Cloud Assets: A Guide for SMBs-Part 3

  • Written By: Phil Reney
  • Published: April 20 2011

This is the final installment on cloud assets designed to help small to medium businesses (SMBs) looking to incorporate cloud services into their information technology (IT) infrastructure. The two previous entries in this trilogy were about the basics of cloud computing and the procurement of cloud services, which gave you the necessary tools to initiate, broker, and implement a cloud solution to support your business. Now let’s close the loop by formulating a comprehensive picture of managing cloud assets, along with some strategic perspectives.

There are different types of cloud configuration that you may be considering for your organization, and some are more suitable than others. I will define for you the particularities of public cloud, hybrid cloud, and private cloud, along with the ramifications of these setups for your organization.

Public Cloud
The public cloud is by far the most talked about cloud configuration, principally because it is the one being marketed the most. A public cloud is basically an infrastructure designed to host a variety of solutions that can be accessed through a Web browser or an Internet connectivity tool. In the public cloud, you will find services such as voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), software as a service (SaaS), platform as a service (PaaS), and infrastructure as a service (IaaS). In regard to SMBs, you will more than likely be brokering VoIP, SaaS, and PaaS solutions. Unless you find yourself in the higher end of the medium spectrum or with unique business requirements (such as a major contract that requires additional resources that won’t be needed once the project is complete), IaaS tends to be geared toward larger businesses for scope, return on investment (ROI), and cost.

When it comes to strengths, you will be benefiting from scalability in user and computer capacity, a shorter implementation, easier mobile access (you’re no longer bound to a specific computer), and lower initial cost. This caters perfectly to businesses experiencing growth and looking to gain access to more fleshed-out solutions, without the up-front on-premise price tag of hardware and software licenses. In addition, you don’t have to invest as much in IT personnel, as your vendors will be taking over many IT responsibilities for you.

Despite the hype, few businesses have fully embraced the cloud to sustain their entire business. I’ll cover some of the significant challenges of managing multiple cloud solutions later on.

Hybrid Cloud
Hybrid cloud is when your IT infrastructure includes a mix of on-premise solutions along with cloud solutions. It is currently the most common form of cloud configuration—businesses tend to look for cloud solutions primarily to supplement their current system, as they have invested a fair amount of resources in their on-premise infrastructure. The main repository of your data is likely within your server, while only subsets of data are stored in the cloud, if any at all.

In itself this strategy is quite logical and efficient, if your core solutions are already sound and support your business effectively. Myself, I do not see any value in having non-core solutions in-house while the rest sit in the cloud, unless there are some truly peculiar configurations (e.g., the odd legacy solution that has no equal on the market) that would prevent you from doing so. Consider the extra bandwidth costs of having your on-premise solutions communicating with your cloud solutions.

While you may enjoy the pros of combined on-premise and cloud solutions, you will also suffer their cons. Your requirements from IT personnel will be roughly the same as with traditional, in-house solutions; you still need enough in-house expertise to maintain efficiently your in-house systems. And ultimately, you will be dealing with the same challenges facing the public cloud segment, albeit to varying degrees.

Private Cloud
A private cloud configuration is where your in-house infrastructure is designed as a cloud platform on which you are its unique tenant. As an SMB, you’re not likely to adopt this scenario, but you should understand what it entails as you may be required to interface with one (e.g., as a supplier, or in a collaborative effort). The cost to implement a private cloud currently is substantial, and generally only larger businesses can effectively leverage the economy of scale. This might change over time as cloud computing moves into the mainstream, but if you’re considering private cloud now, this isn’t likely to happen within a practical time frame.

In the case of a private cloud, you do not have a lower initial cost or save yourself from managing a full-scale hardware infrastructure as you would from leveraging a public cloud structure. Additionally, you have to find solutions that can be adapted to a cloud architecture, which could prove challenging, lengthy, and costly.

However, you can enjoy scalability (within the limits of your hardware), in-house security (protocol, firewall, compliance, etc.), and the overall control of performance levels—all of which are very appealing for companies that are not willing to trust their infrastructure and data to third parties.

Integrating Your Clouds
So with private cloud out of reach for most SMBs, and hybrid cloud being somewhat transitional, public cloud as a strategy for your core solutions warrants closer inspection. It’s not all silver lining.

Depending on the mix of solutions—enterprise resource planning (ERP), transportation management system (TMS), customer relationship management (CRM), etc.—that you wish to place in the cloud, you may very well be dealing with more than one cloud provider. Ideally, the more streamlined the better, as managing multiple vendors can be challenging.

If you are considering multiple solutions to sustain your business, it is important for you to understand how your core solution (the solution that will be managing most of your operations and data) will be able to integrate with other solutions. Here are a few points that you should consider when you are designing your network of solutions:

  • Connectivity. Will you be requiring more than your core solution down the road? If you answered yes, you should verify with your core vendor if the solution can be easily integrated with various protocols. And if you are already eyeing other complementary solutions, talk to your core vendor about them. Mature solutions tend to be fairly flexible, but you cannot afford to ignore this consideration.
  • Data storage. The more vendors you have, the more of likely your data will be stored in multiple locations. If you want to adopt the best of breeds for your solutions, this would likely mean a different vendor for each of them. This means that, in communicating with your core solution and with one another, data will be duplicated under different subsets. This could entail more traffic than your core vendor is willing to support. Check with your core vendor about its bandwidth pricing policy as traffic will be significantly greater than the usual input/output. Also, the more your data is divided, the more security risks it faces.
  • Security management. Your significant up-front cost savings in both infrastructure and personnel come at the price of shadowing your vendors’ security protocols and practices. In fact, a significant responsibility of your IT department will be the monitoring of your applications, as well as working with your vendors to resolve any issues. Keep in mind that your business is ultimately responsible for the security and integrity of its own information, despite the agreements you have with your vendors.
  • Service level agreement. You will have to deal with multiple service level agreements (SLAs) that may not be equal in quality (uptimes, responsiveness, etc.), and conditions may differ from vendor to vendor. You will need to iron out the fine points with each of your vendors as separate entities, but you must also clarify what is expected of them in relation to your other vendors (planned downtime for maintenance, data recovery, etc.).

The advantages may seem somewhat lesser when the various challenges are stacked up against them. The important point to understand is that the overall challenges of running an IT infrastructure are very much the same regardless of how your solutions are deployed. Your vendors need to keep the systems running and make sure that security is in place and compliant, much as you would have done yourself in-house. But you still need to manage the infrastructure to protect your organization.

The Extended Forecast
Learning to leverage the potential strength of the cloud is certainly challenging, but you can reap the rewards of the cloud for your business, if you plan for it thoroughly. Defining your IT roadmap along with your business plan will help you make the right decisions in regard to your IT infrastructure.

I would like to hear from anyone that has started implementing cloud solutions. What strategy did you choose to adopt, and how did it turn out for you?

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