By Brian Albright, Business Solutions Magazine
VARs and MSPs considering cloud services need to carefully evaluate their partners, customers, and their own capabilities.
Cloud computing has become a more widely accepted approach to storage, computing resources, and application access from large enterprises down to SMBs. VARs and MSPs (managed services providers), likewise, are looking to the cloud for new businesses opportunities and service offerings for their customers.
But are your customers or your applications ready to make the move into the cloud? To make that determination, take a look at your customers’ infrastructure capabilities (number of workstations and servers), the types and variety of applications they are running, and their available bandwidth. From there, a good ROI calculator can help determine which applications and which customers may be a good fit for the cloud.
“A proper ROI tool will allow you to enter in what a client spends on all IT, including support, hardware, and software, and plug in the numbers over a 10-year period,” says Steve Ferman, CEO and president of eTegrity. “Then you can plug in the numbers based on a cloud model (without buying servers or IT support) and see if it makes sense for them to move to the cloud. Nine out of 10 cases will support the move to the cloud with a big cost savings and will include business continuity and data protection.”
Don’t just consider the applications clients may be buying from you; take a look at the entire universe of deployed solutions and how deeply they are integrated. “If companies have significant levels of integration between their internal systems, then trying to move one to a cloud-based platform, while in itself making sense, may cause greater problems as a result of the loss of tight coupling between the different systems,” says Alistair Forbes, general manager of the GFI MAX business unit of GFI Software.
Take a look at your customer’s comfort level with the cloud model, and evaluate the applications involved. Applications that produce an inconsistent amount of data or that need to expand their storage footprint rapidly or unexpectedly are a good fit. Cloud storage is also a good place for applications or data sets that rarely change (like server images or archives).
From there, the conversation can move to the relative merits of using public or private clouds. Private clouds provide greater security and more flexibility for customization, while public clouds generally are easier to use and less expensive. Hybrid cloud solutions provide the best of both worlds, but can be difficult to manage for resellers if they aren’t careful in selecting their vendor partners. Providers should be able to give VARs both public and private cloud capabilities, with the ability for them to transfer data without incurring bandwidth fees. Using multiple providers can complicate billing and make troubleshooting more difficult.
There is an upside, though. “Hybrid clouds are an especially nice opportunity for VARs and MSPs because they have the chance to solve a need that most direct companies probably can’t,” says Megan Wohlford, product manager, cloud storage at Rackspace Hosting. “Not only does a hybrid cloud give more flexibility from a technology perspective, it also creates lots of opportunity for professional services, which many VARs and MSPs hang their hat on.”
Common Cloud Mistakes To Avoid
Although cloud solutions and services have become more common, there are still some obstacles and common mistakes that can trip up a VAR or MSP just entering the market. The vendors interviewed for this story outlined some of the most common.
Will the applications involved work in a virtual environment? Not all apps are good for cloud use or are supported on a 64-bit architecture. Some, like CAD (computer-aided design) solutions, will work in the cloud, but not at an acceptable speed for most clients.
Look for cloud solutions that are based on open code. “Vendors with proprietary code force customers to write applications and solutions that will only work for that company’s cloud,” Wohlford says. “If customers have a need to take that data elsewhere over time, they not only have to find a way to migrate their data, but also have to redesign applications for a new code base.”
Watch out for regulatory hurdles. Some customers and applications have to follow stringent security requirements (like PCI [payment card industry] or HIPAA) that may preclude cloud storage or hosted applications. “It is very important to be careful where and how you store data in the cloud, and not all vendors are equal nor do they take the right precautions in protecting data,” Ferman says. “Some clients require email archiving and compliance on data destruction. All things need to be accounted for when thinking about the cloud.”
Make sure the cloud solution can scale. Very few companies suffer from having too little data, so expect your clients’ storage needs to grow over time. If you haven’t planned ahead, shifting their data to a larger capacity venue could be troublesome and expensive. “The easiest way to avoid this is to talk to a solution engineer when looking for a provider,” Wohlford says. “Specifically ask about things like container limits and rate limits on concurrent connections, and ask if they have suggestions for how to organize customer data. Because they deal in cloud storage every day, they will likely have an answer immediately that will save a lot of time in the long run.”
Ensure your clients have enough bandwidth to support application access and data transfers. Dual Internet connectivity for failover and load balancing may also be necessary. “Not all areas have sufficient Internet connectivity or speeds to support the number of users,” says Ferman. Familiarize yourself with the carriers in your area, and align yourself with good failover products for Internet connectivity and unified threat management (UTM).
Fragmentation can eat up your time and margins. “As companies move to cloud services, there is a high probability that they will come from a range of different service providers, and having to watch several different consoles to make sure the services are operating correctly could introduce more overhead for MSPs and reduce their operational efficiency,” Forbes says.
Look for platforms and toolsets that offer a mechanism to integrate at least the core elements of service management into a single environment. You may still need to use multiple management tools for configuration and ongoing administration.
Economics may work against you. Cloud services in and of themselves are fairly lowmargin propositions. “Simply acting as a reseller of cloud services with no added value will result in declining profitability, so MSPs will have to work out how to offer differentiating value on top of these new and relatively commoditized services,” Forbes says.
Failures Still Happen
Cloud failures still happen, sometimes with very high-profile providers. This summer, Amazon’s Web Services went down for several hours after a cooling fan failed, taking down Pinterest and Quora in the process. A report from the International Working Group on Cloud Computing Resiliency reported that the 13 largest providers recorded more than 500 hours of downtime since 2007, at a cost of nearly $70 million.
Although you can’t completely protect yourself against every power outage or equipment failure, you can pay close attention to your provider’s approach to data recovery. “Perform test restores random and often,” Ferman says. “Most cloud providers offer seven days of snapshot backups. Be up front with your clients if you’re using a third party for your cloud backup. Let them know, and offer them longer retention for a fee, of course. The funny thing is that most will not spend the extra money, but they appreciate the fact that you are providing options. Above all, if you offer a longer backup retention option, make sure it is going to a different data center altogether.”
You can assess the vendor’s performance via historical availability records, although that still doesn’t tell you the entire story. Not all disaster recovery programs are appropriate for all data, either, so make sure the amount of protection (and its cost) match the value of the data at risk. “The larger providers will offer seamless failover between instances of their service, which will help to mitigate the impact of any problems,” Forbes says. “MSPs can also look into external continuity options.”
There is no single offering that will suit all customers, but VARs can offer a range of solutions and help customers make the right choices while offering support. “The MSPs who will succeed and win business from those that are less wellprepared and -informed will be the ones who can demonstrate a thorough grasp of the pros and cons of cloud-based services and who can prolong and enhance their position as a trusted advisor with their customers by giving them guidance as to which cloud services to adopt and when,” Forbes says.