4 keys to evaluating cloud vendors

Cloud computing calls for caution, and CIOs must know how to evaluate potential providers. Be ready to answer their questions.

Agencies moving information technology operations to the cloud have a lot of questions, and providers can – and should – be ready to answer them, said Laef Olson, chief information officer of RightNow Technologies Inc.

Olson and other RightNow leaders were among the speakers at a conference called “Use Secure Cloud Today to Optimize Customer Experiences,” held April 13 in Washington, D.C. The Digital Government Institute hosted the conference, which also featured speakers from the Defense Information Systems Agency and other agencies.

Olson said agency CIOs have three main responsibilities: deliver services, improve efficiencies and manage risk. But from the perspective of end users, one of those responsibilities rises above the others. “You can do the efficiency thing, you can do the risk management thing, but if you’re not delivering, you’ll have a pretty short tenure,” he said.

When evaluating vendors, Olson advised agencies to look for the following four key aspects:

  • Risk management is built in.
  • The cloud has operational capabilities.
  • The company has an investment focus on continually improving risk management.
  • The company’s disaster recovery plan is proven to be effective.

On the last point, Olson said, agency officials should go beyond questions about the company’s plan and also ask for examples of successful uses of it. “You want to go beyond ‘do you have disaster recovery?’" he said. "You want to find out if it works.”

Greg Gianforte, who founded the company in 1998 and remains its chief executive officer, said everything written to RightNow gets copied to four servers, so that if anything happens with the primary server running the client’s applications, another can take over immediately. The data also resides at two other locations for additional backup.

Furthermore, a good provider will be as transparent as possible because greater transparency compels better performance. “I tell my team that if you’re going to be naked, you’ve got to be buff,” Olson said.

RightNow’s approach has won praise from Gartner, which includes the company in the leaders quadrant of its 2010 “Magic Quadrant” report for customer service contact centers, which was one of RightNow’s early markets. Pegasystems, Microsoft, Salesforce.com and Oracle are its neighbors in the quadrant, while other providers are relegated to challengers and niche players.

The government market has been part of RightNow’s strategy for years, and since winning the National Security Agency as its first federal customer, that segment has grown to include 170 federal organizations and 31 state government agencies. The company projects 20 percent overall growth this year, but the government side of the business is expected to expand by more than that, officials said.

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