2. Flexibility and Peak Demands

By David Strom  |  Posted 2011-01-28

Moving to the cloud might save money on hardware purchases, but poor planning and lack of the right combination of skills can quickly eat up those savings. Nevertheless, there are quite a few strategies that can ensure a successful cloud-based solution. Here are some key ones:

1. Expectations and Planning

First, make sure you bake in the right expectations and plan ahead. “It all starts with design,” says Bryan Doerr, the CTO of Savvis, an IT-services firm based in Town & Country, Mo. “Make sure you understand the performance and security characteristics of the cloud, so that you can achieve the levels you expect. You should also understand what kinds of support are possible in the cloud and monitor performance.”

Skill sets played a big role at Emergent Solutions, a consultancy based in Royal Oaks, Calif. It moved from a SharePoint solution to a Socialtext cloud-based application for handling discussions and project management for its 60 contractors located around the globe.

“We had learning issues with people who didn’t use SharePoint and found that Socialtext worked better for us,” says Christine Cavanaugh-Simmons, the company’s co-founder. “We also were able to get rid of all our servers, and we now have everything backed up with Mozy on its cloud service.”

As a result, Emergent’s contractors are a lot more productive. “People in different countries and continents are all working asynchronously, creating agendas, materials and presentations for our customers,” she says. “There’s no waiting for a weekly meeting or status update. People can engage each other in open conversations, provide feedback and feel part of the team.”

Not to be overlooked when defining expectations is deciding what is perception and what is reality. Sometimes the two can be at odds, which can prevent any cloud-based project from moving forward.

“The evidence is that data is just as secure, and in many cases more secure [in the cloud],” says Dave Cutler, Chicago-based managing director at Slalom Consulting, which is headquartered in Seattle. Larger companies can be more rational about this decision, he adds, whereas smaller companies might have a key executive who can nix the entire deal, with emotion rather than fact behind the decision.

Sometimes the justification for a cloud-based solution can come from surprising places. Take the example of a karate studio that is a client of JEB & Co., a network and services consultancy based in Chandler, Ariz. “We won them [the karate studio] over with Google Docs and its forms capability,” says Jamie Barmach, JEB president. “The studio hosts all sorts of tournaments and had sign-up sheets and papers all over its walls.

“We set up a series of Google Docs-based forms and e-mail them to everyone. We can view and track revisions in each document. And wireless sync is really nice: You can run your business from the palm of your hand because you have contacts, calendar and e-mail right on your phone.”

Costs can certainly be a consideration. “A restaurant I’m working with has 120 Exchange mailboxes,” says Barmach. “We got a three-year break-even point for their move to Google Apps, and this doesn’t include ongoing Exchange server and software maintenance and upgrades, too.”

Emergent’s Cavanaugh-Simmons is saving both money and some support staff head count with its cloud-based applications. “I got infected with a virus, but I lost nothing because it took me only minutes to restore my files,” she says. “If we still had everything on our own servers, I would have had to pay IT to come in. So we’re saving money all over the place with this cloud.”

2. Flexibility and Peak Demands

Second, the cloud can be flexible, if managed properly. “One of the reasons you go to the cloud in the first place is because peak demands can be handled flexibly over time,” says Savvis’ Doerr.

However, just because you have the flexibility to add or subtract capacity on demand doesn’t mean much when you need to have human intervention to make that happen. Yes, the cloud can be a terrific way to adjust capacity, but, says Doerr, “You want to develop a process to respond to these peaks—or when you have too much capacity—and act accordingly.

“As an industry, we can automatically provision stuff quickly, but what we can’t do yet is make decisions quickly. How long will it take to add capacity to this app? How long will it take to recognize a failure and respond?”

One of the nice aspects of using the cloud to run your applications is that “you can constantly be morphing your portal suite to what you want it to become,” says Doug Pierce, CIO of Momentum Worldwide, based in Clayton, Mo. Momentum is an interactive marketing agency that developed a collection of cloud-based applications and integrated them for common tasks, such as client management, Web conferencing, blogging and wikis. The entire collection has a single sign-on and is used by more than 2,000 staffers around the world.

Part of managing a move to the cloud might involve a series of stages, which are necessary to acclimate your staff to the cloud way of life. That’s what San Francisco-based Presidio Health did. “Presidio had to handle a 16-times increase in data volume in a year and replace some aging hardware,” says CTO Thomas Gregory. “We didn’t want a lot of capital expense, but we did want an environment that was safe and could spread our risk around.”

The healthcare-software provider took a multistage process toward cloud computing: At first, it kept the data inside its data center but migrated its apps to the cloud. “We were able to increase our computing power by 70 percent without increasing our IT budget,” Gregory reports.

The next step was to move its data to the cloud. “Having the first step of a hybrid cloud was more complex, but it gave us some experience with handling the cloud apps and understanding the security implications,” he says. “It was a lot easier to leave our back-end servers in our cabinets while we migrated the front end. Most of the cloud environment deals with the front-end interfaces, so that gave us time to work on those.”

Presidio Health uses a combination of Eclipse and Spring-based open-source software and Appistry for handling cloud-services management. The firm hosts everything at Sacramento-based StrataScale. “We wanted a provider that was close enough to get to in an emergency, but not located in the same earthquake fault zone as our offices,” Gregory explains.

What made this two-step process successful was that Gregory planned the entire move in advance. “You need to take the time to analyze what you have and find a solution that will allow you to scale what you have and make the necessary adjustments along the way,” he advises.

3. Compliance and Privacy

Third, you should carefully consider the implications of compliance and privacy regulations when making a move to the cloud. You need to understand the impact these regulations will have on your new set of applications. Also consider the geographies that your customers will be connecting from and what local regulations apply.

“If you do business in the United Kingdom, there are personal data privacy restrictions that can impact your decisions based on where your cloud provider stores its data and how it manages it,” says Slalom’s Cutler. He also says that, in addition to the regulatory environment, you need to consider staffing implications because you might need staff with new or different skills to manage your cloud applications.

Bandwidth is another crucial consideration. “Make sure your existing network is ready for migration to the cloud and that it’s fast enough,” Cutler advises. “You need to have a sufficient network pipe to support your users so they don’t perceive any performance degradation.”

4. On-Site Work

Finally, realize that just because your apps are in the cloud doesn’t mean you can completely ignore what’s in your office. “There is still a lot of local work that needs to be done when evaluating any cloud-based solution,” says Tim Crawford, CIO at All Covered, an IT services company based in Redwood City, Calif.

“Desktops and networks need configuration; security has to be set up properly; and hardware and firewalls need managing. Even if you move all your servers off-site, there is still a lot to touch on-site.”

As you can see, there is much to learn about cloud services, but, with some careful planning and considered choices, you can end up with a successful operation.