Heading into cloud with eyes open

Cloud computing is the source of much heated discussion. It offers a lot, but can be somewhat oversold.

Some 62 per cent of businesses already use cloud computing, according to International Data Corporation (IDC), compared to 50 per cent last year. “Large businesses have adopted cloud computing because of their awareness and skills, but small-business adoption is starting to grow,” says Mette Ahorlu, IDC research director.

Businesses can face a raft of technical challenges when moving to the cloud, including making sure they have enough bandwidth. Industry association CompTIA has found that a quarter of businesses cite slow or unreliable internet access as a real problem.

When adopting storage in the cloud, companies need to remember the time it will take to migrate bulk information. A study by vendor Nasuni shows that shifting a 12 terabyte data store to or between clouds can take anything from half a day to six days. And the Cloud Industry Forum says in a recent report that there is “a growing demand for services to assist in the implementation or migration to cloud services”.

Cloud can be delivered in many forms, prompting a demand for robust service-level agreements (SLAs). Public, private, virtual private and hybrid infrastructures are popular, and Ms Ahorlu says the take-up of shared environments is growing particularly quickly. They offer a guaranteed cloud set-up and a firewall, with strong SLAs, she says.

Introducing the cloud brings fresh issues to businesses; companies need to have the processes, skills and supportive structure in place before starting

When it comes to contracts, John McGlinchey, Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) vice president at CompTIA, says businesses benefit most when they first check in with the lawyers. “Detailed performance assurances are critical to ensure long-term viability, measured through service-level agreements that specify the expectations of the cloud consumer and list the consequences of contract breaches,” he says.

Any form of outsourced cloud computing offers businesses the ability to increase capacity without having to invest in new infrastructure or licences. An increase in demand, for example when web traffic jumps following a sales promotion, can be handled by the cloud vendor. Some 16 per cent of firms use the cloud for flexibility and 12 per cent for scalability, according to a report by the Cloud Industry Forum.

Charity Oxfam adopted the cloud for this reason. Its site experienced high peaks in demand following television and mail campaigns, and the on-premise set-up struggled to cope. By moving to the cloud and setting strict SLAs, Oxfam gained an infrastructure that was able to flex.

The cloud allows organisations to access applications and data from anywhere, and as a result it promotes smart working. Airline easyJet implemented a new cloud computing system to enable mobile functions; the boarding and passenger system was made available in the cloud so that staff could easily assist customers with any queries, anywhere in the terminal.

The cloud is also typically favoured for customer relationship management (CRM), collaboration and productivity tools, Ms Ahorlu says. Industry-specific and enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions are less common, though they are growing.

Kate Russell, BBC presenter and creator of the workingthecloud.biz site, explains: “Many medium-sized businesses start with collaboration when they move into the cloud, improving the ways that they work with other people, as well as sales and invoicing. “Smaller businesses typically start with e-mail, allowing staff to access messages anywhere, and then they move on to storage.”

As with any opportunity, introducing the cloud brings fresh issues to businesses; companies need to have the processes, skills and supportive structure in place before starting.

Security is a primary concern. “It’s important that businesses are confident they are choosing a vendor with good security,” says Ms Russell, “and they also need to get their own security right.” Companies need to modify their existing security policies by defining where the data should be stored, who will access it and how it is protected. They have the responsibility to review the technology and the processes of their service providers.

Companies need to watch the level of customisation they look for, any maintenance required to keep their own IT up to speed and the integration costs

Relevant elements of contracts “should detail regulatory compliance requisites, such as auditing and inspection, data storage and reporting, process and procedure guidance, and response and remediation services”, says Mr McGlinchey at CompTIA.

An organisation that is sure about the benefits it is targeting, before moving a set of functions to the cloud, is more likely to see success.

Having focus can help with complex questions on the right type of platform, infrastructure and application, decisions over public and private clouds, and the choice of the appropriate vendor.

In essence, it is important to plan carefully instead of rushing cloud selection and integration, says Ms Russell, who warns that “vendors may encourage you to move quicker than you want”.

According to a report by cloud firm NTT Communications, nearly 60 per cent of businesses still see the complexity of their IT as a key complication. Analysts at Ovum, who have recently published a report into the cloud, call for a type of development cloud known as platform-as-a-service to be used for the difficult task of integrating applications with existing infrastructure. Senior analyst Saurabh Sharma advises businesses to use the “rich set of pre-built connectors, mappings, integration templates, and business logic that can be reused and modified for faster development”.

Cloud computing arrived with the promise of cost-savings. There are initial savings when it comes to deployment, but the cloud brings its own costs. Companies need to watch the level of customisation they look for, any maintenance required to keep their own IT up to speed and the integration costs.

The cost argument in favour of cloud is not necessarily proven. Ms Ahorlu at IDC explains that “half of the businesses who have cloud have made less than 10 per cent savings”, describing the figure as “very meagre”. Nevertheless, she says, many judgments on cost are made early, and businesses need to look at the ongoing efficiency and flexibility on offer.

Artesian, a small business focused on trawling the web and social media for market intelligence, uses the cloud for serving customers. Cloud enables the company to process and deliver a high volume of data affordably, which is a key focus. As an additional benefit the cloud offers guaranteed uptime.

User adoption is vital. A common problem comes when businesses see cloud as a technology change rather than a business change, often if the move is led by IT without first garnering wider acceptance.

Ms Russell says: “If people understand how much more agile they can be, how they can work in different places and how much more productive and less interrupted they could be, cloud is attractive and workable.”

It is equally vital to remember the role and expertise of the IT department. Technology staff need to become enablers, authorising systems, and monitoring compliance, security and interoperability while encouraging good practice.

Careful planning and the right technology decisions can make the cloud a great solution for businesses. The flexibility, scalability and improved ways of working are highly attractive, as are the reduced maintenance and lower up-front cost. A method that is forward-thinking, but cognisant of ongoing concerns, and one which has users readily on board, is a winning strategy.