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Major Entertainment and Video Game Company’s Move to Hybrid Cloud Infrastructure

Partnership Leads to Increased Agility, Innovation, Reduced Costs

SITUATION:

Move Fast, Reduce IT Work, and Ensure Great Game Performance
This Southern California–based company makes video games that are enjoyed by millions of gamers around the world. The company needed a more agile, cost-effective IT infrastructure to support the fast-changing nature of its business. “The gaming business has unique requirements for agility,” says Vice President of Business Systems and Process. “We have to get games to market very quickly to beat the competition, and we have to react fast if a game succeeds wildly.”

However, reconfiguring and provisioning racks of servers to meet changing business needs was never a quick task. If a game performed twice as well in the market as they predicted, the IT staff struggled to scale the on-premises data center infrastructure to keep up with player demands. To avoid game glitches and failures, they often over-provisioned the game infrastructure, which was hugely expensive, and even then didn’t know if it was sufficiently armed against a potential onslaught of play.

They also needed IT infrastructure agility to accommodate the company’s terrific growth and constantly changing IT needs. The IT team was constantly being asked to integrate newly acquired studios’ IT resources, shift server resources from one game to another, and accommodate newly configured development teams.

“A traditional IT paradigm just can’t support this kind of agility,” Executive Director of IT says. “It takes far too long to order and ship hardware, rack servers, install power cables, and so forth. We needed a much more agile approach to onboarding new acquisitions and third-party development studios.”

The company also felt that its IT team was spending far too much time on the traditional work of an IT department—monitoring and managing email servers and other mundane tasks – at the expense of supporting game development. “We would rather our people be developing games than deploying servers and watching blinking lights,” Vice President of Business Systems and Process says. “We wanted to redirect our team members to higher-value tasks so that IT could add more strategic value to the business.”

SOLUTION:

Build a Private Cloud Environment, Create Master Management Console
To meet all these needs, the company partnered with Prosum to help it create a cloud strategy and reconfigure its internal data center to be cloud-capable. It used Windows Server 2012 and Microsoft System Center 2012 to construct a private cloud environment in its own data center and moved many other workloads to Windows Azure. To fashion its on-premises infrastructure into a private cloud environment, they deployed Microsoft System Center 2012 with Service Pack 2 (SP2). System Center would serve as the central control panel for managing all resources, whether they ran on-premises, in Windows Azure, or in both. This hybrid cloud design helps enable the company’s goal to elevate its IT staff above day-to-day management of IT ‘plumbing’ by offloading as much infrastructure as possible to Windows Azure infrastructure as a service.
The company uses System Center 2012 SP2 to automate nearly every step of the virtual machine provisioning and deprovisioning processes—work that is cumbersome and time-consuming in a physical-server world. The IT team also uses System Center 2012 to perform dynamic game management: it can monitor the health of its games in real time, see how many users are playing at any given time, monitor game response times, and gather all kinds of metrics to help the IT staff make intelligent decisions about optimizing performance. It uses the Windows PowerShell command-line interface and scripting language to augment System Center with scripts that enhance and extend IT workflow automation.

“With remote studios all over the world, we need a monitoring and reporting tool, orchestration component, and governance tool that allows us to monitor our workloads across the globe, deploy updates and configure workloads, and run automation and reporting,” says Manager of Business and Process Engineering. “System Center gives us this end-to-end governance and monitoring tool.”

Augment On-Premises Infrastructure with Public Cloud Resources
At the same time that it was setting up its private cloud environment in-house, they began to migrate applications to Windows Azure. First to go were file backups, which they transferred to Windows Azure Storage. Next came conventional IT workloads such as email messaging, which they accomplished by subscribing to Microsoft Office 365, an online service that provides cloud-based email messaging, document sharing, collaboration, videoconferencing, and instant messaging. “By using Office 365, we don’t have to manage these core IT workloads, nor do we have to maintain the infrastructure,” Executive Director of IT says. “But the real win is the flexibility of being able to easily deploy these services to studios around the globe.”

The company also moved all of its development and test workloads into Windows Azure, which gives it the flexibility to create fully functional “dev” environments within a few hours. “Each member of our team has his or her own development environment in Windows Azure where they can work on applications without disrupting our production environment,” says Director of Technical Projects.

The most exciting Windows Azure scenario for the company is hosting games in the cloud. And since 2014 the company has launched multiple game platforms that run completely from Windows Azure.

Gain Ultimate Flexibility with Hybrid Cloud Computing
By using Microsoft cloud software in its own data center and shifting other workloads to Windows Azure, the company has the ability to adopt a true hybrid cloud model—running applications wherever it makes the most business sense and moving applications from one data center to another to suit business needs.

The company has connected all of its development studios to Windows Azure using a hub-and-spoke design, which enables it to deliver Windows Azure resources to individual studios around the world using basic virtual private network tunnels. “We evaluate every workload that comes in to see if it makes sense to host it in the cloud or on-premises,” Executive Director of IT says. “With the flexibility that Microsoft cloud software gives us, we can deliver enterprise workloads across our entire global footprint without concern about where it’s running.”

For example, the company built a SharePoint Server farm and a System Center farm in Windows Azure and can move workloads easily between these farms and the corresponding SharePoint and System Center farms on-premises.

The company also uses Windows Azure Active Directory, which provides identity management and access control capabilities for cloud applications, to link its Office 365, on-premises Active Directory Domain Services, and Windows Azure environments. “With cloud-compatible versions of Active Directory, we can manage our entire identity footprint across the cloud and on-premises,” Manager of Business and Process Engineering says.

BENEFITS:

Increased Business Agility and Innovation
This major Entertainment and Video Game company has gained greater agility by switching to a Microsoft hybrid cloud infrastructure model, enabling it to deploy server resources in hours versus weeks. “Our management has frankly been astonished at the resource delivery speedup,” Executive Director of IT says. “We’ve been able to create a 20-server environment in an hour. That’s unheard of in our world.” Infrastructure delivery speed also makes a big difference in how innovative the company can be. The faster it can deliver development resources and try out new technologies and ideas, the faster it can identify the next big thing.

The ability to deliver robust IT resources globally is another huge benefit. “We have studios and partners all over the world,” Executive Director of IT says. “We have to be able to connect easily and rapidly with these companies and share large amounts of data with them and collaborate in real time. “To deliver IT services to all our global studios, we can either build dozens of data centers around the world or use Microsoft hybrid cloud software to deliver IT services anywhere they’re needed.”

Reduced Data Center Costs
The company has reduced data center costs by shifting more workloads to the “pay as you consume” Windows Azure cloud. This gives the company a built-in insurance policy against the unpredictable nature of the gaming market, letting the company cost-effectively scale resources up or down as play demands. The “pay as you consume” model is a boon to financial forecasting. By using a hybrid cloud infrastructure, the company can gain a very accurate forecast of the overhead cost of games by monitoring usage statistics. “We can tell our management exactly what it costs to run a game, per player, per minute,” Executive Director of IT says. “This is a massive win for us and revolutionary in the gaming business.”

More Strategic Use of IT Talent
From a “soft dollars,” or operating cost, perspective, the company’s IT staff members now work almost full time on hosting games in the cloud, whereas in the past they were inundated with infrastructure engineering work.

By using Microsoft cloud software, the company’s IT organization is moving from being a support group and cost center to being a strategic advisor to the business. “We want to be a partner with our internal business units,” Executive Director of IT says. “When there is something that they’re thinking about—acquiring a studio, building a new game, entering a new market—we want a seat at the table, and you can’t get that seat if you’re a glorified tape backup operator. Moving workloads into Windows Azure enables us to deliver big wins to the business and also frees up time for us to do strategic thinking that adds real value to the business.”

Always-Great Game Performance
The days of your video game freezing at a nail-biting moment are gone with Windows Azure. This major Entertainment and Video Game company can create a baseline of computer resources in the cloud and scale them automatically and dynamically based on resource consumption, i.e., amount of play. It can also scale back resources if game popularity wanes. This infrastructure elasticity improves player experience, long-term game success, and the company’s bottom line.

Plus, with System Center 2012 SP2, the company has performance metrics on games that it never had before, which it can use to identify and resolve problems before players bang into them. “Running our business is similar to flying a jumbo jet or piloting a nuclear submarine,” Vice President of Business Systems says. “System Center is our jumbo jet control panel. It gives us the real-time metrics that we need to know what’s going on with our infrastructure and thus with our business. Suddenly, IT metrics become business metrics. Players are abandoning a game at a certain point; why? Should we change a component within the game? Do we need to adjust a line of code somewhere? With System Center, we can pinpoint performance problems and fix them quickly before they affect a game’s market success.”

Questions? Contact Mark.Maruyama@prosum.com 

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