Taking to the cloud, part 2: what to ask

In the second of a two-part introduction about cloud computing services, Stephen Blyth explores what to look into when selecting cloud services. The first part covers basic cloud computing concepts.

When your organisation is ready to move some or all of its IT system to the cloud you’ll face many, many choices. However, not all cloud providers are equal. Doing thorough research before you move is crucial.

This article covers three main areas to investigate: costs, support and security. If access to your messages, files and/or databases is disrupted it will mean down-time or worse. So when making a choice, it pays to get some good advice.

Full cost of the cloud

Cost savings and predictable monthly costs are cited as key benefits in shifting to the cloud. Yet there are other costs that need to be considered when using the cloud, both one-off and ongoing.

Moving to the cloud doesn’t mean doing away with technical support. You will still need to maintain desktops and laptops, printers and other peripherals, a wifi or wired network, and possibly in-house storage and/or a network. To ensure these operate well and are secure, regular maintenance from an IT technician is still required.

Your broadband plan may need to be boosted. Staff will likely be accessing more files more regularly so both speed and volume of bandwidth will likely need to be increased.

The monthly fees charged are one part of the overall cost of using the cloud.  Other costs you need to consider are service configuration, local configuration, migration and user retraining. Through their experience offering npCloud services to organisations, TechImpact area very clear about the amount of effort required to transfer email, file storage and data to the could (see the TechSoup webinar recording and presentation). Transferring some things is easier than others.

Prices may not stay the same low cost over time. Yet shifting to another provider is not necessarily an easy process. The danger of supplier lock-in is worth factoring into your tech planning. What would it cost to move to another cloud provider? 

Get good support

We all know computers break, the Internet goes offline and back-ups are not actually kept. Any computer system is great when it’s working well, but what happens when you have an IT meltdown?

If you’re using a private cloud set up in a customised way by an IT provider you know, support is typically personal and fast. You know who you’re dealing with, and where the technology storing your precious data is located.

When you use public cloud services that you buy over the Internet it’s likely if you call for help that you will never deal with the same person twice. Support is accessed from a helpdesk using a free-phone number, or possibly just through online forms. The timezone people are working may not be the same as those in the Southern Hemishpere.

Each approach has its pros and cons. It’s important to think ahead of time about the quality and responsiveness of the support offered. Will you be able to access the help you need when you most need it?

Be safe in the could

Every time you go on the Internet you’re entering a potentially hostile environment. Viruses, spyware, and other risks are pervasive. Unfortunately the threats keep growing.

If your organisation does not have sound practices, you are exposing yourself to risk when accessing software and data in the cloud.

A key part of reducing risks is ensuring staff, board members and volunteers adopt safe computing practices, and have well maintained computers. Regular virus and spyware scans, applying updates, reliable back-up, and a good firewall protection are key parts of this. 

For each and every cloud service your organisation investigates, it’s important to thoroughly look at security. In a presentation on cloud safety, Idealware suggest looking at the following five elements:

  • Physical security
  • Network security
  • Transmission security
  • Access controls
  • Data protection.

When deciding on a cloud provider it is vital to look at the fineprint in each terms of service. What guarantees are made about data security and service uptime? Who owns stored files or data? Where is the technology located?

The latter is particularly important if you collect information governed by health or welfare legislation. For instance, current guidance to NZ health providers stipulates that unless exempted “all personally identifiable health information and core operational data must be fully domiciled in New Zealand.” 

Get good advice

As your organisation moves closer to making a decision about using the cloud, numerous practical implementation issues unique to your organisation will arise.

Some of the things that could crop up include:

  • Will performance be sluggish when running Google Mail in Microsoft Outlook?
  • Do the browsers on all PCs meet the minimum specifications required?
  • Will team members actually adhere to safe computing practices, including using strong passwords?

To answer these and other questions, some advice from a trusted IT advisor is essential. Make sure they have had some experience in transferring organisations to the cloud. Getting some advice or a peer review of a proposed approach in a few hours will save time, money and angst.

When it comes down to it, as it states in NTEN’s state of the cloud survey (March 2012), “In the end, cloud software is just software. It’s critical to evaluate the cost, features and value of each individual product rather than make decisions solely on the way it’s delivered.” 

Further Reading

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Charl du Plessis, of Hamilton IT Services, and Martin Bester if SmartBest Technologies for answering my many questions.

About Stephen Blyth

Stephen is a freelance project manager, writer and advisor from New Zealand. His specialty is working on web-based projects for organisations striving for environmental or social change and other good causes. Stephen understands how community groups work so he knows how to stay within tight budgets within organisations where people are the focus (not the tools). Prior to becoming self-employed he worked for government agencies for over a decade in community engagement, funding and capability building roles. In his spare time he tills the soil, climb trees with his two young children and squeeze in some volunteering with Wellington ICT. He writes about all this stuff at: www.commonknowledge.net.nz.