Should You Take Your Eyes Off the Cloud?

Questions you should ask before considering “Cloud Computing” applications.

More and more, it seems, business and IT managers are being told that “Cloud Computing” is the wave of the future. We are being bombarded with salesman who want to explain this “new technology” to us, and show us why putting our applications in the cloud is a great way to improve services and cut cost. There are many critical considerations which are often not being discussed. It often boils down to asking the right questions. Do you know what to ask?

We’ll take a relatively non-technical look at some questions that should help you make a better decision.

“What is cloud computing?” The answer to this question can be boiled down to a very simple explanation, and makes many of the other questions fairly obvious. Traditionally, a cloud is drawn in a network map or infrastructure diagram to indicate a WAN, or Internet, connection. The idea behind “the cloud” was to find a way to represent a single piece, or entire scope, of equipment and connections that were outside our realm of control (and concern). This is also the definition used by most salespeople. Cloud computing, in this sense, is moving your application, or processing, resources outside the scope of your own management. essentially, you are giving someone else the responsibility of managing you applications or data.

“Is this really something new?” No, it is not. This whole cloud computing buzz is just a new word for several different technologies which have existed for years. “Cloud Computing” is simply a buzz word, and a poor one at that (considering the fact that it is an exceptionally vague term). We have used off-site printing and processing services as long as we have had businesses, and sending large jobs out for processing has existed as long as the Internet has. The salesman always seem to forget that this is nothing new.

“Are you saying that cloud computing is a bad idea?” Actually, there are many cases where moving services “to the cloud” may be a good idea. You may be running applications that require significant processing power, or you could be running from a home office and need a more stable location for certain data or applications. There are numerous individual situations for which cloud computing could be beneficial.

With those answers out of the way, let’s move on to some questions for the salesman…

“Where is my data, and how is it stored?” The answer to this could be surprising. Before you send your data off to someone else, you should know where the data is stored and in what format.

  • What format is your data stored in? If your data is stored in a proprietary format, you could incur some substantial costs if you ever decide to move your data somewhere else.
  • How is you data stored? Is the physical redundancy of the data, and fail-over on the application server(s)?
  • Where are the services physically hosted? Is it in a physically secure data center, or in some small office? The answer to this may not be what you think.
  • Who owns the data? This question, while seemingly obvious, can have some surprising stipulations attached to it.

These questions may sound a little like paranoia until you look into the costs necessary to convert data from a proprietary format to an open one. You would also be surprised how many hits you get from doing a Google search for “data center flooded.” There is also a less obvious point in this question. If your data is stored in another location, does a power outage or some other minor catastrophe make your data inaccessible for an unknown period of time? What about a major catastrophe, such as an earthquake or a hurricane? This also leads to the next major question.

“What is the policy on responsibility for data security?” This is another one which can be broken down into several questions, and these ones can be real deal-breakers. Security of your data is critical for the future of your business, and yet these questions are rarely asked. A little time here is very well spent.

  • Who is responsible for backing up the data, and where are the backups stored? These backups should be just as secure as the data, and should be off-site. Some companies even leave the responsibility of backing up the data to you.
  • Who has access to your data? Is you data readable by their employees by default? Do they run background checks on their employees before they are allowed near your data? Are their employees properly trained how to handle your data?
  • Who is responsible for data loss, or a security breach? Surprisingly, very few people remember to ask this one. If your data is lost or stolen, who gets nailed with the lawsuit? Do they have a rider, or other means of protecting your company if they lose your customers data, or worse yet, if a disgruntled employee sells it?

These questions should help to give you a better picture of what you are being sold. Of course, I don’t need think I need to remind you that the answers only mean something if they are in writing.

Let’s move on to the questions to ask yourself (or someone other than the salesman).

“How critical are these services to my businesses operation?” Before moving these service out into the wild, you may want to think of some of the ways it could affect you. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • How much would downtime cost me for this service? If you cannot function without this service, then a problem with your Internet connection, or with theirs, would put you out of business. Think of a call-center losing it’s phones, or a courier service not having access to it’s maps or per-diem rates. this would be catastrophic to them. Your application could mean the same the same thing to you.
  • How much time do my employees spend on this service? If this application is being used constantly (i.e. data entry, order processing, control data) then even a small decrease in efficiency would raise costs considerably. We often take for granted that the Internet is there. Have you ever had your connection suddenly exhibit loss or sluggishness? If it suddenly takes thirty seconds to display a web-page that would normally display in two, how much would this affect an employee who normally enters 25 orders per hour?
  • How much will the increased traffic cost? You may save administration costs, and even hardware costs, by moving this application to the cloud; However, you could start to see a significant increase in data costs if you exceed your bandwidth. It may be worth doing the numbers on this before making the leap to off-site applications.

Unfortunately, I cannot give you an answer as to whether you should move your application(s) into the cloud or not, but these questions should help you make a more informed decision.

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