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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Destination: CLOUD - Inside The Transition To The Cloud

Whether your company’s financial forecast is bright, dark, or somewhere in between, there’s likely a cloud in there, as well. Cloud computing continues to make major inroads into organizations of every size, in turn helping to save money and time through a diminished need for in-house personnel and equipment. Yet, even the cloud and its various iterations reached unprecedented popularity levels in the past year, many organizations are still confused about the concept as a whole.

In a recent survey of IT and business professionals conducted by Virtacore Systems, 64% of respondents admitted they don’t understand cloud computing. Further, despite the increasing adoption of services such as Google Docs, Salesforce.com, and WebEx, 54% of respondents in that study didn’t realize these were cloud-based applications. Whether this confusion completely subsides in the near future remains to be seen, but the cloud’s unmistakable value could very well make the concept much clearer soon enough.

“In the past few years we have seen a tremendous increase in interest and movement to cloud computing because it is now affordable and it gets ‘the company’ out of the IT infrastructure business and associated costs,” says Wade Yeaman, CEO of Fluid Consulting (www.fluid-consulting.com). “[The] cloud can often be seen as a threat to inhouse staff job security but in fact lets in-house staff refocus on value-added tasks more aligned to the business rather than in the technical weeds.”


Clear The Calendar

From a lay perspective, the cloud can be seen as any IT service delivered over a network, such as the Internet. Imagine a picture of your organization’s building with a cloud hovering nearby or even hundreds of miles away. Within that cloud are providers that offer services your IT department already may provide in house, such as storage and desktop applications, along with all the hardware necessary to run those services. You can simply connect to that cloud to use those services without buying and managing all the equipment and personnel required to run the services. For example, if you upload files to a Web-based storage provider or edit a document in Google Docs or Microsoft’s Windows Live SkyDrive, you’re using the cloud.

While the cloud certainly entails a wealth of many more complex iterations and terms, entry into the cloud space is only as complex as your organization’s needs. Even with no cloud experience, transitioning to the cloud is now often a relatively seamless experience, thanks to providers who are well-versed in the technology and the unique needs of businesses looking to use it. In general, transitioning an in-house IT segment (such as storage) to a cloud model is a quick process, but it can vary depending on the customer.

“The time involved is dependent on the company’s preparedness and what services they are planning to migrate,” explains Mike Eaton, founder and chief executive officer of Cloudworks (www.cloudworks.com). “Creating the customer environments in the cloud and establishing user accounts is actually pretty easy. Most cloud providers can accomplish this in a matter of hours once the customer has provided all the necessary information, including a complete user list and their associated security permissions. So for a start-up with no legacy applications or data, getting up and running in the cloud from quote to contracts to go-live can be a day or two.”

However, if a company has been in business for several years or more, the cloud transition timeline can be longer. Yeaman notes that organizations ultimately must consider several variables as part of the due diligence and project planning process. For example, is the organization migrating all of its existing applications and infrastructure to the cloud at once over a defined, phased approach, or is it migrating only a subset of these elements?

If the plan is to move all of its office productivity applications to the cloud, the company will discover that several variables will affect the transition timeline, including the amount of data associated with the service being moved as well as the order that applications are moved (which might be defined by business reasons).

“In addition to the data migration, the host environment must be prepared, and tasks specific for setting up each individual user must be carefully defined,” says Yeaman. “Typically, preparing the cloud host location to receive the service is the responsibility of the cloud provider and relatively short in duration [hours, not days]. This illustrates another benefit of the cloud model—it is much faster to build virtual instances for new add-on services as needed. Defining tasks for migrating each user can be more tedious and vary based on user type. This can be as simple as setting up each user by ‘pointing’ them to the new service or could be more comprehensive and require defined training for users once access is provided.”

Once this data migrates from the organization to the service provider and is tested—a process that could require multiple attempts if problems emerge—the next step is to perform user-specific tasks to ensure the migration was successful for each user. Based on a sample of 1,000 users and a migration of an office productivity suite and related files, this entire process can take several days, Yeaman advises. Typically, he adds, the migration would start after hours on a Friday and complete on Monday and Tuesday with IT staff members on-hand to address any user-related issues or requirements.

Pay Now, Save Later
Most businesses and other organizations grow comfortable over time with in-house applications and other IT elements, particularly when there’s a dedicated IT staff tending to those pieces. So why bother with the hassle of a transition to the cloud? A big impetus behind the cloud’s explosion is cost savings, since the cloud eliminates the need to buy and maintain equipment to run applications. However, for organizations that already have this equipment in place and are considering the cloud instead of an impending upgrade, it’s advisable to expect cost savings in the long term, rather than the short term. “In most cases we have experienced, the longterm transition to the cloud produced cost savings,” says Sam Metri, partner of Taza Systems (www.taza
systems.com), a small business of real estate solutions that utilizes cloud computing. “However, in the short
term we always realized an increase in cost. Hosting a database farm internally with the necessary physical
environment and personnel is so much more expensive than the same database on the cloud. In many cases, we’ve seen savings of over 50%.”|

According to Jocelyn DeGance Graham, cloud market analyst at Grail Research (www.grailresearch.com), the cloud can be a great fit for entrepreneurs, micro-businesses, and SMBs due not only to cost savings, but also to the cloud’s pay-as-yougo model that delivers an enterprise-class level of IT to businesses that wouldn’t otherwise have access to it.

“People assume that the cost savings from the cloud comes from rapid scaling and provisioning and [they] have a tendency to think about this only in the up or growth direction,” Graham says. “However, a big part of the benefit of [the] cloud is that in a lagging economy, entrepreneurs can take more calculated risks by not having to invest in infrastructure and saddling themselves with capital investment. In a dip, they can also rapidly scale down operations, retrench, and redirect budget to assure the viability of the business.”

Of course, there are indeed costs involved with the cloud, and Yeaman says these costs can vary based on the provider, the service being used, and the provider’s pricing model itself. If an organization transitions its in house office productivity suite to a Web-based suite, it can expect a one-time setup cost and ongoing fees, he says, with the setup fee based on the expected setup time, number of users, training, etc., and the recurring feeds based on actual usage.

“Since the company is no longer using a physical server in its data center, costs elements are variable, such as the number of users and the actual usage of processors, memory, bandwidth, storage, and data backup,” Yeaman says. “The actual costs are determined by the specific pricing model the cloud provider uses. For example, Salesforce.com, the poster child for cloud computing, typically charges per user per month, whereas a video streaming cloud provider will typically charge based on several variables associated with actual usage.”

Ready Your Resources
A cloud transition can decrease the dependency on in-house resources such as personnel and equipment, but these same resources are required to some extent to actually enable the transition itself. On the personnel front, this means working to ensure that the migration follows a smooth path with both data and employees, particularly since the cloud concept remains foreign to many—if not most—non-IT business users.

“The smoothest transition to cloud occurs when the in-house staff can not only assist with the technical transition but, more importantly, proactively communicate in business terms—not techno babble— to the business about the plan, the timeframes, expectations for each user, and any user interaction required, such as testing or training,” Yeaman explains. “Typically the in-house staff will be focused on assisting the cloud provider with planning the migration dates with the business and assisting in providing necessary technical information to the cloud provider, such as data, IP information, DNS information, routing changes, etc.”

The day that users make the actual switch to cloud services is also critical for IT staff, who should be available for training, troubleshooting, and other aid, though Yeaman notes that cloud providers also often have staff onsite to assist in-house staff. On the infrastructure side, the biggest concern revolves around the network; organizations need to ensure they have enough bandwidth to handle the data flowing to and from cloud services. For example, a small business with a 5Mbps connection might need to double that service speed to handle the additional load, Yeaman says, adding that businesses should plan on at least 45 days of lead time for any service change. ▲

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