legacy approaches and tooling. This is also re-enforced that may of these traditional legacy organizations still operate between 90 – 95% of their estate on premise.

The cloud native approach.

At Nordcloud we are truly obsessed with methods and tools that automate, and enable clients to optimise cloud and reduce IT infrastructure cost.

The result?

Lower unit migration cost and managed service cost economics. Do it with software, don’t do it with people. One of those areas we like to help clients start is by reviewing their current spend, identifying and implementing savings within days (not weeks or months). 

How could this work for your business?

Come speak to us and we will walk you through exactly how it works.

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Continuous cost savings practice at Nordcloud

In Nordcloud we have automation in our DNA, be it in our infrastructure, development or even internal processes. 

In this blog post we will share some best practices we use ourselves for cloud cost management, in reducing internal costs for AWS accounts we operate…and we have close 500 of them. 

These accounts can vary, some run production systems with our software, others, run internal systems like VPNs and privacy proxies, however,  around 350 of them are so called personal AWS accounts. As part of our approach to AWS management, each employee who wishes to test something in AWS can automatically get an account and do some stuff there – like run EC2, Lambdas or EKS clusters. 

Our experienced team are all highly skilled cloud ninjas, for sure, however, invariably make human mistakes at times. This is where unnecessary cost might get generated. So how can you control this on such a massive scale?  

There are two ways: 

Enforce something or audit something and act? 

We have adopted the middle ground, able to implement both and take immediate action to reduce cloud cost in a fast and effective way.  Our cost visibility tool Insight allows us to easily spot which accounts are generating significant cost, and  we can if needed contact people owning the account to do some clean-up. Insight allows you to set budgets too and get alerts. 

In addition, we are using homegrown automation to optimise the cloud, and clean unused resources every Thursday night – we call it ‘Black Thursday’. We then stop EC2 instances and delete old snapshots, remove unattached IPs, unattached volumes and so on. The automation behind the scenes uses serverless architecture and our home built software. We can get easy access to all accounts by mass deploying a role in them with our Provisioner.

So how much have we actually saved in our IT infrastructure cost? 

When we first executed the automation on all accounts – we managed to save around 12000 E/m. If we want to save more we can adjust the rules accordingly and be less liberal on what we allow in the accounts to run. 

What about Azure and GCP ? 

Our approach isn’t just on Amazon Web Services saving. At Nordlcoud our practice leads control cost with a similar automated approach, our solution  is suitable for a multi cloud approach and can be used everywhere. Nordcloud helps customers adopt  cost savings in a continuous manner via our FinOps and capacity services capacity services.

The key learnings for us and the customers on this exercise are the following:

  • Cloud cost management should be  a continuous process – not ad hoc
  • Automation is the key to reduce IT infrastructure cost
  • You won’t know how much you save if you have no cost visibility tool 

These key learnings map perfectly to our products and services: FinOps, Provisioner and Insight. 

How can your business save significant costs?

 Find our more here 

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Controlling lights with Ikea Trådfri, Raspberry Pi and AWS

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BlogTech

A few months back we purchased Ikea Trådfri smart lights to our home. However, after the initial hype, those were almost forgotten as controlling was just too complicated via ready-made tools. For example, the Ikea Home app works only on mobile and it’s only possible to use it when connected to wifi. Luckily, Trådfri offers an API for controlling the lights, so it was possible to build our customized UI.

Connecting to Trådfri

With quick googling, I found a tutorial by Pimoroni that helped me get started. I already had Raspberry Pi running as a home server, so all it took was to download and install the required packages provided by the tutorial. However, at the time of writing this article (and implementing my solution), the Pimoroni tutorial was a bit outdated. Because of that I just couldn’t get the communication working, but after banging my head against the wall for a while I found out that in 2017 Ikea changed the authentication method. I’ve contacted Pimoroni and asked them to update the article.

After getting the communication between Raspberry Pi and Trådfri Gateway working I started writing the middleware server on Raspberry Pi. As I’m a javascript developer I chose to build this with NodeJS. Luckily, there is a node-tradfri-client package available that made the integration simple. Here’s a code example of how I’m connecting to Trådfri and storing the devices in application memory.

I also added ExpressJS to handle requests. With just a few lines of code, I had API endpoints for

  • Listing all devices in our house
  • Toggling a lightbulb or socket
  • Turning lightbulb or socket on
  • Turning lightbulb or socket off
  • Setting brightness of a lightbulb

Writing the client application

As we wanted to control the lights from anywhere with any device, we chose to build a web app that can be used on a laptop, mobile, and tablet without installing. After the first POC, we decided on the most common use cases and Eija designed the UI on Sketch. Actual implementation was done using ReactJS with help of Ant Design and react-draggable.

Source codes for the client app is available in my Github.

Making the app accessible from anywhere

In Finland, we have fast and unlimited data plans on mobile and because of that we rarely have wifi enabled on mobile (nothing is more irritating than bad wifi connection on the yard). To solve this, we chose to publish the app to the public web. As the UI is built as a single-page app, it’s basically free to host it with AWS S3 and Cloudfront. Since Cloudfront domains are random strings, we decided that this is enough security for now. This means that knowing the Cloudfront domain, anyone can control our lights. If this becomes a problem, it’s quite simple to integrate some authentication methods too.

The app is also hosted on the Raspberry Pi on our local network, so guests can control the lights if they are connected to our wifi.

The bridge between physical & digital world is not yet seamless

Even with this accessible application we quickly figured out that we still need physical control buttons for the lights. For example, when going upstairs and not bringing the phone with you, you might end up in a dark room without the possibility to turn on the lights. Luckily Ikea provides physical switches for the Trådfri lights, so we had to make one more Ikea trip to get the extra controller upstairs.

Another way to reduce the need for physical switches would be using a smart speaker with voice recognition. Unfortunately, only Apple Home Pod is the only speaker that currently understands Finnish and it’s a tad out of our budget and probably not possible to integrate into our system either. Once Amazon adds Finnish support for Alexa we’ll definitely try that.

…and while writing the previous chapter, I figured that since Apple supports Finnish, it’s possible to create a Siri Shortcut to control our lights. With few more lines of code in the web app, it now supports anchor links from Shortcut to trigger a preset lighting mode.

Conclusion

It’s great that companies like Ikea provide open access to their smart lights since at least for us the ready-made tooling was not enough. Also with the help of the AWS serverless offering, we can host this solution securely in the cloud for free. If you have any questions about our solution, please feel free to get in touch.

For more tech content follow Arto and Nordcloud Engineering in Medium.

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5 Workplace health tips from Nordcloud

As COVID-19 continues to effect our working environment,  lots of businesses have expanded their work from home policies. Many of us are being encouraged to self quarantine, avoid gathering places and to improve hygiene, but even when the pandemic is over, how can we all strive to improve the health of our teams in the coming weeks?

1: Improve work-life balance

Making sure you have sufficient time to wind down after a stressful day or week is not only important to reduce stress for your mental wellbeing, it will also improve your immune system! When you get stressed your body releases a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Being stressed often or for long periods of time increases risk for heart complications, weight and sleep issues as well as a reduced efficiency of your immune system.

Encouraging physical activities in and outside of your workplace can improve productivity, reduce sick days, and boost individual development. For example, in our Stockholm office we have a table tennis table which has greatly boosted physical activity amongst our coworkers (when we’re not working from home!).

 

2: Clean your desk and equipment

As COVID-19 has been spreading worldwide we have all gotten more information about how to improve our hygiene. In case you missed it the basic steps are:

  • Clean your hands with soap and water often
  • Cough into your arm or a tissue and throw away the tissue immediately
  • Avoid touching unclean surfaces (doorknobs, subway gates etc)
  • Avoid touching your face
  • Work from home if you can

These are all important to remember, but what about our workplace? Do you have a colleague who only cleans his or her coffee cups every Friday? Keeping empty cans on their desk? Seldom cleans their keyboard?

These are all places where germs propagate. With the latest studies suggesting that the Coronavirus can live on hard surfaces such as metal, glass and plastic for as long as nine days, when did you last clean your laptop?

 

3: Keep some plants and keep them well!

Studies have shown that indoor plants not only boost your mood and productivity. They also help clean the air indoors and reduce stress. By cleaning the air and reducing stress we go back to points one and two, less stress and cleaner air has large health benefits. We keep a couple of plants in the office and have roof windows to increase sunlight.

Having employees responsible for their own small desk plant also gives a couple of minutes of therapeutic stress release for the individual every day, much cheaper than a therapist could be!

 

4: Encourage healthy eating habits

Here at Nordcloud we have our headquarters and many of our offices in the Nordics. During the colder half of the year, due to reduced sunshine we often get vitamin D deficiencies. Other vitamin deficiencies also make themselves known during this time as the common cold spreads faster and we have decreased immune responses when it does show up. We battle this by keeping fresh fruit and a jar or two of vitamins in our office which is an easy way to boost vitamin levels.

 

5: Take care of your mental health

We touched upon the subject of mental health in points one and three. The year is now 2020 and the subject of mental health has been destigmatized and brought to light. Mental health is today just as important as physical health yet is not widely understood everywhere. Promoting training and awareness in the subject has a lot of benefits not only for the employees productivity and creativity, improved mental health in the workplace has shown to improve physical health and work culture as well.

Click here to learn more about how we are helping businesses during COVID-19

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Six capabilities modern ISVs need in order to future-proof their SaaS offering

Successful ISVs are leveraging public cloud capabilities and becoming SaaS providers. The move to public cloud-based SaaS offering provides ISVs a potential for business growth that cannot be matched with traditional on-premise single-tenant solution. In fact, Gartner estimates that the market size of the SaaS marketplace this year will be $99.7B while growing at the rate of 21% [1].

ISVs can benefit from moving to SaaS in several different ways. It helps them to:

  1. Unlock new customer segments through lower customer acquisition cost and easier geographical expansion
  2. Reduce the total cost of ownership (TCO) through elimination of customer-specific support costs
  3. Reduced time-to-market through leveraging built-in components available in all the public cloud platforms
  4. Leverage data and insights through a unified data platform 

Moving from a traditional license-based business model to a subscription model also lowers customers’ barrier to buy while improving financial predictability for the ISV. In contrast to the traditional licensing model, subscription models allow customers to use the software without committing to long licensing periods – lowering their barrier to buy. It also smoothens the revenue curve through monthly recurring revenue, resulting in improved financial predictability.

Successful SaaS providers have built their business around 6 core capabilities

Having worked with many SaaS providers on their cloud migration journey, we have identified a set of capabilities that separates the successful companies from the rest. These capabilities are:

The key for building these six capabilities effectively is to use the capabilities provided by public cloud platforms like AWS, Azure and GCP. I’ll go through each one of these capabilities in some detail below.

Multi-tenancy

Successful SaaS vendors provide standardised service to all customers through multi-tenancy. This means that they provide a single shared application and data layer to all customers, without customer specific instances.

In contrast, the traditional single tenancy model results in high costs due to maintenance overhead of keeping application instances in sync across the installation base. Your different instances will also easily drift apart from each other in terms code and configuration. 

Some organisations opt for limited multi-tenancy where all the customers share a common application layer, but the data layer is kept in separate customer-specific instances. This can be a useful model for organisations whose customers are following strict data compliancy regulations and must keep their data in a specific geographical region, for instance.

The full multi-tenancy model provides the most value by allowing teams to focus on developing and maintaining a single version leading to lower TCO and easier maintainability. In full multi-tenancy customer specific variations can be built into the software as components that can be turned on or off based on the need.

Automation

Successful SaaS vendors minimise any manual steps and build end-to-end automation across development, testing, deployment and operations. Automation capabilities and DevOps toolchain can drastically improve delivery quality and speed-to-market. 

For instance, on the infrastructure side companies should use Infrastructure-as-Code (IaC) tools like AWS CloudFormation or Terraform to increase automation and consistency of environments, to templatise and automate infrastructure stack creation. 

Companies should utilise the full DevOps toolchain that automates the workflow from coding to deployment. Automating the whole workflow is very important as any gaps in the automation will effectively become a bottleneck and kill the benefits that you were hoping to achieve. To achieve the end-to-end workflow automation, it is recommended to set up a dedicated team responsible for the DevOps toolchain and way of working.

We recommend our customers is to use a managed DevOps tool service rather than building their own toolchain. For instance, Azure DevOps is a great SaaS service provided by Microsoft that is also compatible with other public cloud platforms like AWS.

As your development teams will have more responsibility in the SaaS model, it is important to perform automated security and compliance tests. Start with automated reporting and compliance checks inserted into CI/CD pipeline complemented with cloud environment best-practices / anti-pattern checks.

Microservices and Serverless

Microservice architecture and serverless let companies focus on functionality rather than integration. We tell our customers that whenever they start developing something new to their SaaS solution, they should always think if it can be implemented using serverless services like AWS Lambda, Azure Functions or GCP Cloud Functions. If serverless is not an option, they should build new functionality as microservices.

Serverless services allow you to build your functionality as event-driven components that are executed on-demand triggered by specific events, like database change, log activity etc. Serverless functions speed up development and deployment time and can significantly reduce cost as you only pay for the requests, not for the idle time.

Microservices architecture has been around for a while, but it is interesting that so many ISVs are still stuck in the world of traditional monoliths. Microservices are built to separate functionality as independent components, where the functionality is offered through APIs, and that can be developed and maintained without having to worry about dependency issues (given you don’t alter the APIs).

Data as a Platform

Shared platform allows SaaS vendors to leverage insights from data aggregated across applications. In fact, a shared data layer is fast becoming the number one capability many ISVs and SaaS providers are after and which sets apart the successful providers from the rest. There are still many organisations that are not able to leverage data across their customer instances in an effective way. 

Public cloud offer unparalleled capabilities to build a consolidated data asset from your service. Even if you’re keeping your customer databases in separate locations, you can still benefit from having a shared data lake for insights and analytics. However, you might have to do anonymization in case of strict data policies. 

Shared data layer for applications is important not only for sharing data and getting platform wide analytics but also for compliance and auditability. Using cloud platform services (e.g. AWS Lakeformation) it is possible to build shared data layer with detailed access controls and audit trail. 

Single Codebase

Having a single codebase can sound like an obvious thing but maintaining a strict single codebase policy requires dedication. SaaS vendors with multiple different versions of the code end up spending more on change implementation, deployment and maintenance. Instead of building customer specific functionality to different codebases or versions, you should have a single codebase and build customer specific functionality into common build through config options. This is in line with what I already wrote about multitenancy.

Velocity of Innovation

The last common capability for successful SaaS vendors based on our experience is enabling velocity of innovation through public cloud. Having the possibility to shoot up a development environment in minutes or building your prototype as a serverless functions utilising cloud-native pre-built components can have a massive impact on the way you introduce new value adding services to your customers. 

We recently worked with a SaaS provider who wanted to create a new mobile service from scratch. Using AWS Lambda, we were able to develop the first prototype overnight, which would potentially have taken them weeks to develop in their old on-premise environment.

Building a roadmap for the six capabilities

Public cloud is a natural choice for SaaS providers as it offers unmatched range of components and functionality to build the six key capabilities SaaS vendors need to compete in the highly contested market.

Nordcloud has helped many SaaS vendors to migrate to public cloud and to build the six capabilities increasing their potential to grow faster than their competitors.

Based on our experiences we have developed a capability maturity model that helps our customers to map their current state and future aspirations. 

Let me know if you’d like to hear more about how your organisation can benefit from public cloud and our experience in helping SaaS vendors to succeed.

[1] Gartner, Forecast: Public Cloud Services, Worldwide, 2016-2020

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