For some applications and some types of organisation, a move to cloud makes complete business sense. If there’s a good SaaS service available, such as Microsoft Office 365, it will provide everything you need, be easy to use and the costs will be similar or lower than in-house provision. Today’s start-up businesses can and should run all their IT in the cloud.
However, most large and medium-sized organisations are not starting from scratch, or using a small number of relatively straightforward applications. They have invested time and money in a range of complex and interlinked applications that are critical for their business to function. The majority of these applications will have been tailored to specific needs, and there will be many terabytes of supporting data. Each organisation needs to consider carefully whether it is cost-effective – or even possible – to transfer all these applications to a cloud service.
In my view, cloud is beneficial in many situations, but it doesn’t make sense in every case. Cloud applications are designed around a number of assumptions which may not apply to some organisations and how they work. As a result, a move to cloud is not just an IT transformation – it requires a refocusing of the business, new skills and new ways of working. Organisations also need to understand that there is a higher degree of lock-in to a cloud provider than to an IT vendor, and moving services between providers is not yet straightforward, as their services are not directly comparable. As a result, I believe that for the next five to ten years the future will be hybrid.
By looking closely at the different cloud options available, the reality of a hybrid future becomes clear. The first step should be to look for an appropriate SaaS service at the right cost which the organisation can simply consume, while monitoring it to ensure that the agreed service is delivered.
This should provide:
- An application that can be configured (if required) and into which data can be imported to provide comparable or better functionality to existing applications at a suitable price, paid on a metered basis, ideally per user/per month.
- A supporting infrastructure with an appropriate, fit for purpose SLA that meets business and operational requirements
- The ability to easily and cost effectively access, import and export data to other applications for analysis and business reporting.
Using SaaS is like turning on the tap to obtain water, rather than going to a well to collect water which then has to be transported, purified etc. before consumption. Good SaaS provides what you need when you need it, and you’re billed for what you use.
Cloud is also cost-effective for non-live environments where you pay as you use. This includes disaster recovery (DR), where all servers can be held in a suspended state without incurring charges until DR is invoked, and test and development environments, where you only pay when your code runs. All you need to provide is management. It is important to be aware that different cloud providers’ PaaS services have different APIs, so there is some element of provider lock-in.
Finding appropriate SaaS solutions for niche applications and those which need to be customised to align with business processes is more difficult. Many application providers are developing their own SaaS strategy, but these typically only support the latest version of software, and many cannot accept customised applications or third-party add-ons. This can be a particular problem for local authorities and the NHS, who use highly customised applications. We’ve investigated many apparent SaaS offers for our customers and found that in many cases the vendor will simply park and maintain a dedicated version of the user’s software on a public cloud service while charging a premium price.
If SaaS is not available, the next best option is PaaS, whereby you install your application on top of a managed database service. This will require your application to be using an up to date, widely supported database such as Oracle, SQL Server or MySQL. PaaS services providing 15 year old Informix or ProgressDB environments are rather harder to find.
As a final option you could opt to host the existing application on IaaS, which means moving the application, as-is or with minor enhancements, to operate from a cloud provider’s infrastructure. The only responsibilities you retain in-house are licences and support from the application provider. However, there are two provisos.
First, each provider has different design rules. Working through their menu of choices requires a thorough understanding of your environment, such as how many fixed and mobile IP addresses are needed, whose DNS service will be used, how much data will go in and out of the cloud etc. It’s like choosing separate hub, spokes and rim for a bicycle wheel rather than buying a complete wheel.
Many organisations do not specify their IT to this level of detail, as they tend to buy infrastructure and use all the capacity available, but in a metered cloud environment a service has be specified extremely tightly to minimise costs. For example, reserved instances are cheaper but have a one to three year lock-in. Spot instances are similar and can be shut down with no notice, so are not suitable for business critical services.
Second, in IaaS the cloud provider only provides hosting, including host and hypervisor patching and proactive infrastructure security monitoring. Any other patching, plus resilience, back-up, security and application support and maintenance inside the instance, has to be provided in-house or by third parties. Any scaling up or down has to be done using the cloud provider’s tools, and this quickly becomes complex when most organisations have on average 40 applications. So managing IaaS is effectively a full-time job.
This complexity should not deter an organisation determined to move to cloud. However, it is important to go in with your eyes open, or to find an expert to go in with you. Alternatively you could choose a managed IaaS service, where a provider handles everything for you and charges for an agreed number of instances per month. Managed IaaS effectively offers your legacy application back to you as SaaS.
A third option is to configure your IT as a private cloud. You can then continue to run it in-house with everything in place to move it to SaaS when a suitable solution becomes available.
After looking at all these options, most organisations will find themselves planning a hybrid future. Some applications can and should be moved to cloud immediately, but others will take much more time and resources, and there are some that simply cannot be moved in the short or medium term: some dependencies will simply require too much work to eliminate. When the choice is between paying say several thousand pounds annually to host an application as it is, or ten times that cost to redevelop it using an open API for cloud PaaS, the balance of benefit versus reward is clear.
Richard Blanford is the founder of Fordway managed cloud solutions.