Considering data migration to the cloud

Businesses must evaluate their comfort level, flexibility, redundancy and security requirements when comparing in-house vs. cloud solutions. This contribution appears in the April issue of EPM with the headline "To cloud or not to cloud".
By Zac Paulson | March 08, 2016

Technology can be an expensive, unwanted hassle in the business world—very necessary, but causing so much frustration that we often chalk it up to the expense category. When evaluating information technology (IT), the infrastructure and software are where most of the dollars are sunk. Migrating to the cloud shifts IT solutions from capital expenditures to operating costs. A business has to consider the up-front cost of the equipment, its business needs, as well as the time and cost involved to maintain and upgrade hardware. The cloud option provides a virtual infrastructure with a complex set of capabilities that allows applications and data management without the massive burden of physical servers and applications. Moving to the cloud reduces the typical IT complexity and gives a business a competitive edge. Individual employees also have the freedom and flexibility to work from anywhere in the world.

We need our technology to be convenient and we want the best protection and security. Cloud providers such as Microsoft, Google and Amazon, all provide responsive infrastructures, massive scalability and support resources. Cloud services are very flexible since they are hosted on servers that feel and scale as one. The entire data center may be leveraged, or you can leverage just one single service on a server in the cloud using virtual server technologies and clustering. The technologies used in your own environment add layers of complexity, cost and high level support. When used in the cloud environment, they are simple and straightforward with a low-cost monthly payment, and generally much easier to support than in-house systems.

How do you know your data is secure? Actually, there are several levels of security to consider. First, physical security.  To evaluate this, let’s imagine your office or plant and think where your servers and computers are, and what stands between them and the outside world. Are they in a separate locked room? Are they in a locked cabinet in a locked room? Are the server chassis themselves locked, in the locked cabinet, in the locked room? Are the persons who can access all those locks documented and cleared for accessing all that secure data? You get the point. Most companies have a server in a storeroom, maybe in a cabinet, and often not locked. In addition, the people that go in and out, maybe even accessing the server hardware, are not cleared or designated in any special way.

The cloud providers typically take security very seriously. Workers in a data center go through extensive background checks and are given permission to access things only when needed, and only for limited time periods. Additional security measures include that locked server, locked cabinet, retina scanners and armed guards at the facility doors. There are audits and logs and tools that run regular tasks automatically, rather than by human beings. Last, the data stored in the cloud is encrypted and the only person with the key is the customer. If hackers succeeded in getting into the server, they wouldn’t be able to read the data without the proper decryption code, which is not available without that key.

Avoiding data loss from natural disasters or accidental deletions is another consideration. Even with the most robust backups, each situation will cost money and time for recovery. The common options offered by cloud providers include archiving, user- and admin-level recycle bins and tombstoning where data is preserved for 90 days at no cost unless retrieved. Some providers, such as Microsoft, offer a geo-redundancy option where copies of your data are spread through different data centers should a natural disaster occur.

Perhaps one of the biggest elements to consider when evaluating a cloud option is cost. As technology seemingly gets less expensive over time, the cloud can provide a very reasonable substitute for physical hardware. Basically, you’re renting a portion of a hard drive to store your data. Cloud providers charge for services as needed, thus you pay only for what you use. In contrast, if you opt for new physical hardware, you need to plan for the future, perhaps doubling the equipment to run one as backup to minimize downtime should the network crash. There’s also the possibility of over-buying, with the capital expense and a depreciating piece of equipment. With the cloud, you only pay for the resources needed today, with the freedom and flexibility to change the resources later. The cloud has a low up-front cost, becoming an operating expenditure like phone service that is relatively small and predictable.

Transition Path
Businesses typically follow a common path to the cloud, migrating common services such as the email server, file server, chat and video conferencing, Web and database servers, and even some application servers. We see most of our clients start with email because the migration process is very seamless, and end users notice the least disruption. The migrations are quick and the payout is great for small businesses. Running email internally can heavily tax a system, so offloading email is the first step to increasing the life of onsite server equipment.

Next, most businesses will move the file server to either a file server in the cloud, or a file sharing system, like Microsoft SharePoint. The reason this is a good next move is that files are often needed by many in the organization who are not at the main office. Having the data in the cloud allows anyone in the company with the correct permissions to access that data via a Web connection—perfect for people on the go or multiple office locations.

Other common cloud solutions include popular chat and video, such as Microsoft Skype for Business, allowing a small business to accomplish enterprise level communications without the heavy hardware and software costs that used to be required.

Web and database servers are natural candidates for the cloud too, avoiding the heavy security and maintenance required for on-premises solutions. Additionally, the cloud allows for “burst ability” for capacity or speed. Cloud servers can literally be cranked up for seasonal or daily peak business loads.
Finally, we see businesses use the cloud for their physical applications and business software that don’t have cloud versions, tapping into the cloud’s anywhere access and scalability A good rule of thumb is, if it runs on modern hardware, it will likely work just fine in the cloud, if implemented by a skilled technical engineer.

Using the cloud really allows you to take your business to the next level and keeps you connected with the world. If you have multiple business locations, you can chat, share your desktop, video conference, and share data to solve issues in a matter of minutes as opposed to hours or days. You also save time to deployment and overall support costs, not to mention that reliability generally hits five nines.

Author: Zac Paulson