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New pastures

01 Jun 2010

Cloud computing has recently been all the buzz and endowed with many virtues. One virtue that should not be underestimated is that of it being environmentally friendly. Unlike with in-house data centres, cloud service providers have a much stronger commercial motivation to minimise their consumption of power because it is a major part of their cost structure, so they use server and storage virtualisation extensively to improve productivity and reduce energy consumption. It is a classic case of ‘scale and focus’, the upshot of which leads directly to a lower overall consumption of energy than the power required to drive multiple and disparate in-house data centres. In addition, users of cloud services may access resources with a thin client, which uses a fraction of the power that a traditional PC would use, particularly in an air-conditioned office.If you are interested in a greener approach to your IT, then here are some ideas to help you make the decision. And because cloud computing means different things to different people, a decision-tree approach to clear the fog may help in the journey.Who are you and what do you need?Is your firm interested in using new applications through the cloud, such as SaaS, rent a server temporarily or fully migrate all existing and new applications to the cloud? Each starting position leads to different, but similar paths.    A start-up business will have a different perspective to a large firm. A start-up business should consider beginning business with IT exclusively in the cloud.    An established smaller business may wish to move its entire IT infrastructure to the cloud. A mid-sized firm with some internal IT resource may be seeking a major transformation of its IT to the cloud.     A large organisation with in-depth IT skills may be looking to dip its toe into the cloud to gain some practical experience with non-strategic applications.Are you being offered an internal cloud?Many traditional IT providers have created confusion in the marketplace by calling the infrastructure contained within a firm’s own security perimeter, or firewall, a computing cloud. This is known as ‘cloudwashing’. Internal clouds simply miss the point of cloud computing and deliver very few business benefits. Any organisation pedaling virtualisation technologies as cloud computing is selling snake oil. Server virtualisation is generally a good idea, but it is not cloud computing.Data overseasThe next branch on the decision tree is whether or not your firm is comfortable with its data residing overseas. This may involve hosted email from an international provider, a hosted server dedicated to the firm’s use or the adoption of a software service, such as CRM, where the data resides overseas. If this branch option is acceptable, vendor selection by reputation will be critical as there is less scope for due diligence. Contracts are, for all practical purposes, largely unenforceable because of the cost of redress in foreign legal jurisdictions.Obviously, data security and access, system performance over long distances and reversing out of the arrangement will be important selection criteria to consider.New Zealand providersIf the decision path leads to a New Zealand-based provider, the selection criteria narrow. With the surge in hype and promise of cloud computing over the past two years, many generalist IT firms both here and overseas have jumped onto the cloud bandwagon as they seek to protect their highly-threatened status quo business. While many traditional IT firms are quite capable of setting up a few servers in a data centre, the challenges of dealing with exponential growth in infrastructure complexity while managing a constant state of flux in shared resources may bring new market entrants, and possibly their customers, to their knees. The important selection criterion here is the provider’s experience as well as a cultural and skills alignment with your firm and its requirements. There are several well-established and well-regarded cloud computing service providers in New Zealand to choose from.Transparency is importantWhether you are looking for an international or local service provider, transparency should shine through everything in the engagement lifecycle. What due diligence can you perform?Agreements should be clear about respective responsibilities, access to performance SLA data, ownership of and third party access to your data, and prevention of vendor lock-in. Look for enterprise-class quality computing, or the same quality as you would find in a large well-run firm. Validate this by a physical visit and reference checking, or even arrange an independent security audit, if possible. Do not settle for less.

Check prospective providers’ reputations. Ask for specific reference accounts that match your current and future requirements. Ask hard questions of referees and beware of ‘tame’ referees. Ask to meet the key executives and technical team, and find out what qualifications and capabilities they have. Seek help to fill any technical gaps you may have to perform this due diligence.Prepare your exit strategyWhether the cloud service being sought is a test or a full IT transformation, an exit strategy is critical, for both local and international providers. How will your firm’s data be returned to you or an alternative provider? Check the provider’s agreement carefully in this respect. What will it cost and what delays could occur? Will this be used as leverage against you? Check the provider’s references for clients who may have left for different reasons, if possible.No two clouds are the same Computing clouds are not some amorphous, hazy apparition. Computing ‘clouds’ are real data centre buildings filled with servers, technology and communications. But this just describes bits and atoms in a cooled shed. The key selection differentiator is to find a provider with innovative and trustworthy leadership. While it is hard to gauge, the quality of competent and visionary leadership is critical in your selection. Trust and leadership are assessed by the prospective provider’s market reputation and track record.No two clouds are the same. Cloud computing is not a uniform commodity to be bought on price alone. Take each selection step carefully and you could fulfill the green criteria of your procurement policy too. 

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