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Datacentres Europe
Datacentres Europe
Tracking global change in IT Infrastructure

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How to Choose a Cloud Computing Company

There is a great deal of noise surrounding cloud computing with many claims made; so, prior to embarking on such a move, you must start at the beginning with a view on whether the cloud is the right place to take your business and it’s IT.

The concept of cloud computing is very appealing to a growing number of companies, particularly start-ups and SMEs where managing computer systems and networks distracts from running more fundamental aspects of the business. Crashing computers, software upgrades, evolving and ever-changing security risks etc. mean IT can quickly become a full-time job. In this way outsourcing makes sense as a means of accessing cloud computing services without a dedicated member of staff. In addition, cloud computing offers access to many more sophisticated applications and services at an affordable cost by using a multi-tenant arrangement where many customers access the same software and servers simultaneously. Such multi-tenant arrangements should also deliver a pay-as-you-use model plus elasticity of use where the numbers of users can be rapidly increased or decreased as the business requires.

You must also ask yourselves questions about any existing infrastructure and what you have invested in it with regards to hardware and software licences, projected life of servers etc. plus how and whether that investment can be liquidated if you make the move into the cloud.
In other words, what is the whole picture about the planned move; what will migrating my applications etc. into the cloud cost and what benefits do we get from making this move. Any move into the cloud is typically justified on financial grounds but may also making this moved on operational and/or productivity grounds too.

Once this picture is clear, you can begin the process of reviewing what the choices are in terms of what is needed technically and choice of potential vendors.
There are a number of factors to consider, the first being that whatever the size of your business, certain applications are now mission critical and second cloud providers are not all created equal; taken together these two factors mean this is a vital choice in the future of the business.

The next stage to consider is what you are buying which will fit into the following 3 categories:

  • Infrastructure-as-a-service: Vendor delivers network and servers for use by your business paying for capacity and storage used.
  • Platform-as-a-service: Vendor delivers and manages operating system and database plus all else required to run certain platforms.
  • Software-as-a-service: Vendor runs the software application for you on pay-for-use basis. Your business does not require either software licences or supporting infrastructure and this is a typical means of delivering applications such as CRM, hosted email etc.

On this basis you need answer these questions:

  • The product: How does it meet the business needs? Is it easy to use? Does it improve on the existing tools?
  • Does the product deliver compliance with the legal framework of my industry?
  • The provider: Are they a stable business with many customers? How happy are said customers? Are they well-funded and/or a possible acquisition target?
  • The migration: The process of transitioning to the new service/provider will be potentially problematic. How will you deal with interruptions to business during the transition? Can the transition be accomplished according to your timetable? How fully do you understand what is involved in the process?

Once these factors are established, the next phase is to draw up a list of vendors and assess them all against the following criteria:

1. Security

This consideration must include the physical security of the data center and DR plans; you must also consider the security of your own connections to the outside world. Again, can the provider meet the requirements of the legal framework imposed on you by your own industry? Fundamentally the biggest change in mindset is that you are moving your data beyond the immediate bounds of your own business, consequently you will need to ensure your existing security arrangements are adequate and will meet the demands of the outsourcing arrangement.

2. Performance

Key questions for the vendor:

  • How do you define performance?
  • What metrics do they use?
  • How does that definition of performance relate to customer satisfaction?
  • What metrics can you show me?
  • How much of the network and system do you own?
  • Can we see the data center and the system running please?
  • Who will deliver support?
  • How are those support staff qualified?
  • Can I meet them please?

Part of the assessment of performance needs to include addressing the following areas:

a) Availability
This will of course be contingent on just how critical the service is to your business; however a good starting point is that it must be at least as good as the existing product and service set up. So, if you seek to move your financial, CRM, or business intelligence systems to the cloud, the cloud service will need to be highly available. This should be reflected in the SLA which should provide penalties in the event of system outages.

b) Cloud Technical Interface
A major benefit of using cloud computing is it’s self-provisioning nature; in other words your capability as the client to add and subtract users, change settings relating to users access the various parts of the system etc. Part of your assessment of the product and the provider needs to include this and its ease of use.

c) APIs and Data Transformations
Rather than take an of the shelf product it may suit your needs to host your company’s infrastructure or applications in to the cloud. The provider’s Application Programming Interface (API) is the software interface that lets your company’s infrastructure or applications plug in to their cloud; these are seen as an important place for standardization. For your organization to fluently build connections between its applications, internal data center and the cloud, standardized APIs are a must.

d) Data and Application Architecture
The business’s changing demands will require internally developed services which must operate with the cloud. Thus the provider must deliver a system whose architecture is sufficiently modular to allow these services to migrate to and from the cloud.

3. Capability and Cost of Changing Provider

The choice of cloud provider needs to be seen as a long term relationship and you must be happy that the provider can grow with you as your needs change and you adapt to your changing business environment. You also need to take account of circumstances you cannot foresee or immediately visualise, what if the provider goes out of business, are acquired, changes in personnel etc? Your plan and the SLA needs to ensure you are not too locked in and you have the capability to move your data and/or your applications to another provider should that prove necessary. So, part of the supplier and product assessment needs to include the question, what will it cost the business to take our data if needed at some point in the future? What product or service alternatives are available? What barriers are there to doing so?

Simply, the choice of cloud partner is vital to your business but must ensure that co-dependence does not threaten your company’s existence and capacity to trade in the future.

4. Customer Service

There is an element of personal choice with every business decision and you must be happy that these are the people you wish to be dealing with. You also need to see their staff and understand their competence to support both you and their other clients; without whom they will cease to exist.
Part of the vendor selection process is to clarify the exact nature of the support the vendor agrees to deliver and typically includes the number of engineers on hand, how they are qualified plus what they will and will not do on your behalf, response times etc.

5. Billing and Accounting

A major benefit of cloud computing is its elastic nature, enabling you to add and subtract capacity as required. To ensure there are no unexpected bills, billing and account management must be automated so you can monitor what you are using and attendant costs.

6. Costs

A cynic might suggest that cloud providers were deliberately opaque about their pricing and make like for like comparisons problematic. It is certainly the case that pricing structures are complex as they are based on many factors, from storage space required, clock cycles used, monthly traffic allotments, etc. To make matters worse, some service providers include additional charges that are effectively hidden deep in their service-level agreements (SLAs). It is beyond the scope of this article to look at this in too much depth but you will need to arrive at a means of comparing one provider with another and more importantly what the actual day to day costs of the service will be. Perhaps the easiest way to break down pricing is to focus on the primary services offered. Most cloud service providers divide services into three areas: servers in the cloud (real and virtual), cloud storage, sites and applications in the cloud, each with its own pricing formula.

7. Service Level Agreement

Again it is beyond the scope of this article to look at this in too much depth but part of your choice of product and vendor will be the Service Level Agreement (SLA). If you are buying an off the shelf product, it is likely the vendor will have a “boiler plate” document that will form part of the sales process and in this event part of the product and vendor selection process must include a review of same. Otherwise the formulation of an appropriate SLA with the vendor will form part if the final negotiation; in addition to the obvious usual terms of payment details, the SLA will need to include the following:

  • Security including penalties where the vendor is at fault.
  • Availability including penalties for outages.
  • Severance terms.
  • Pricing structure specifically what you are paying for and when it is billable,
  • Details of the support structure and where appropriate schedule the vendor will provide.

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