Migrating to the cloud
Written by: Kate O’Flaherty | Published:

Cloud can increase organisations’ flexibility, agility and efficiency. However, migration must be done with a clear strategy in mind, explains Kate O’Flaherty

According to analyst Gartner, the worldwide public cloud services market will rise 16.5 per cent in 2016 to $204 billion (£141 billion), up from $175 billion (£121 billion) in 2015. You only have to look at the growth of flexible start-ups such as Netflix and Uber to see the benefits the technology can bring.

It gives companies the chance to punch above their weight – accelerating time to market – and offers expertise that organisations don’t necessarily have in-house. And, contrary to common belief, cloud can help companies increase data security. By providing the processing power for demanding business applications cloud is also an opportunity to cut costs and decrease reliance on expensive on- premises systems. In addition, the technology can assist firms to boost employee productivity by allowing them to work in multiple locations.

The move from on-site to hosted applications and storage was once a daunting task, but this is no longer the case. There’s often the opportunity to ‘try before you buy’ cloud services, and expert help is available if needed.

Understanding cloud
However, before migrating to cloud it’s important to first understand what exactly the technology is. The last few years have seen a broadening of what ‘cloud’ computing applies to, says Carl Brooks, IT analyst at research and advisory company 451 Research. He explains: “A cloud service has to be automated, on-demand, self-service and available programmatically and over a network.”

Cloud first emerged on a large scale around 2007 as Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), pioneered by firms such as Amazon. Many companies now also buy Platform as a Service (PaaS) – allowing them to implement applications to a managed operating system or hardware framework. Meanwhile, Software as a Service (SaaS) enables companies to use software

on demand, managed by a cloud provider. Because large enterprises such as Microsoft already offer cloud widely many organisations are using the technology without knowing it. For example, a number of firms have already implemented project management app Trello, or Skype instant messenger.Once companies are familiar with the technology it is a good idea to identify the reasons for migrating to cloud – such as increased agility. Then they can see how this fits with the business’ strategy. “Before migrating companies should first assess their business needs and existing IT infrastructure,” advises Nicholas Mobbs, managing partner at PWC customer technology.

After creating a relevant cloud migration strategy it is worth calculating whether it will be cost-effective, adds Mobbs. “While start-ups will more likely benefit from cloud services without the need to invest in an internal data centre, it may not be sensible for larger organisations who have their own in-house systems.”

Brooks points out large enterprises can be better positioned to take advantage of services such as those offered by Amazon and use these to build their own clouds. “This is because they have the IT resources to devote to transformation,” he says.

Staging migration
However, after identifying a need for cloud it is not necessary to move every application over at once. In many cases, according to Lee Newcombe, senior manager in KPMG’s cyber security practice, a staged migration can be managed better as apps reach end of life. One of the drivers to move to cloud is a technology refresh and this can be done when legacy systems need upgrading. He says: “When legacy apps come to end of life why keep them in your own data centre when someone else can do it?” With this in mind, applications can be moved to cloud one at a time to try out their suitability.

Companies that don’t already run any cloud applications can make a solid start by moving to Microsoft’s productivity offering Office 365, says Richard Higgs, CEO of cloud hosting provider Brightsolid. “One of the biggest benefits is the competitive edge it offers to organisations by providing little or no downtime compared to traditional on- premises systems.”

The complex and wide-reaching internet of things (IoT) is another area that can benefit from a move to cloud, according to Patrick McFadin, chief evangelist for Apache Cassandra (an open source data management system) at software company DataStax. “It’s new to companies and scary, as you don’t know how much you are going to do; that’s perfect for cloud-type applications.”

However, it is important to keep in mind that not all applications are suited to cloud. For example, those that are traditional enterprise, monolithic, or rely on a particular stack of hardware will need to stay where they are, says Brooks. Government and mission-critical apps need cloud on their own terms, he points out, adding that specialised providers can do the experience “in a different way” to firms such as Amazon. “If you do operate in a regulated environment you should go with a hosted provider who can split the difference.”

These decisions do not have to be made alone. If a company doesn’t want to implement cloud themselves a number of firms offer expert help and consultancy. However, industry commentators are split as to whether this is needed for organisations who have their own internal IT departments.

On the one hand, firms often lack expertise and don’t know what’s possible with cloud models, says Brooks. “This is where specialist providers can help. Some of them deal with Amazon Web Services (AWS) and they can help you move your stuff.”

On the other hand, rather than employing an expert McFadin advises working internally to “try and get ownership” of cloud technology. “Pick a project – you need a goal – and outline the objectives to meet it.” Larger enterprises are more likely to have the capital and expertise to utilise services from external providers and build their own clouds; credit: iStock/4X-image

Avoiding pitfalls
Cloud offers many benefits, but the pitfalls should also be taken into account. For example, software costs can rise quickly if the company hasn’t got the necessary infrastructure to scale, or cope with cloud technology, says Mobbs.

In addition, organising cloud migration in the first place can be difficult, says Steven Mills, digital marketing manager at telecommunications service provider PMC Telecom: “If you’ve been in business for a few years there’s a lot to go over.”

On top of this it is important to format data properly, he says: “If firms have historic sales data and spreadsheets and are moving over to a system in the cloud for insights you can’t just stick it straight in as you’ll have 12 columns of information formatted in a particular way.”

Another pitfall is slow internet connections, experts agree. With an industry built on ADSL the UK is “the worst”, says Mills. This is especially bad in areas such as industrial estates. “If a company on an industrial estate wants to move to cloud – even just for emails and office software – they possibly wouldn’t be able to run the business; upload speeds are not fast enough. Someone then has to put in another line,” he warns.

It is therefore important to balance heavy- duty data entry and access needs with local internet availability, says Craig Such, MD at Microsoft gold partner Azzure IT. “There is no point moving sales order entry out to the Web if it causes delays for the users.”

Newcombe says latency can cause issues: “If you have lots of apps in a single rack in the data centre and move to different countries there could be problems. That’s about understanding the legacy environment – and lots of people have complex legacy environments. What you don’t want to do is ‘lift and shift’, as that won’t address issues.”

Security is something that must also be considered. When using cloud security risks will still rest with the business and certain sectors have compliance obligations. For example, says Newcombe, health data has to remain within the UK, so companies involved in the sector should be aware that lots of clouds are still based in Dublin, Amsterdam, and the US.

However, in response to this need overseas cloud providers are starting to build data centres in the UK. The other option is to consider a sovereign provider based in the UK such as Skyscape Cloud Services, he advises. Even with the best of intentions cloud is still a work in progress in terms of understanding, says Newcombe. “It’s about strategy. You have to look at service integration and app management to tie it together.” He also recommends applying identity management to allow the single use of all cloud services.

Newcombe adds that some companies will benefit from cloud service brokers – where a firm pays an organisation for a defined business service and leaves it up to them to design how this is delivered. “They use lots of cloud providers and tie it all together,” he explains.

Weighing up providers
Choosing a provider can be a minefield for first time cloud users. Companies should consider where data is hosted, as well as the customer support services on offer, and find out if there’s a guarantee of availability. Each vendor has something different to offer and cloud is an increasingly vertical market, says Laurent Lachal, cloud computing research lead at Ovum. For example, Salesforce recently made health and financial service clouds available.

Offering enhanced developer tools and scalability Amazon Web Services is “fantastic” says Mills, whose company is a user of the service. He explains: “We needed a content delivery network for our site. They pushed our content to cloud and now 70 per cent of the data is hosted on Amazon’s servers. We are looking to up that to 90 per cent.”

However, those choosing Amazon can also fall foul of getting stuck in a proprietary set- up. “You get vendor lock-in,” says McFadin. “I hear this from companies all the time. This is because Amazon has very specific service offerings for messaging, for example.” He believes software giant Google is “way better” at running infrastructure than Amazon. “It also offers the best performance and price.”

This is bolstered by the fact that Google ‘owns’ the operating system Android, which provides a substantial mobile platform. It also gives the firm the ability to offer PaaS for mobile developers. However, Google is still behind Amazon in terms of breadth of offering.

Operating in multiple regions via 18 data centres and with an attractive developer proposition, Microsoft is also a strong contender in cloud. However, McFadin concedes: “Some of its networking stack isn’t where it needs to be – Amazon is ahead of them because of this – and it doesn’t have as many services to offer.”

If companies are still undecided on who to use, another option is to adopt several clouds from different service providers. “Most firms that are starting to use wholesale cloud should consider using two or three providers and use the cost base as a decision point,” McFadin says. “You can move to Google for power; or if you have investment in what Microsoft offers then Azure is perfect.”

Once they’ve chosen who to use organisations often expect the move to cloud will involve different working styles for employees. However, because cloud applications offer the same capabilities, just externally hosted, it doesn’t see a great degree of change for most end users, says Newcombe.

However, this is not true in all cases: for some departments the transformation will be huge. He cites the example of procurement. “They are used to going out to market, but now they are buying services off the shelf. Service management teams also might have different activities to consider. If you move from a data centre to SaaS they might have to look at things like user limit.”

In the end it all comes down to education and training. “If you are using something like Dropbox make sure employees understand regulation in your industry,” warns Newcombe. “Also there is the question of shadow IT. Make sure staff aren’t using their own services and sending data everywhere.”

Cloud dos

  • Instead of directly comparing costs, look at the total cost of ownership (TCO). It is often cheaper to buy cloud over the long run.
  • Training employees is essential for a productive workforce that is able to use cloud efficiently and securely.
  • Monitor your spending. Software costs can rise quickly if you don’t have the necessary infrastructure to scale, or cope with cloud.
  • Have a clear strategy and do your research. Look at the market leaders and strong brands as the benchmark you’re after.

Cloud don’ts

  • Don’t move to cloud before checking your connection. Ensure your internet connection can deal with cloud and if it can’t, be prepared to put in another line.
  • Don’t forget security. You must back up and protect your data; security risks will still rest with the business and certain sectors will have compliance obligations.
  • Don’t get locked in. Vendor lock-in is a pitfall. Study contracts carefully and consider using more than one company for your cloud services.
  • Don’t move for the sake of it. Not all applications or companies will benefit from cloud, so make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.

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