Businesses everywhere are migrating their data operations to the cloud. But what does this really mean? Is it the right choice for your business? If it is, how do you go about it? This guide will help you to make an informed decision and avoid expensive mistakes.

Every business’s needs are different, and “the cloud” isn’t just one thing. You have to review your situation and weigh the benefits and costs. Migrating isn’t the solution for everyone. Some businesses should migrate just some of their services, keeping the rest on-premises.

If you do choose to migrate, you need to understand all the options and develop a plan. A good roadmap will let you decide what services you need and how to make the transition. It will take costs and risks into account. Without a plan, your odds of success are tiny.

What is
the Cloud?

Defining cloud computing in simple terms.

Types of
Cloud Services

There are three broad categories of cloud services. Which one is appropriate depends on how much detail and control you need.

Payment
Models

You pay for just the amount of cloud services that you need, but what exactly does that mean?

Pros and
Cons

When you look into a cloud service, you’ll find it has advantages and disadvantages compared to using dedicated equipment. You need to weigh each of them to decide whether a migration plan is workable.

Cloud
Options

There’s no such thing as “the cloud.” Every provider has different strengths and weaknesses. A good reputation and a strong service record are essential to success.

FAQs

Answers to common cloud migration questions.

What is the Cloud?

The simplest definition of the cloud is “someone else’s computer.” More precisely, it’s remote services which aren’t tied to any specific computer. It includes free services like Gmail and Dropbox. To get business-quality services, you usually have to pay.

Buying cloud services is like paying for a utility, such as heating oil or electricity. Rather than buying or leasing a computer, you pay for the amount of service that you use. How it’s measured depends on the plan that you choose.

Types of Cloud Services

There are three broad categories of 'as a service' cloud services. Which one is appropriate depends on how much detailed control you need.

Platform as a service (PaaS) lets you run applications on a vendor-supported platform. Usually you can install third-party applications or hire a developer to write your own. Going this way requires less IT expertise than IaaS while giving you control over the software.

Software as a service (SaaS) gives you access to applications which the vendor provides and supports. All you need to do is manage accounts and run the software. The disadvantage is that you’re limited to the vendor’s applications.

Platform as a service (PaaS) lets you run applications on a vendor-supported platform. Usually you can install third-party applications or hire a developer to write your own. Going this way requires less IT expertise than IaaS while giving you control over the software.

Payment Models

You pay for just the amount of cloud service that you use, but what exactly does that mean? Many payment models exist, and you need to understand how your charges are calculated. Otherwise, you may get a serious surprise in your bill. These are some of the most common ways of calculating charges:

Free service. Vendors may offer a limited service for free, hoping that you’ll upgrade to the paid version when you find it’s not enough.

Fixed monthly rate. You pay the same amount every month, regardless of how much you use the resource. The price may depend on the number of registered users. This works best when you make constant, heavy use of the resource.

Per transaction. This approach goes with back-end services like databases. For each request you make, you pay a specified amount.

By resources consumed. The amount you pay depends on how much of some resource you use. The basis could be storage space, computer memory, processing time, or a combination of factors.

Pros and Cons

When you look into a cloud service, you’ll find it has advantages and disadvantages compared to using dedicated equipment. You need to weigh each of them to decide whether a migration plan is workable.

Advantages

  • No hardware maintenance is required for cloud servers. The hosting company handles it all.
  • Cloud services are scalable. If your requirements increase, you just increase your service level or pay for more metered resources.
  • The cloud is accessible from anywhere, not just in the office.
  • Cloud services are backed up and aren’t tied to specific hardware, making them disaster-resistant.
  • A reliable cloud service has very little downtime, since it has redundant equipment.
  • The best cloud providers have excellent physical security, keeping guard against intruders as well as being well-protected against disasters.
  • At its best, data security is very good, with constant updating of protective measures, encryption of data, and monitoring.

Disadvantages

  • A reliable, high-bandwidth Internet connection is necessary. If it goes down, all services are out of reach.
  • If very fast response times are needed, a cloud service may not perform as well as a machine on the premises.
  • Data security can be an issue. (Note that this point appears in both the pros and cons.) The most secure system is one where data never leaves the building and is strongly protected against outside access.
  • Because of security concerns, a cloud system may not be compliant with applicable standards, such as HIPAA and PCI. A service which is certified compliant is likely to cost more.

Cloud options

The most common way of getting cloud services is what’s called the public cloud. You share hardware resources with other users, possibly including your competitors. You’re completely isolated from each other; no one else can see your data, even if you’re on the same machine.

However, there are some disadvantages to the public cloud. If other people are making heavy use of the servers, the service may slow down. There’s a hypothetical security risk to letting other people run on the same server you’re using. Normally your information is safe, but a security flaw could let a clever user get unauthorized access to other people’s data.

private cloud offers greater security and more consistent performance. You have exclusive use of the servers that you’re running on. The downside is a significant cost premium.

Cost comparison

When comparing the cost of cloud services against dedicated equipment, you’re dealing with a huge number of variables. The range of payment models is vast. Just comparing one cloud service against another is difficult.

Multiple approaches to paying for equipment are available. You can buy hardware outright, lease to buy, or get a conventional lease with no option to buy.

The closest thing to an apples-to-apples comparison is IaaS service on a remote virtual machine against a conventional lease. You’re running a computer on the cloud, with something close to the same software you’d have run in your data center. However, a big attraction of cloud migration is the chance to get away from handling all the details of IT. That’s why SaaS is so popular, but it’s harder to compare running a remote application with running a whole computer.

Let’s say that you find a point of equilibrium. You can, in this scenario, get cloud services for $500 per month or lease servers totaling $500 per month. You still have to take in other factors to get a true cost comparison.

  • Hardware operating and maintenance cost. An on-premises system will consume office space, as well as electricity for running and air conditioning.
  • Software costs. With cloud services, the software costs are included in what you’re billed. Using an on-premises system will require various licenses. In addition, IT staff will have to spend time managing and upgrading the software.
  • Backup and disaster recovery. With a dedicated server, you have to back it up regularly, preferably offsite.
  • Internet costs. You may need to upgrade your Internet service to avoid a bandwidth bottleneck with cloud services.
  • Surge costs. If your cloud usage spikes, your costs could rise dramatically till it gets back to normal.

Other factors come into play when considering owning a server vs. leasing to own and conventional leasing.

When you purchase a server, you are responsible for all maintenance costs. It may fail before the end of its projected life, requiring early replacement. If nothing serious goes wrong, though, it could have resale value at the end of its term.

With a lease, you know what you’re paying, and you just lease new equipment at the end of its term. Leasing to own is more expensive, but it can be advantageous if you plan to get additional years of useful life from the hardware.

Evaluating a cloud provider

There’s no such thing as “the cloud.” Every provider has different strengths and weaknesses. A good reputation and a strong service record are essential to success.

The provider’s service level agreement (SLA) needs to meet your requirements. You should check what industry standards it promises to follow. It should use strong encryption, on all data when in transit and on sensitive data in storage. Compliance with ISO 27001 indicates good security management.

An SLA is valuable only if it has some teeth. Check what it guarantees and what the provider must do if it falls short.

If problems arise, you want to be confident in the provider’s support. Look into how it handles support issues and whether it guarantees a response within a specified time.

The physical location of the servers may be important. If they’re thousands of miles away, that could affect the speed which users see. If they’re in another country, you may need to look into whether storing sensitive data there raises any regulatory issues.

Put together a list of everything you require. Determine which needs are non-negotiable and which are lower priority. With each provider you’re evaluating, find out whether it meets your checklist and what it will cost.

Mistakes to avoid

Certain mistakes can make a migration go seriously wrong, forcing you to backtrack, take longer than expected, and perhaps even go back to your old systems. Be aware of these common errors and avoid them.

  • Migrating without a plan. Planning is absolutely essential. A migration will work only if you know what services you want to move over, how you will deal with the new environment, and what you expect to accomplish.
  • Not evaluating and comparing vendors. If you go with the first vendor that sounds plausible, you may get what you need, but you’ll probably miss out on the best options and pay more than you have to.
  • Choosing software carelessly. Many cloud applications are available for common business purposes. Which one is best for your company? You need to look at several alternatives and compare their strengths. Compatibility with your existing procedures can be an important factor.
  • Mishandling the data migration. A large part of the migration effort will be getting your existing data into a form the new applications can handle. If this step goes wrong, it could stretch into a serious ordeal. Make sure you know everything that needs to move over and what issues could arise in the process.
  • Failing to set up security. Cloud services do many things for you, but the responsibility for setting up accounts, controlling access, and employing secure authentication falls on you and your employees. A data breach from weak security can be very expensive.

FAQs

What's involved in a cloud migration?

Once you’ve chosen your provider and software, you need to move the data and the users over to the new environment. Users need to be trained in the new software. Accounts need to be created for administrators and users. The cloud system needs testing before going live, so there will be as few surprises as possible. Users should familiarize themselves with the test system before working with live data.

The data needs to be moved to the cloud environment. This can be a major task, but providers often have tools available to automate the process. Finally, there comes the point of flipping the switch. If everything was well planned and tested, this will go without problems.

Is my information safe in the cloud?

It is if you make the right choices and implement good security policies. The service needs to provide secure data transfers, encrypt sensitive data, and do everything necessary to protect its servers. No matter how much they do, though, your company bears a major part of the responsibility. It needs to assign users only as much power as they need to do their jobs. It has to enforce a strong password policy. Using two-factor authentication is a good idea.

How do I know how much I'm spending?

Keeping track of your charges is important, especially in the early stages of adoption. The service will provide an administrative dashboard that shows how much you’re spending and how the costs break down. If the costs are much higher than you expected, a different plan may provide equivalent services at a lower cost.

Can I do X in the cloud?

There are cloud applications for just about anything that can be done on an on-premises computer. The only exceptions are specialized hardware interfaces and applications which require a short physical data path. If your requirements don’t include literal hands-on access to the computer, you can almost certainly do it on the cloud.

Final thoughts

Once again: Plan, plan, plan. Know what your requirements are and figure out what cloud services will best meet them. It may turn out that you’re better off with dedicated servers. Every case is different, so don’t start out assuming you should or shouldn’t migrate. You don’t have to migrate everything at once.

If you decide to make the change, describe the migration process in detail, so that you know exactly what will happen. Allow time for user retraining, and do test runs to make sure everything works.

If you follow your plan carefully and allow for time to adjust, you’ll have a successful migration. You’ll enjoy lower costs and fewer maintenance headaches.

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