It’s an especially dynamic time in IT right now. Data is being created at an alarming rate, mobile devices are everywhere, and employees want access to any information or application from anywhere. Compounded with static or shrinking IT budgets, organizations need to do more with less. It’s a challenge for organizations to maintain the day-to-day operation of the infrastructure while exploring new initiatives, and it shows in the results of a recent Symantec survey. Roughly half of businesses, for example, rated their IT staff as less than somewhat prepared for moving to the cloud. This is significant because cloud computing is one area with the potential to make real productivity gains for your business and reduce costs as a viable alternative to a number of on-premise operations. But, how do you know what’s right for the cloud and what’s not?
How Can Cloud Computing Help Your Business?
If you’re not sure whether cloud is right for you, take a look at your business and some of the challenges you face.
You may find, for example, that your demand for resources varies significantly, such as if you have times of the year when you experience a surge in customer traffic to your website. To handle this unpredictable surge, you may have resources that go unused the rest of the year. This is an area where cloud computing can help, by providing scalable resources available on an on-demand basis.
You may also find yourself unable to maximize the use of your resources, such as having several servers running at partial capacity. When the need for one service spikes, you are unable to pool all those server resources to meet the new demand. Cloud computing, however, allows you to combine all available resources, regardless of location, to more efficiently meet your current needs.
Consistent expenses are another potential problem area. Laying out the capital to invest in a new piece of software or infrastructure can create budget problems, but revenue can be lost if your current systems are not up to date. Here, too, cloud computing can help. Cloud services and applications typically have no up-front costs, and instead bill on a regular basis depending on how much you use. In a day of shrinking budgets, this can mean the difference between providing up-to-date services and struggling to remain competitive with legacy systems.
If your employees need consistent access to corporate resources, regardless of their location, cloud services can help here too. Because the data and services are available by web-based portal, employees can access them from mobile devices. This can greatly improve response time and boost productivity.
You may also find that requesting and provisioning resources is time-consuming for your staff. Here, too, cloud computing offers a solution. The nature of the cloud means you don’t have to install the solutions on every endpoint. Services are also updated automatically, with no need for your staff to handle maintenance issues such as applying patches.
In considering solutions to some of your current business problems, consider these points – supply elasticity, resource pooling, predictable costs, constant network access, and self-service – to determine whether a cloud approach might be right for you.
Where Should You Start?
If you decide that cloud computing is right for your organization, the next question is where to start. You’re not alone in this. While most organizations are at least discussing the cloud, no more than one in five has completed implementation, according to the recent survey by Symantec. If you’re nervous about fully embracing the cloud and are looking for a way to get your feet wet, a good place to start is by looking at your current IT services to determine whether it’s efficient to have your internal staff continue performing these services.
Many IT services, including storage, security, backup and other essential functions, can be relegated to a third-party provider that specializes in the service and delivers it via the cloud. In some cases, these services could be performed in precisely the same way by a cloud provider for less cost and less risk, with the added benefit that your in-house staff can be freed to work on implementing forward-looking initiatives rather than simply trying to deal with day-to-day operations.
The next step is to consider the security and reliability situation of your systems. Securing systems to be reliable and resistant to attack can be difficult and cumbersome. Cloud services allow IT to reduce the number and variety of systems that need to be secured, enabling staff to concentrate on securing the internal systems that cannot be outsourced. While we often hear about security vulnerabilities in the public cloud – it was the top-ranked concern according to Symantec’s survey – it’s no different from placing your trust in any other technology vendor. In fact, by providing the same service to many organizations, cloud providers can afford to invest in providing reliable and secure systems. And organizations are coming around to this fact: 87 percent believe that security in the cloud will be at least as good as it is now. One key is requiring the cloud provider to adhere to a suitable security service level agreement (SLA) to keep your information and applications safe and accessible.
For businesses that are looking to ease into cloud implementation, one way to try it with minimal investment is to use the cloud for a pilot project. This allows organizations to experiment and learn how advantageous the cloud will be for them without risking critical information. Cloud vendors also usually allow you to try their service before making a commitment, giving you freedom to proceed at your own pace.
Who Can You Trust?
Once you have determined what you want from the cloud, it’s time to figure out who can meet those needs. The number of cloud providers is growing quickly, and it can be difficult to know who to trust.
When the time comes to select a cloud provider, it’s important to specify what your expectations are for the provider. The SLA should spell out requirements exactly regarding functionality and support, as well as what the consequences are for failure to meet the requirements. The business will need to decide what features are critical for a cloud solution to provide, and what non-critical items will be on the list.
Once the specific needs are determined, you should compile a list of the cloud providers that can meet your needs. With this list, it is easy to compare features side by side with the specifications of what they offer. In addition to what they say they will do, however, you need to consider their past performance and customer service record, rather than just choosing the biggest or most well-known provider. Your candidates should provide customer service information upon request.
When the best match is determined, you still need to successfully negotiate the SLA, considering the level of support you need, whether that be 24/7 telephone availability or forum moderation during business hours. Make sure you aren’t paying for services you won’t need. Other details are important to consider, including time zones, response time to requests and escalation of issues that arise.
As an important part of the selection process, you should also carefully consider an exit strategy to retrieve your data in case you decide to terminate service. Make sure that your SLA doesn’t lock you into remaining with a provider that fails to meet expectations.
Preparing for the cloud is less a matter of if than when, and it may seem overwhelming, but you can take a rational approach to this decision. Carefully evaluate your current needs, as well as their strengths and resources, and consider where your efficiency could be improved by taking advantage of cloud services to save money and make the most of your limited budget and staff. There’s never been a better time to take advantage of the benefits cloud computing has to offer.
Tom Powledge is vice president of product delivery, SMB and .Cloud for Symantec.