The educated approach to outsourced data center services

Careful and systematic adoption policies can help businesses avoid serious problems with IT service providers.

Outsourcing data center services isn't as quick and simple as it sounds.

As businesses grapple with shrinking IT budgets, staffing cuts and spiraling energy costs, outsourced data center services become more attractive. Consider workloads and evaluate providers carefully when developing an IT outsourcing policy. You might decide against that route.

Not every workload was created equal

Just because an IT workload can be outsourced does not mean it should be. Outsourcing surrenders some control to at least two different third parties: the outsourcing provider and the connectivity provider.

Service disruption from either vendor can render workloads inaccessible until they rectify the problem within the terms of a prevailing service-level agreement (SLA). This isn't acceptable for some critical applications, but many businesses still prefer to outsource secondary or non-essential workloads to allow IT staff to focus on those critical workloads that remain in-house.

Decide on the most appropriate type of service provider for the workloads being outsourced. If a business needs additional data center space, or systems to manage and support internal computing, evaluate Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) providers. By comparison, a business that needs to quickly launch and scale applications might turn to a public cloud provider. Either way, the IT staff should understand each workload, the way it is deployed and its priority for business operations. Mix and match outsourcing providers to fit those workloads.

Scalability varies by provider, but all should offer more or fewer computing resources as workload needs change over time. Cloud providers can typically scale resources up or down on demand, suiting workloads with rapidly changing needs. Traditional data center providers typically scale only with formal contract renegotiation and allotted time to allocate resources to your needs, which is fine for static workloads. Again, know your IT workloads inside and out.

Then, there's regulatory compliance. If you are subject to government- or industry-mandated compliance regulations dictating where and how certain data is processed and stored, they will prohibit some workloads from being outsourced. For example, some workloads have geographic storage restrictions. Unlike an on-premises data center, by nature public cloud computing can use computing and storage resources located anywhere in the world. Workloads with geographic storage restrictions might not be able to use cloud computing providers. Corporate compliance officers should review any IT outsourcing policy.

When a workload is marked for outsourcing, research the various types of service providers, choose the best one, negotiate SLAs, modify or re-code the workload if needed, test the workload extensively and then perform the actual migration.

The right time to change service providers

Outsourcing data center services is a big business decision, but you can change your mind. If the relationship with a chosen provider is no longer worthwhile, consider a change. Include an exit strategy in your outsourcing policy that details the steps and processes to restore an outsourced workload to the in-house data center, or move the workload to an alternative provider.

The main reason businesses will leave an outsource provider is repeated or unaddressed SLA violations -- usually in the form of excessive or unplanned service downtime. Although the provider is not liable for lost revenue or other damages caused by service outages, it's reasonable to expect them to mitigate downtime and address disruptions in a timely manner. If they can't seem to keep your workloads online, it's time to look elsewhere.

Another important problem is poor customer service. If support calls go unanswered, voice messages and email messages to the provider are not returned promptly (or at all), service changes are not implemented in a timely manner, billing problems are not resolved quickly, if the staff lacks knowledge, or there's high turnover or any other recurring problem, think about changing outsourcing providers.

Outsourcing providers are businesses, and as such might be acquired or acquire other businesses. Such acquisitions can be extremely disruptive, and assimilation problems manifest as service problems. The strain of merging two client lists can hurt responsiveness or cause rapid staff turnover. Service offerings might change, adding services you didn't need or discontinuing ones you relied on.

Even worse, providers are not immune to bankruptcies -- it is possible to find your workloads shut down unexpectedly. Watch out for red flags in the providers you choose to partner with: repeated downsizing or consecutive quarters of losses.

When outsourced data center services won't work

Outsource workloads on a case-by-case basis. First, understand the importance of the workload for the business and then determine compliance requirements. If your business cannot tolerate loss of access to a workload, or regulations are prohibitive, it's probably best to avoid outsourcing that particular workload -- at least until regulatory guidelines catch up with outsourcing technologies.

Consider the implications of provider problems and have a plan in place to recover workloads in-house or migrate them to other providers. Otherwise, avoid outsourcing the workload until business continuity can be established.

Adopt an IT outsourcing policy that's slow and systematic, as you would with any emerging data center technology. Outsource a few non-essential workloads, prove that the model is feasible for your business, then outsource additional workloads over time. This will reap the technical and financial benefits to the enterprise of outsourcing data center services while protecting against the limitations and vulnerabilities involved with third-party services.

This was first published in November 2013

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