In a previous post I discussed how an excellent IT enterprise is available 99.999% of the time – also called “5 nines.” In that piece I wrote about how an organization can incorporate cloud technologies while trying to achieve this ideal level of service. While this is certainly an admirable goal, I would be misleading you if I was implying that the cloud is the absolute most robust, stable, and reliable platform out there. Major cloud providers such as Amazon, Microsoft, and Google have all made headlines with unplanned downtime on their cloud platforms, and the outages are not limited to these major players. It is safe to say that every cloud provider has experienced some degree of outage. As you’re evaluating and selecting your cloud partner(s) for your enterprise, it will be critical that you are also setting the proper expectations with the business.
First and foremost, you need to be very up-front with all decision makers involved: the cloud is not perfect. You, as the IT owner, need to broadcast this loud and clear and set the expectation early that the cloud will not solve all of your problems. As discussed in earlier posts, leveraging the cloud does not absolve IT of ownership and responsibility, nor does it fix the root cause of what could be of larger, systemic issues. Additionally, each cloud provider has a set service level agreement (SLA), and the business needs to be aware that the cloud is not a 100%-uptime platform. Just like any other IT systems, there are inherently going to be maintenance windows, and they can generally be coordinated and integrated into ongoing IT schedules, but it’s important to be clear that there will be unplanned downtime with a cloud solution. If you have an application or system with incredibly high uptime requirements, research and evaluate your options. It may be best to leave it on-premise.
Secondly, it’s important to understand the boundaries of customization that are available with cloud solutions and ensure the business is aware of these limitations. Heavy customization of cloud solutions, while not impossible, is not the norm at this point in time. Cloud providers are able to offer their services at cost-effective prices because the solutions are repeatable and “templatized” across their multitude of customers. If a cloud provider offered each customer the chance to heavily customize their cloud instance, the economics wouldn’t be feasible. Heavy customization simply isn’t common in the cloud… for now.
The restrictions around customization also hold true for integration between on-premise systems and cloud solutions. For example, in an organization that currently has an on-premise Customer Relationship Management system that is heavily integrated with their on-premise email platform, continuing to support the close relationship between these two systems would likely prove difficult if the business tries to transition to a hybrid model and move their email to a cloud provider such as Office365. A cloud-based mail platform simply doesn’t offer the type of system-level administrative access or the network connectivity typically required to facilitate a more complex application integration relationship.
The good news is that things are improving. As cloud services have continued to mature, they have made strides in availability and have become more flexible. Increasingly, application programming interfaces (APIs) are available to facilitate cross-platform interactions in ways that previously required deep application administrative access. Where customization or integration of 3rd-party systems may have previously been difficult, there may now be APIs or other forms of integration to deliver cloud-based services that can be in ways similar to their on-premise counterparts. It is evolving, and varies by cloud provider.
To summarize, if your business is presently run with an on-premise IT infrastructure, there will inherently be some growing pains during a transition to cloud-based technologies. The economies of scale maintained by cloud providers are passed on to their customers (generally) in the form of affordable services. In many cases, the opportunity and value presented by the cloud will be compelling enough to work through these growing pains and limitations, even if that involves a tolerance for a limited amount of unplanned downtime. With that said, it’s important to have a conversation with the business, focusing on what is required of IT and a potential cloud partner, but at the same time, moderating expectations about what cloud solutions can feasibly and reliably deliver.