European Cloud Leader OVH: very different … in a very good way (Part 1)

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IT analysts can be a cynical, hardened bunch at times. We have heard all the slick marketing pitches, seen the immaculate, glossy data centres and been told how their people and culture are their key differentiators. In most cases that leaves us unimpressed and we have to dig deep to find any gems. But, our visit recently to OVH’s home in Roubaix, northern France, was a real eye opener.

Apart from its very pretty old town, the Lille/Roubaix/Tourcoing conurbation is a drab, slightly down-at-heel industrial area typical of many cities trying to deal with the impacts of a post-industrial Europe. It’s not the sort of place you would expect to find a modern, successful Cloud company. Yet, OVH have made a virtue of this environment and built a very different type of organisation, that we could plainly see, based on innovation, enthusiasm, strong supply chain integration and a large dose of Gallic self-reliance.

Never have first impressions been more misleading. From a warehouse operation I would have recognised from my time in logistics in the 1970s to data centres dropped into old industrial premises on tired industrial estates, it seemed as if OVH were trying their hardest to put us off. And yet, it hangs together brilliantly.

Let’s start with innovation. OVH design and build their own servers and the racks they sit in. They have a conceptual approach based on “1-100-1,000”. OVH showed us the place where new ideas take shape, the 1, a workshop where Dr Emmet Brown (Back to the Future) would have been at home. Here they have come up with a unique integrated water-cooling system built into the racks, racks with integrated heat exchangers and power distribution units, and racks that are laid on their sides and stacked three high. This provides a much higher density and the design also facilitates very flexible configurations. Then, moving to the next room you are into a mock-up of a datacentre hall where the innovations in rack and server design are built into a life-like environment for testing, the 100. From there it was a short step to a metal bashing area where robots took sheets of metal and bent them into the various shapes for the racks which then move into the production facility where the actual servers are built, the 1,000.

What this means in practice becomes very evident when you step into one of their datacentres. For one thing, they are quieter, with a lack of fan noise. There is no hot aisle containment. Any heat from the back of the servers is minimal and airflow chimneys take the heat, such as it is, up and away. There are some backup CRAC units in case the weather gets very hot, but that is pretty rare in Northern France. The results are PUEs of less than 1.1 in old factories that haven’t traditionally leant themselves to efficient energy utilisation. OVH haven’t spent time and money trying to upgrade the fabric of the building to be more energy efficient. Essentially, they install the server racks in large metal containers, again of their own construction. It all looks a little utilitarian, but there is an elegant simplicity to the approach.

Having their own production facility also allows OVH to repurpose and recycle older server components into new configurations supporting lower resource intensive services while enabling fast and effective upgrades of “front-line” high-spec servers.

This highly vertically integrated industrial process of innovation, design, test, build, deploy and recycle/re-purpose is the key to OVHs consistently high ratings in price/performance benchmarks from organisations such as Cloud Spectator. Those benchmarks are particularly stark when turned into actual costs customers pay when compared to the likes of AWS and Microsoft Azure. OVH come out clear winners here.

If you haven’t seen this operation you might fear that the sheer economies of scale available to AWS and Microsoft Azure might weigh heavily in their favour in any price fight. But it is clear that there is still plenty of room for efficiencies in their supply chain and IT operations, through increased automation for example. OVH have also recently joined the Open Compute Project (OCP). I suspect that they have as much to teach the OCP as they have to gain from them at present, but having access to that hive-mind might be no bad thing for future competitivity.

The bottom line is, if you are looking for consistently good, globally scaleable IaaS performance at a low price, OVH is one of the first places you should look. But OVH are turning into much more than an IaaS provider. In the next blog I will look at the rapid developments OVH are making in PaaS and other specific service offerings that are making them a secure and mature offering for enterprises looking to migrate to a hybrid cloud environment in a safe and supported manner.