The Covid crisis has prompted a slew of businesses to entrust public cloud providers with their data. Any firm thinking of following suit would be well advised to tread carefully
Public cloud computing was poised on the edge of the mainstream for several years before the world was locked down in early 2020. Since then, firms’ pandemic-driven digital transformation efforts have accelerated the uptake of these cloud services, making them widely popular.
Global expenditure on public cloud providers is estimated to have risen from $270bn (£200bn) in the first year of the pandemic to more than $330bn in 2021, according to Gartner. It notes that the Covid crisis has helped many chief information officers to overcome resistance in their organisations to removing mission-critical IT resources from their premises and entrusting a third-party provider to host and manage them instead.
Partly because of this shift, there has been a marked increase in the amount of data that’s being collected and stored. Although using a public cloud offers several benefits, there are also some potential pitfalls to avoid. Particularly when moving their data to the cloud, organisations need to take these risks into account.
Before they even start down this road, a firm needs to work out whether a public cloud will be a suitable repository for all workloads – it’s not a one-size-fits-all option.
When assessing potential providers, a business must understand how data will be generated, used and, sometimes, transferred back to its own systems from the cloud. This is because the process of repatriating material can be expensive for clients. So-called data-egress fees are arguably some of the most unexpected (and therefore unbudgeted) costs of cloud usage. The existence of these well-hidden charges means that moving to the cloud won’t necessarily be cheaper than keeping everything in house. Organisations should therefore ensure that they fully understand the potential costs and complexities associated with putting their data back on the premises if they should choose to do so in the future.
Once a provider has been chosen and the migration is under way, “the biggest risk is not having an accurate picture of what data is held, where it is held and what access and security measures the data needs to have”. So says Tony Lock, director of engagement and distinguished analyst at IT research firm Freeform Dynamics.
Given the rapid growth in the volume of material being generated and stored in the cloud, organisations need the ability to efficiently discover and classify all their data. This means that they should seek to automate as many processes as possible, Lock advises. At the same time, they need to establish policies designed to ensure that this data is adequately protected with measures that conform to regulatory requirements.
When it comes to entrusting the storage of business-critical data to a third party, how should companies balance the convenience of public cloud computing with the need to maintain the integrity and security of highly sensitive material?
“This is a matter for each organisation to decide independently, based on its risk profile and the extent to which it wants to feel in control,” says Jaco Vermeulen, chief technology officer at IT consultancy BML Digital.
Vermeulen, who has overseen cloud migrations for companies including the Post Office and Park Holidays UK, advises businesses dealing with such questions to “define security policies and structures, and monitor and automate scalability rules. They should also select the appropriate public cloud service provider, relevant components and service levels.”
Nick Heudecker, senior director of market strategy and competitive intelligence at data specialist Cribl, stresses that organisations should not treat cloud migrations as a purely technical task to tackle.
“Moving applications, or reliably deploying new ones, in a public cloud environment will certainly present such challenges – there are many technical hurdles to overcome,” he acknowledges. “But, for an organisation to gain the full advantage of on-demand, abundant scale and flexibility, it will have to rethink how it works. The challenges it faces are therefore just as much social and organisational ones.”
Heudecker adds that, while business leaders may be eager to switch off their firms’ on-site data centres in their eagerness to get into the cloud, the migration process can potentially take years.
“For the things you can move, think about how you’ll monitor and observe these systems as they migrate between environments,” he advises, observing that many of Cribl’s clients use a technology that it calls an “observability pipeline” to aid their migrations.
Lock advises organisations to identify all their data, classify it and determine their options from there. “You may even find that some of your on-site data requires different security and access requirements from those actually in place, especially if these haven’t been reviewed and/or updated in a long time,” he says. “This is really all about data governance – an issue that can be overlooked, especially as there may be requests to bring data together from various sources for a given project. Combining data from different sources, in the cloud or on your premises, can create different protection and usage requirements, especially with regard to privacy.”
Bruce Edwards is director of technology at Stage11, a virtual entertainment platform. As an engineer who’s helped companies such as the Walt Disney Studios, Sony Pictures Entertainment and Dine Brands Global to migrate to public clouds, he is well placed to advise firms seeking to make similar moves.
“Don’t rush into the cloud because it’s the hot thing to do,” he stresses. “Approach it with a plan in mind and consider what you’re looking to accomplish. This is a huge undertaking. If you do it right, it can transform a company of any size for the better. If you rush it, you’ll end up with a cost-ineffective mess on your hands. My strongest advice is to first ask yourself one simple question: what’s best for the business? Then do your research and plan for the road far ahead.”
Edwards continues: “Explore the numerous types of cloud providers at your disposal to find the one that best suits your needs. Weigh the benefits of each for both your company as it is today and the business you want it to become. Work with cloud experts that specialise in your company’s area of expertise, preferably with direct experience in your industry. Together, you can map out your journey to the cloud. Keep in mind that not everything has to be moved at once. Give yourself the freedom to be patient – and learn as you go.”