This is the second in a series of posts over several weeks focused on cloud computing. My goal is to put this topic in some perspective for small to medium size business, organizations and educational institutions that may be considering a “move to the cloud”. The full series is available at: www.vector-associates.com/blog/.

With all of this going for it, why NOT jump in to cloud computing?

Cloud computing does offer a compelling solution. In order to decide how it may fit into your total IT solution, let’s focus on the issues that must be considered.

Think before you leap – Determine the “mix” of cloud computing that makes sense based on your needs

As we indicated previously, cloud computing isn’t an “all or nothing” choice. As you investigate your IT solution options, there are three elements to consider as part of a complete solution:

a) Services that you continue to provide and manage locally within your facilities
b) Services hosted by IT providers in your local area or region
c) Services hosted by national, international or global providers

The question of finding the right solution mix is probably best illustrated with a simple example. An organization might decide to maintain a minimum local support staff to manage and maintain their in-house computers, network hardware and Internet connection. All locally installed server hardware and applications could be migrated to an external IT service provider. Email, CRM and other shared services could be obtained from this same provider, or from several national/global providers such as Google, Microsoft and Amazon to name just a few.

Each alternative has pluses and minuses that must be considered.  They also should be viewed from the perspective of a plan that makes sense and fits the needs of the business or organization over time.  “All at once” might not be the best approach.

As with any significant strategy decision, healthy debate of the options within the organization should be encouraged.  This should NOT be solely an IT driven decision.  What are we trying to accomplish?  What are the concerns?  What are the questions?   What are trade-offs?  What should we do and when should we do it?  These are all appropriate questions.

One effective tool that can be used to capture this information and to help facilitate the process is a business case.  In addition to capturing the “what” of the proposed change, it should capture, the “who”, “how”, “when” along with the “how much” in terms of both the projected savings, projected expenses and any initial investment that may very well be required.  Yes, it will require work to develop, but spending the time up front will almost always pay great dividends down the road.

Where exactly do you plan to move your software applications and data?

Moving your software applications and data out of your local office can pay dividends, but before doing so, you must consider where you are moving it to and how it will be maintained. This can only be accomplished by individually reviewing each application. Which applications will need little or no support? Which applications will you or your staff continue to support? How will they do that? Which applications can be better supported by a local, regional or national/international provider?

Corporate email is probably the best example of an application that is well suited for a cloud-based solution supported by a national or global supplier. Standard licensed software products (e.g. office productivity, accounting, database and CRM) are also good candidates to move to the cloud. Custom application solutions or older legacy software can prove to be more difficult to move to the cloud. As such these applications will require special attention. You may find that some are not server, let alone cloud compatible.

Evaluating local/regional hosted service providers

Eliminating the servers in your back office and moving your applications to a hosted solution supported by a local or regional IT service provider can be effective, but you must do your homework. A solution that eliminates the server in your back office in favor of a server located in someone else’s basement is NOT the solution you need!

Items to include on your checklist as you evaluate local/regional providers:

a) Technical capability – What is the educational background, skills, credentials, certifications and references of the providers you are considering. This will help you understand if they have the necessary expertise to support your IT needs both today and into the future. This is particularly important if you plan to reduce your level of internal support under the assumption that the local/regional provider will fill the gap.

b) Capacity/capability of the local hosting site – Is the IT provider hosting the services within his own facility or is he renting facility space from a third party? Where is the facility located? Is it a shared facility? How is it secured? Who has access? What are the Internet connection speed and bandwidth capabilities? What type of power backup system is in place? Is there a fire protection and alarm system? What is the quoted uptime based on history? What is the backup and recovery plan in case of a power or other site disruption?

c) IT Provider Data Security and Data Backup –  How does he ensure your data is controlled, protected and limited to only those who require access? Bear in mind, access to manage you application does not necessarily mean access to your raw data. What is the plan to retain, backup and protect your data?

d) IT Provider Business History, Stability, and Ongoing Performance – How long has your IT provider been in business? How many employees does he have? If he is supporting you with hosting services obtained from a third party, how long has he been using that third party provider? How are you protected against loss of capability or access to your applications and data if there is a billing or other dispute between your provider and the third party? How will you be assured of an acceptable level of service moving forward through a signed service agreement and other documentation?

After reading the previous list, you probably are a bit concerned. That’s not all bad.  My intent isn’t to alarm you, but help you understand that moving your systems and data offsite is a significant step. Utilizing a local IT professional to perform onsite installation and maintenance is very different from retaining his services to host business/organization critical IT functions. It is something that should only be entered into after a thorough analysis of your needs and a full “due diligence” review of potential service providers.

Given these concerns, is the simple answer to move everything to Google, Microsoft, Amazon or other national/global providers? We’ll consider that question in the next post in the series.

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