Weighing cloud computing risks from a data center perspective

Pete Sclafani, Contributor

There are many risks and benefits to cloud computing, which you should keep in mind when deciding whether or not to pursue it as an option for your IT shop.

While smaller businesses that don't already have a full IT staff may find cloud services the easiest and most cost-effective solution for the time being, larger organizations may want to take a gradual approach to the cloud, testing services first, then moving only select applications and processes, while maintaining some of their workloads in a traditional on-premises setting.

IT is really left with three choices when it comes to outsourcing to the cloud: steering clear of it by consolidating the traditional IT setup, maintaining its entire environment off-site in the cloud or seeking the best of both worlds with the hybrid cloud model.

Cloud and the IT power shift

One of the biggest benefits of the cloud -- handing over the challenges of operations management to a third party -- is also its biggest risk. As an operator, you are used to being in control; if something breaks, you can track it down and fix it yourself. The cloud model is predicated on outsourcing various components and giving up that control. This definite shift in attitude requires that you identify a vendor with a solid track record that you can trust to not only provide the availability that you require, but also be responsive to issues.

Part of the control shift is figuring out how to manage cloud computing risks. If you outsource key pieces of infrastructure, how tough is it to change your strategy later on? Even if the platform stays the same, how would you switch vendors? Given the advances in the technology, the cloud platform you use today could change in the not-so-distant future. That makes it important to have an understanding of the technology you have deployed and how that fits your broader strategy around outsourcing.

This shift also affects other key areas that you should investigate when deciding on the best cloud strategy for your business -- like security, ISO/PCI/SSAE compliance and long-term maturity. Depending on the applications you choose to outsource, you may have data encryption and retention requirements for sensitive information being transmitted to/from the cloud environment.

Given the breadth of solutions and vendors, there are many approaches. The upside to this vendor and technology diversity is that you can pick the right solutions that fit your immediate needs. The downside is that you may have to deal with multiple vendors and service-level agreements (SLAs) or trust a single vendor to meet your needs.

Taking a Cautious Approach to the Cloud

For companies that have weighed the advantages and disadvantages of cloud computing and still see the benefits of keeping some IT on-premises, a hybrid strategy is perhaps the best option for staying relatively safe while continuing to expand business, without prohibitive infrastructure costs. A hybrid environment can help show the actual ROI of moving some applications to the cloud, while preparing your operational team and processes for change.

Companies that choose this route -- or any cloud strategy -- must take a pragmatic approach. The first step is simply knowing what applications you are supporting and what their environmental requirements are. Something as basic as an application audit can help ensure that you have your ducks in a row.

Next, identify a specific project that would be a "cloud candidate." This could be a single application or architecture that can function either on-site or off-site at a cloud provider. This way, you have an application that is well-documented in either environment, making it easier to compare your experience and ROI without jeopardizing too many moving parts.

Once you have the application in mind, it comes down to looking at your preferred deployment model and talking to vendors. By researching vendors ahead of time, you'll be able to set the right expectations for your company's upper management and operations team. Since you may be using their APIs and management tools, you should gain a basic understanding of the technology vendors use as you begin integrating their systems with your own.

Whether you are ready to fully embrace the cloud or just taking that first cautious step, your most important tool is a realistic plan of action. By having a solid plan grounded in your company's needs and your IT team's skill set, you dramatically increase the odds of a successful cloud implementation.

About the author: Pete Sclafani is the CIO at 6connect, a provider of network automation services.

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