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March 15, 2012

Transitioning to the Cloud

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Does it make sense to point to the sky and say, “To the cloud here we go!”, so we can try and gain scalability or minimize a large upfront capitalization expense without performing an in-depth evaluation? A cloud decision requires a business owner to have intimate knowledge of how their employees use technology in the operations, sales, and finance divisions in addition to weighing the pros and cons in terms of risks involved with on-premise vs. cloud and the reliability / credibility of the vendors who offer the service.

Some key objectives to think about are data protection, data ownership, and availability amongst other evaluation considerations. At the end of the day, end-users don’t know or care what platform, applications, or data they use or where it’s located. People simply want availability and ease of use. Satisfaction is measured by access and responsiveness from the application. However, business owners need to perform their due diligence and make sure they are making the proper decisions when purchasing cloud based services.

So what is cloud computing anyway?

Gartner: “Cloud computing is a style of computing where massively scalable IT-related capabilities are provided ‘as a service’ across the Internet to multiple external customers.”

Forrester: “A pool of abstracted, highly scalable, and managed infrastructure capable of hosting end-customer applications and billed by consumption.”

Wikipedia: “A style of computing in which dynamically scalable and often virtualized resources are provided as a service over the Internet. Users need not have knowledge of, expertise in, or control over the technology infrastructure “in the cloud” that supports them.”

The cloud has been around since the begging of the Internet. For example, a small business owner who has a network, servers, and computers can consider his environment a cloud on a small scale. Telecommuting employee’s remotely access the small business network to gain access to resources. However, most small businesses own a different infrastructure than the big boys and cannot scale out their business into giant collocation data center facilities. None the less, the differences now vs. the begging of the Internet is the incredibly high demand end users have on the Internet. The constant interactions with applications, saving large amounts of data, amongst many other factors for magnitudes of more people. What most people don’t realize is that it actually costs the customer and vendor more in the long run and introduces additional risk.

Information Technology (I.T.) services have been slowly evolving over the past 15-20 years. A whole slew of companies have recognized the evolution and created software, tools, marketing packages, all sorts of stuff for us to support our customers better. More importantly, I.T. companies understand all the specific operational roles within their business to deliver successful service. The old way to purchase I.T. and often times still being used by companies today is the break/fix solution which includes only time & materials, project support, hardware, software, and block time or billable hours. In other words, reactive support which leaves the customer never knowing how much the bill will be each month and upset most of the time because they are blindsided with issues. Managed Service Providers (MSP) provide remote support, monitoring, automation, hosted functions, basic hosted app’s like email/web, amongst a slew of other components all for a fixed monthly fee creating a predictable proactive environment giving the customer peace of mind, reduced risk, increased profit margins, increased functionality, and a better work/life balance. As of late, MSP’s have recognized the demand of cloud and bolted on offerings to their plan such as hosted app’s, hosted desktop, and Infrastructure as a service (IaaS). The result of this evolution simply requires I.T. companies to adapt to the growing demands of their customers and continue to stay educated on how both parties can afford the model.

Benefits to cloud computing from our perspective is the service can be turned on and off. In other words, you pay for what you consume or simply pay for a month to month plan. No expertise on the cloud infrastructure is needed on upgrades or updates so maintenance occurs without consumer intervention. Cloud computing is scalable so a business can expand service and usage as needed. If you need to store more data then it simply comes down to an increase in the monthly cost rather than a larger capitalization investment on new equipment. Access your systems from anywhere, and you have a built-in disaster recovery solution as data is offsite.

One of the risks in the cloud revolves around data protection. Is the data encrypted? How secure is the provider’s environment? Are they monitoring for intrusions in real time? Do any third party certifications exist? How does the vendor test security and how often? Naturally the security in technology continuously evolves, but this is due to the constant evolution of the threats so it’s important the vendor has a cadence in terms of how they manage data protection.

Data Ownership is another important aspect to think about because at the end of the day, your client confidential information belongs to you. What happens to your data when you terminate your service agreement? How do we get our data back? How do we deal with situations when the government requests our data? What are the contracts terms and conditions?

Availability is important because your cloud provider should be up and running when you need them. Any uptime guarantees? Financial penalties? Number of data centers? Testing? Backups? 24/7 backup power? Electronic controls? Security cameras? Scheduled and unscheduled reviews of the system? If so, when and how do they notify customers?

Other evaluating considerations to think about. What is your budget? Can you try before you buy? What is the total cost of ownership? What are the customer support and training options? And is there an additional fee for these?

MSP’s must look at deployment of cloud solutions from the perspective of the end-user demands and ask the question whether a holistic approach can address more than one area for improvement before making any recommendations especially as the risk and cost for both providers increase. This is a very complex topic and the purpose of cloud computing can vary from business to business and requires serious decisions, but we are happy to answer any further questions you may have. Thanks again for being a loyal reader of our Predictably Better newsletter. We’ll be back next month!

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