An Introductory Guide to Infrastructure as a Service

Infographic of Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS).
Take a load off your shoulders with IaaS.

If you’ve ever tried supplying or accessing a physical server and a virtual server, you’ll know how easy it is to work with virtual servers. Providing even a single physical server can pile on huge costs and requires space to house. Once you start dealing with several network components and factor in procurement, it’s a different ball game altogether. Infrastructure as a Service, or IaaS, gives you a way out of those problems and is popular for the same reasons. 

So, what is Infrastructure as a Service?

Today, I’m going to introduce you to the basic concepts around Infrastructure as a Service, what it is, how it works, and the benefits it provides. If you’re here to find out if IaaS is something you can use for your firm, a lot of the information I’ve included can help you decide. 

Let’s start with the basics: What is Infrastructure as a Service?

What Is Infrastructure as a Service?

Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) is a cloud computing service. It enables you to use virtualized IT infrastructure resources on demand for processing, storage, and networking

You can access these resources through a WAN or the internet. Once you’ve purchased your resources, you can use them for various IT functions. 

For example, you can: 

  • Create virtual machines (VMs), e.g., virtualized CPUs, RAM, and storage, and then install an operating system (OS) and other applications on those VMs 
  • Have multiple VMs communicate over virtual networks
  • Allocate storage containers and store your applications’ generated data (received and processed) in those containers

Theoretically, it’s possible to deliver IaaS services to members within your company using your data centers. This is known as a private cloud. However, many companies don’t have the financial resources or expertise to build their private cloud and deliver IaaS services to their business units. 

The usual practice is to purchase IaaS services from a third-party provider, known as a cloud service provider (CSP). Your CSP will build and manage the physical IT infrastructure, including physical servers, networking, storage systems, etc. All you need to do is purchase virtualized resources from your CSP under a pay-as-you-go model

When a CSP builds and manages your IaaS’s underlying physical infrastructure, it is called a public cloud. These are more affordable from a CAPEX standpoint, which is one of the reasons why more companies choose it over the private cloud. 

Moreover, IaaS has all the characteristics of cloud computing. If you want a more detailed discussion of its characteristics, feel free to click that link. 

If all seems vague right now, don’t worry. We’ll clear things up as we move along. The following section is on IaaS architecture, which will help you grasp the concepts better. 

IaaS Cloud Architecture–Major Actors

Let’s look at the major actors in Infrastructure as a Service and their respective functions. 

The major actors are individuals or firms that perform and participate in accomplishing various tasks and processes in an IaaS ecosystem. 

The information I’m sharing here will help you understand the roles you may interact with in a typical IaaS ecosystem. 

IaaS Cloud Consumer

This is the individual or organization that consumes or uses IaaS cloud provider’s services

Image of 5 individuals facing front, holding mobile devices.
Cloud consumers can access resources from practically any internet-enabled device.

IaaS Cloud Service Provider

IaaS Cloud Service Providers are organizations that rent out or lease virtualized IT infrastructure resources to cloud consumers. The users, or tenants, share the provider’s underlying IT infrastructure while consuming its virtual computing, storage, and networking resources.

IaaS Cloud Auditor

These third-party auditors conduct assessments to verify cloud providers’ compliance with government or industry standards pertaining to data security, privacy, performance, etc. 

IaaS auditors help ensure you and other consumers don’t face unnecessary privacy, security, and business risks.

IaaS Cloud Broker

They’re third-party intermediaries between you and the CSPs. An IaaS broker assists you with complex IaaS-related tasks, so you don’t have to deal with them. 

A broker facilitates enhancements to your existing IaaS services. To provide you the best bang for your buck, they’ll combine multiple services into a single package. 

IaaS Cloud Carrier

Like an IaaS cloud broker, a cloud carrier is also an intermediary. The main difference is that a cloud carrier focuses on providing connectivity between you and the CSP. Some Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and telecommunications companies are IaaS cloud carriers.

How are we doing so far? 

Let’s change gears a bit and consider, by way of a simplified example, how IaaS works. 

How Does IaaS Work?

If you want to set up a highly available file transfer server, you’d need multiple instances of the same file transfer server being placed behind a load balancer. 

For illustration’s sake, say we want 4 instances of that file transfer server. The load balancer will distribute the incoming traffic across those 4 instances. Distributing traffic like this will minimize downtime due to system overload. 

Here’s an overview of the actual steps you need to take.  

Simplified Step-By-Step Process

The following steps are for a cloud consumer using Amazon Web Services (AWS), one of the major IaaS CSPs.

  1. Open the web browser
  2. Log in to your IaaS management console
  3. Create a single virtual server instance using the server operating system you choose (in the example below, I’ve selected the Windows Server
  4. Click Launch instance (this will create a Windows Server instance using the default settings shown below. The default settings have the following specifications:
  5. You can also see the cost per hour for this instance, which in this case is USD 0.0162. 
  6. Open a browser using the virtual server and download a file transfer server application of your choice
  7. Install and configure the file transfer server
  8. Repeat the process for the other three server instance.
  9. Follow the same process for your load balancer as well
  10. Use S3–Amazon’s cloud-based storage solution–if you want the file transfer servers to store uploaded files in the same storage location
  11. Integrate everything so your final setup looks like this:
Infographic of endpoint devices (laptops and desktops) connecting to a file transfer system deployed on an IaaS cloud.
You can deploy a High Availability File Transfer Service on an IaaS cloud.

Takeaway

The steps above don’t require you to purchase, deploy, or handle physical devices. You can accomplish everything through a web browser on your PC or laptop from the comfort of your home or office. 

In contrast, take into account hardware procurement, deployment, and all the other steps for putting together a similar setup on premises. It’d take you weeks to put together something remotely close to what we’ve just described. 

On an IaaS cloud, you can build the setup in just a few hours. That’s the epitome of rapid deployment

What’s more, you can do it from anywhere as long as you have an internet connection—from your house, your office in New York, or your hotel room in Tokyo. 

Yes, Infrastructure as a Service simplifies a lot of the tasks you’d perform with traditional IT infrastructure. 

But that’s not the only benefit. Here are 4 more.

4 Major Benefits of IaaS

Cloud adoption continues to grow. In Flexera’s 2022 State of the Cloud Report, 57% of respondents declared migrating workloads to the cloud to be their top cloud initiative for 2022. Moreover, 31% of respondents said they were expanding their use of public cloud IaaS

But why are companies drawn to the cloud? What benefits can they gain from using an IaaS cloud, for example? 

Here are the 4 major benefits.

1. Reduces CAPEX

You need a robust IT infrastructure to stay competitive in today’s data-driven business environment. That said, building your own IT infrastructure is a huge investment. 

You’ll have to buy network equipment, physical servers, storage systems, power supplies, hypervisor licenses, etc. What if you don’t have that kind of capital lying around? 

IaaS can help you overcome your capital constraints by providing an OPEX-based option, so you pay monthly or annually instead of paying upfront. 

2. Boosts Financial Flexibility

When building an on-premise IT infrastructure, you must plan for future capacity. Do you see demand growing in a year or two? If so, your infrastructure should be ready to support that growth. But maintaining this kind of setup is a problem. 

The large capital expense is a huge drain on your financial resources and restricts your cash flow. With suppressed cash flow, you won’t be able to make enough progress on other projects. 

IaaS provides financial flexibility because it gives you access to IT infrastructure resources on a pay-as-you-go model

You only pay for the resources you consume on a per-second, per-minute, or per-hour basis, and are billed monthly or annually. You can start small and scale up as demand grows. And, if demand drops, you can even reduce consumption and expenses. 

3. Extends Global Reach

In the past, multinationals purchased and built IT infrastructure for almost every country or region they operated in. They’d even rent floor space to house the infrastructure. 

That’s no longer necessary with IaaS. Major IaaS platforms, like Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud Platform (GCP), have a global presence already. So, when you deploy virtual servers or virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) on these platforms, your IT admins and users can access these virtual servers and virtual desktops from anywhere. 

Major IaaS platforms also allow you to set up VMs in regions closest to your users. Doing so enables you to minimize network latency and speed up application response times. 

4. Improves Business Agility

So you recently discovered a big business opportunity in one of the countries you operate in. You decide to beef up staffing and set up the IT infrastructure to support a larger team. Because time-to-market is crucial, you need to move quickly. Unfortunately, supply chain issues get in the way, causing delays in IT hardware procurement. Don’t lose hope yet. 

Combining IaaS’s global reach and rapid deployment capabilities, you can quickly build the IT infrastructure you need. With this business agility, you’ll be able to pounce on opportunities faster than your competition. 

These aren’t the only reasons to shift from a traditional IT infrastructure to an IaaS cloud. Here are some examples showcasing how you can leverage the capabilities of an IaaS cloud. 

3 IaaS Use Cases

Infrastructure as a Service is suitable for practically all industries and has several use cases. 

To illustrate, here are 3 example use cases for IaaS.

1. Software Development and Testing

Most software development and testing environments are temporary. You would need a particular environment when developing and testing a specific application. Once the application goes into production, you won’t need the environment anymore. 

IaaS is perfect for such purposes. You can get as many virtual servers, storage, and networking as you need for a particular project. You also can use the environment and tear it down when you’re done. 

2. Web and Mobile Applications

Web and mobile applications often require highly scalable infrastructures. Usage and resource consumption can run low for several months, then suddenly surge when demand picks up. 

This fluctuating behavior is due to seasonal demand or a sudden interest in an application. When that happens, you need Infrastructure as a Service to meet the spike in demand. 

That’s because, you can’t purchase and deploy hundreds of physical servers in a few days to meet sudden jumps in demand. But you can whip up virtual servers with IaaS in a few hours

3. Backup and Disaster Recovery 

Backups play a crucial role in your disaster recovery plan. Without backups, you won’t have anything to fall back on when you need to recover. 

When laying out your backup strategy, consider setting up an offsite option. This way, your backups stay unaffected should your main office go under. 

You must ensure backup availability once you’re ready to execute disaster recovery. 

IaaS providers’ storage services can easily meet those requirements. They’re offsite and available anytime, anywhere. These storage services are also highly scalable. You can increase capacity as often and as much as you like. 

Aside from IaaS, two other major cloud computing services are available: Platform as a Service (PaaS) and Software as a Service (SaaS)

Here’s how these three cloud computing services compare.

IaaS vs. PaaS vs. SaaS

We’ve already compared these three cloud computing services, so I won’t be delving much into PaaS and SaaS in this article. Though, I believe it would be a good idea to have a basic understanding on how IaaS differs from the other two. 

To differentiate between these three services, the key thing to remember is that IaaS requires a greater degree of management

To clarify, the IaaS cloud I’m referring to is a public cloud, not a private cloud. 

Here’s a chart comparing IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS based on the number of IT infrastructure components each service requires you to manage. 

To give you an even better perspective, I’m also bringing in on-premise IT infrastructure into the picture. 

Componenton-premiseIaaSPaaSSaaS
User Data🟩🟩🟩🟩
Access policies, custom settings🟩🟩🟩🟩
Applications🟩🟩🟩
Middleware🟩🟩
Runtime🟩🟩
Guest OSes🟩🟩
Virtual machines🟩🟩
Hypervisors🟩
Servers🟩
Storage devices🟩
Networking🟩
Facilities (cooling, power supplies, etc.)🟩
IaaS gives you more control over middleware, runtime, and VMs than PaaS and SaaS.

🟩 – You manage this component
⬛ – A third party (usually your CSP) manages this component for you

Verdict

As you can see, with IaaS, you still need to manage several more IT infrastructure components than you would with PaaS or SaaS. On the flip side, you have more control over your infrastructure if you use IaaS. 

Since Infrastructure as a Service has more components, it’s best for your cloud needs, granted you have a capable IT team. Your IT team will be responsible for managing the virtual servers, operating systems, applications, data, and so on. 

An on-premise IT infrastructure demands the greatest degree of management, which is why many companies are shifting to cloud computing services, including Infrastructure as a Service. 

Final Thoughts

Infrastructure as a Service is a cloud computing service that offers virtualized IT infrastructure resources for computing, storage, and networking. A cloud service provider rents out and manages the virtualized resources and the underlying infrastructure.

I’ve given you a glimpse of the steps you would take when using an IaaS service. If you recall, it’s much easier and faster than traditional IT infrastructures. IaaS reduces CAPEX, boosts financial flexibility, extends global reach, and improves business agility. Those benefits make it suitable for software development and testing, web and mobile applications, backup and disaster recovery, and other uses. 

IaaS isn’t the only popular cloud computing service. Firms are also shifting to PaaS and SaaS. Of the three, IaaS has higher administrative requirements and also gives you greater control over your various IT infrastructure components. 

Do you have more questions? Check out the FAQ and Resources sections below!

FAQ

Is IaaS secure?

Yes. Major CSPs like AWS, Azure, and GCP have the capital to implement the security level very few organizations can match. They also conform to stringent data privacy and security standards and industry best practices. That said, some components in an IaaS environment are your responsibility. 

Wouldn’t IaaS be more expensive in the long run?

Yes, costs for IaaS can add up and become more than the total cost for an on-premise IT infrastructure. It’s why cloud cost optimization is a big part of any cloud initiative. You should, however, remember that IaaS saves you a lot in CAPEX. 

Is IaaS better than virtualization or containerization?

IaaS has certain advantages over virtualization or containerization. To clarify, I’m referring to on-premise virtualization and containerization, which require familiarity with virtualization and/or containerization technologies. In IaaS, you can let the CSP handle the technical details. Read the IaaS vs. virtualization vs. containerization comparative article for a more detailed discussion.

Aside from AWS, Azure, and GCP, what other big CSPs offer IaaS?

Other CSPs worth mentioning are Alibaba Cloud, IBM Cloud, Oracle Cloud, and Tencent Cloud. Of these four, Alibaba Cloud is the closest to the three market leaders in terms of ability to execute and their completeness of vision. Gartner’s 2021 Magic Quadrant for Cloud Infrastructure and Platform Services offers a clearer picture.

Is IaaS suitable for small businesses?

Absolutely. IaaS can level the playing field for small businesses competing against larger organizations to a certain extent. IaaS can also reduce the barrier to entry into digital transformation initiatives, since it requires little to no capital expense. 

Resources

TechGenix: Article on Cloud Network Security

Discover the basic concepts, importance, and types of cloud network security.

TechGenix: Article on IDS vs IPS Comparison

Differentiate between intrusion detection systems and intrusion prevention systems

TechGenix: Article on IPsec

Explore the key aspects of IPsec in this introductory guide.

TechGenix: Article on Firewall Best Practices

Beef up your network defenses with these firewall best practices.

TechGenix: Article on Intrusion Detection Systems

Study the various components, detection methods, and processes of an Intrusion Detection System (IDS).

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