Cloud Computing - Looking for a silver lining?
Funny how some things go full circle. When computing started to permeate businesses only a few organisations could afford to purchase their own dedicated machine. Mainframes ran to several millions of pounds so for many companies the option to buy time on a machine was welcome. And so the birth of bureau computing arrived. As computers became more powerful a plethora of manufacturers introduced mid-size (or mini) machines that were affordable for many companies.
Many names appeared in the computer marketplace, names such as DEC, Burroughs, Sperry, NCR et al - names that have now mainly faded into computing history. I wonder how many DEC MicroVAX machines are still giving sterling service tucked away in cupboards?
However with the rise of the mini-computer came the rise of the IT department. This new department was responsible for ensuring that all the scheduled operations planned for each week were run at the relevant times, for example payroll, inventory, ordering, reporting etc.
As computing became more and more embedded within the organisation the IT department and the machines they looked after grew exponentially. Some organisations started to look for alternative ways to have the computing power but without the need for hands-on management and all of the costs associated with an IT department. The outsourcing model was seen as very attractive by some organisations, whilst there are various themes on the outsourcing model ranging from on-site service provision to offshore models they all share the benefit of knowing how much the service will cost each month and removing the day-to-day management of the IT department and transferring it to a dedicated service provider.
And so we come full circle. The next logical step has to be the complete relinquishment of the management and provision of the IT service to a dedicated provider using their staff and their data centres. Right back to bureau computing but with a snazzy new name; Cloud Computing. There are some subtle but very important differences between the early bureau model and today's cloud model. The first is network access. With the ubiquitous Internet, cloud hosted applications can be accessed from almost anywhere. Your sales force can be truly mobile, your workforce can easily work from home if they wish, your executives can be on-line regardless of where they are working.
The next big difference is scalability. In the old model if your business had sales or manufacturing peaks and troughs for example, you would have to over specify your computer systems so as to be able to cope with the busy periods. With the cloud computing model the service is scalable so when times are busy and you need more computing power you can pay additional charges and when times are slack you pay reduced charges. This model is very attractive but you need to be able to monitor usage to avoid any nasty surprises.
So if the cloud computing model appeals to you what should you consider before signing up?
If you hold personal information then you are subject to the Data Protection Act. You need to ensure that your service provider complies with the act, both in terms of securing access to the data and the territory where the data is hosted.
If you are an on-line business taking payment via credit cards you need to ensure that your cloud computing provider complies with the Payment Card Industry security rules and that your merchant services provider is agreeable to the change of service provider.
Are you running licensed software? Is the licence transferable? Is your application provider happy that his software will be running on your service providers machines and how will it affect any SLA you may have in place?
A supplementary question is "will my software even run on your hardware?" Assuming we have ticks in all the boxes so far, part B of the question above would be "what experience do you have of managing my application?" The last thing you want is to be your service provider's guinea pig.
You should have a good idea of how much you are willing to pay for the service before you sit down with your prospective suppliers. How much does your service cost today? Are you looking for a better service at less cost or are you looking to cover your expected business growth? The cost model will vary according to the complexity of your solution and the service level agreements that are put into operation. Be careful to watch for costs that may not be immediately apparent, bandwidth restrictions, out of hours working, backup and recovery, and application migration should be visible and part of any agreement.
OK - so far so good. The next question is how do I migrate to your service? The answer is in a detailed plan that is provided as part of their service. If your question is dismissed by lots of arm waving or if it's met with a "we have done this lots of times" walk away. You need a detailed plan that you can test before you move your business to the cloud. Remember it's your business that will be damaged if it all goes wrong.
I hope we have given you some food for thought. I can only cover so much in an overview but I would like to leave you with a final question and it's one only you can answer. Having moved to a cloud computing provider what if it doesn't live up to expectations? How easy would it be to move elsewhere or bring it all back in-house? Would your provider cooperate with you if you do decide to move? Would your business be compensated? Having looked at the dark side there are of course other reasons why you may want to move at some time in the future and it may be a positive move, to a better platform or cheaper service for example. So before going forward make sure you have a viable exit strategy.
If you are interested in going down the cloud computing route yourself we are more than happy to share our experiences with you. We can help you identify suitable providers, validate their migration plan, oversee the migration and ensure you have a viable provider. Just drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org by phone at +44 (0) 7771 784 246 or use our feedback form here.
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