5 critical cloud questions customers need answered

Vendors need to be ready to answer questions about cost, security and applications when their customers look to the cloud computing, writes DLT Solutions CIO Van Ristau.

Cloud computing vendors working with government agencies are seeing a wide range of knowledge among customers and their ability to make informed choices.

This is understandable given the explosion of new services and products that have been brought to market under the cloud banner within the past two years. It is as if people who had only seen, but not actually driven, a Model-T were suddenly asked to select an appropriate vehicle from among the many types and brands available in today’s market.

We, as informed consumers, have an inherent understanding of the process of choosing a minivan vs. an SUV, a pickup truck vs. a panel truck, a sedan vs. a sports car. It is a decision process that traces through needs, wants, economic constraints, and safety trade-offs leading to an optimal choice for a particular set of requirements. The cloud market is new, however, and most buyers do not have the experience necessary to give them confidence in their selection process.

The few agencies that were early adopters have moved up the learning curve from cloud pilot projects to early production deployments, and they generally know what they need. Others...not so much.

And for customers who are used to buying solutions tailored to their unique requirements, it can be disconcerting to learn that the economics of cloud computing favor those who can adapt to what the market offers.

As vendors for these new cloud services, we need to educate and guide our long-term customers and help them to make appropriate choices. Given the rapid evolution of product offerings, investigating and testing cloud services for the "perfect fit" to a specific agency’s needs could turn out to be a permanent quest.

Knowledgeable vendors can help customers achieve a "best fit," however, by helping the customer define his or her most important selection criteria at this point in time.

Vendors who are assisting customers in choosing cloud services should be prepared to answer five questions that are among those most frequently asked by those in the process of developing their cloud strategy.

1. How can I achieve cost savings the most quickly?

If near-term cost savings are the most important consideration, then your customer’s first action should be to review software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications that are available through Apps.gov.

SaaS applications are multitenant -- that is, all cloud customers are using the same code base within a common IT infrastructure. Shifting to a SaaS cloud services model for specific applications almost always results in the most significant savings over a customer’s current in-house IT application. This is because the provider’s development, maintenance and hosting costs are spread over many users.

Initiating service is normally very fast and straightforward. And the number and scope of SaaS products is growing monthly.

2. How can my agency reduce capital expenditures and still have access to current technology?

If capital cost avoidance is a major consideration, an infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) provider may be the solution for the customer who intends to continue to use existing software licenses and internally developed applications. An IaaS provider will set up customers with virtual machines, storage and network services on which they can install their own software.

In general, IaaS providers are focused on providing the infrastructure that customers require, with some options to exceed normal demand for short periods (bursts) when necessary. This cloud model allows customers to turn over all infrastructure procurement, maintenance and technology refresh in return for a monthly payment. Managing the software that runs on a provider’s IaaS platform is not typically offered by the IaaS vendor, however.

3. We have many Web applications that are difficult to maintain. How can we best take advantage of the cloud?

Customers who have a significant number of applications that need to be modernized can achieve significant cost savings by taking advantage of a platform-as-a-service (PaaS) product.

PaaS providers offer very robust multitenant development tools and the option to host the final production applications. Similar to the SaaS model, the PaaS model allows the provider to spread the cost of development and testing software across all customers.

4. How does data security affect my cloud decision?

Several cloud providers have gone through the Federal Information Security Management Act certification and authentication or FedRAMP processes and can offer environments that can be certified for Moderate Impact systems. If customers are interested in exploring how they might use cloud services for High Impact systems, the option is to use an IaaS provider that has previously certified to High Impact (rare) or an internal cloud.

Internal cloud choices range from build-it-yourself solutions to high-performance integrated hardware-software stacks delivered to the customer’s loading dock.

5. My staff is not trained in virtualization and cloud services management. How can we take advantage of cloud computing without these skills?

Ensuring that customers negotiate fair and reasonable service-level agreements with providers and then monitoring and managing the cloud services is critical to achieving both performance and cost-savings objectives.

Customers should consider some level of professional services support, at least initially, as they extend the boundaries of their information technology environment to include cloud services.

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