SP+ is Driving the Future Of Virtualization

Chris Rothbauer focuses on hybrid cloud-hosting at ground transportation company SP+ to streamline the business

Chris Rothbauer’s first move at SP+ was to go virtual. When he joined the Chicago-based ground transportation company as the director of IT infrastructure in 2008, he began virtualizing its data centers. Today, with six hundred of those servers hosted at colocation facilities, he considers it one of his most cost-effective improvements. “When you look at working with tight budgets, it’s all about getting down to less hardware and making more use of what we have,” he explains. “Virtualization in today’s technology with SSD drives, the way both can shrink your data footprint, and the size of your data center are huge steps forward.”

It’s particularly relevant for Rothbauer, currently vice president of IT infrastructure, to touch on now. One of his biggest projects over the next year—transitioning SP+ over to a hybrid cloud-hosting model—is taking him further down the virtualization road. Like many other industry professionals, he sees this as part of the next wave in data services. For Rothbauer, making the change is as much about practical use as it is about feasibility.

“I stopped being interested in flashy toys a while ago. For me, it’s about getting a smaller footprint and better performance.”

“What I think a lot of people miss is that cloud is a continuum of services, and where you land on that continuum is very specific to what you do,” he says. “For me, it’s knowing where your apps and needs fit in the cloud and then moving them in that direction.”

Tailoring technology solutions is something that Rothbauer has focused on throughout his duration at SP+, in part from having to solve networking problems across a wide gamut of independent systems. Since 1929, SP+—formerly known as Standard Parking—has been a leader in providing professional parking and associated services to property owners, including managing four thousand parking locations and providing services that range from maintenance and security to event planning and airport transportation. As Rothbauer notes, because the lots and parking equipment SP+ works with are privately owned, it can be particularly challenging to manage; getting the different systems to interact with the back office takes work.

23,000

company employees

4,000

parking facilities

2M

parking spaces

340

cities in the United States and Canada

750

vehicles in the transportation fleet

30M

annual passengers

25

parking service centers

3

brands: SP+, Standard Parking, Central Parking

6

scholarships presented to SP+ employees sponsored by the organization’s Women’s Advisory Forum

Accordingly, streamlining and automating have been Rothbauer’s primary focus since he started at the company. Having worked as a network engineer and IT director for various consulting companies since the mid-1990s, he developed a knack for troubleshooting, which is the reason SP+ brought him on, to resolve a host of issues that it had encountered in outsourcing administration.

“I’m in the business of solving problems,” he says. In early days, that meant getting ahead of system issues and automating wherever necessary. Now, after resolving some of the bigger issues in cost-cutting and picking the right tools, he moved over to other big projects: virtualization and data center moves, integration, software retirements, and phasing out legacy or custom-written applications to bring in new technology.

Recently, one of his team’s biggest projects has been working with automation, something that has become increasingly important as clients look to reduce manpower. This has included improving standardization, provisioning and deprovisioning scripts, and using remediation tools and scheduled routines to make them less human-interactive. To keep services up and running, Rothbauer and his team also focus on interconnectivity with local and backup providers and a secure connection to the SP+ back office. Reliable remote connectivity is critical, Rothbauer notes, both to make sure that garage operations continue to run smoothly and to prevent the potential for true emergencies that could create a risk factor in the case of a technology outage.

Tackling these challenges makes it important for Rothbauer to ensure that technology in the back office is managed most effectively on its budget, which is one of the primary reasons that he began planning the hybrid cloud-hosting transition. “I stopped being interested in flashy toys a while ago,” he says. “For me, it’s about getting a smaller footprint and better performance.”

Hybrid cloud-hosting hasn’t necessarily been a preferable option over colocation in the past. “It took a lot of work to get to something that could be feasible,” Rothbauer points out. “Not all of the licensing and capital spend rules for hosting providers are conducive to saving money.”

Additionally, hybrid cloud-hosting’s cost-effectiveness is also contingent on how the technology is going to be used. “Using a service like Amazon or Azure may be more cost-effective than running a traditional data center if you have a highly elastic workload, but not if you have systems that run all the time and chew up lots of data,” he says.

For a company like SP+, which has already been in a cloud-first mentality for some time, there can be innumerable benefits—not just in saving money, but in improving performance by moving towards a platform-as-a-service (PAAS) model, one where a third-party staff can monitor the company’s hypervisor, storage, and network. “With an entire team of people who are on top of that, I wouldn’t have to worry about problems with the storage or network, but I would still maintain the applications and systems on top of the maintenance that go more into the day-to-day work,” Rothbauer says. “Because we don’t spend a lot of time on the hypervisor and down, I don’t mind giving up that control.”

Now, he’s contacting nearly a dozen hosting providers, looking into options from his team’s current colocation facilities, and building a plan to use licensing and capital that SP+ owns to plan a hybrid model that augments manpower and equipment rather than outsourcing them. The goal is to find a provider that offers as many services as possible, from colocation to PAAS to direct connections to cloud services.

In the larger picture, making similar changes is something that Rothbauer sees as a part of the diminishing game of system administration. With shrinking staff and new developments in technology, looking more to online services and third-party service vendors as both options and data models is a natural part of the process.

“These days, a cloud company like Google, Amazon, or Microsoft is a major platform for many, many businesses,” Rothbauer says. “If you need a server or an application, you just click on a button. There’s processes, there’s provisioning, it’s all very standardized and clean. However, those benefits are not always sufficient to justify the cost.

“What we’re looking at now is how do we replicate PAAS best practices for our internal systems and the things that can’t go to the cloud. And I think the more hosting companies improve on standardizations and security, the more we’re going to look to them for best practices and how we can apply them as well.”