Committing to Overhead: Proceed With Caution.

Back when SaaS was making its debut in the enterprise, I was a mid-level IT manager with a boss that was smart. It was a great experience working for him overall, and if not for external pressures, I might still be working on his team.

One of the SaaS conversations we had was pretty relevant to today’s rush to public cloud. He looked around the room and asked “Why are we getting rid of our mainframes?” There was the standard joking about old dogs and new tricks, and then the more serious cost analysis. Finally he said “No, we’re getting rid of our mainframes because a couple of decades ago, someone in my position said ‘we’ll sign these contracts that create overhead for ever, and future IT managers will have to deal with it. We won’t consider what happens when the market turns and the overhead is fixed even though the organization is making less, we won’t consider that this overhead will cost millions over the years. We’ll take the route we like, and everyone moving forward will have to deal with it.” We all pondered, it was a pretty cynical way to look at a process that chose the only viable solution back in the day, but it had a kernel of truth in it. He waited a bit, then finished.

“And that’s why we will not be using SaaS unless we have an exit strategy that covers all of the bases. We will not sign future IT managers on to overhead that we cannot determine is onerous or not. If we have a way to get our data into the system, a way to get our data out of the system, and proof that it is as secure as it is on our premises, then we will utilize SaaS to the maximum.”

That was good reasoning then, it’s good reasoning now. Though cloud is much more forgiving in terms of getting your data in and out, his point about committing the future to a fixed overhead holds today. When you own the systems, delaying upgrades or consolidating servers is an option. Dropping support to save money is an option. There are all sorts of fiscal flexibility issues that cloud takes away from management when times get tough.

Typical mainframe – the early years.

Compliments of ComputerScienceLab.Com

That’s not to say “public cloud is a bad thing”, it is to say that the needs of an enterprise are not the same as those of a start-up or small business. There are even valid reasons that international corporations have chosen not to take email to the cloud, though cloud based email is appealing to an organization that would need servers in multiple datacenters and administrators with extreme email chops. As with everything, consider the options and do what’s best for your organization. The buzz words are not why we all have jobs, solving problems for business is.

Even if you feel about cloud as my boss did about SaaS, you still have cloud opportunities. Replication is a good one if the replication tool handles encryption and compression. Testing is a no-brainer if your test data is scrubbed first. And capacity planning is a big one. If you deploy a pilot to the cloud and get a reasonable estimation of what kind of throughput, server utilization, etc. the application will require, then you can move it in-house and right-size the environment based upon projections from the pilot. It won’t be perfect, but it’s better than many of the capacity planning systems out there today, particularly the “let’s turn it on, and then worry about capacity” model some of you are using.

And for some organizations, tasks like email really can be shipped to the cloud (or a SaaS provider that claims to be a cloud), it just depends upon the legal and accountability standards your organization must or has chosen to implement. Though looking ahead, make a plan for getting out. It’s not about distrusting your provider, it is about risk management. Even if you love your provider today, they’re one purchase or upper management change away from being the biggest PITA you have to deal with every day.

The best system is if you’re actually doing cloud, replicate your VMs back to HQ on a regular basis. This process is easy and gives you a fall-back. You don’t have to “get your data out of the cloud”, it will already be out if you need it.

And like I’ve said elsewhere, for many of the compliance/security concerns, extend your existing infrastructure to the cloud where you can. No sense implementing two separate access control systems when you really only need one, only geographic location separates them.

Just some things to keep in mind when moving. Sure it’s cheaper this month, and maybe even cheaper in the long haul (the vote is still very much out on that one), but it will cost you some financial flexibility, fix more of your budget into immobility. If that trade-off is good for you, then just make sure you have an exit plan, because sooner or later, keeping a cloud service will no longer be your first choice, or you’ll have moved on and it will be someone else’s.

Published Feb 23, 2012
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