UPDATED 22:51 EDT / JULY 07 2017


Moving to the cloud is way harder than it looks. Here’s how five pioneers did it

When Salesforce.com Inc. sent Domtar Corp.’s Personal Care Division, a manufacturer of absorbent hygiene products, a request to upgrade software drivers that the customer relationship management supplier was using for connectivity, the process seemed like a simple one. But upon upgrading, Domtar suddenly found that it was no longer able to transfer data from Salesforce to its data warehouse.

“All of our jobs failed,” remembers Alisha Witty, Domtar’s chief data architect. “It was a deeply embedded problem that took a few weeks for us to figure out.”

Fortunately, the problem affected only Domtar’s test environment, so production didn’t suffer. But the incident is an example of how, far from automatically simplifying information technology setups, using cloud services introduces new complexity. Domtar’s overall cloud experience has been positive, Witty said, but the move required attending to a lot of details.

That’s not something companies hear from cloud service providers, which like to characterize cloud migration as the information technology equivalent of falling off a log. But people who have been through the process say those payoffs only come with careful planning, clear goal-setting and attention to detail in everything from negotiating contracts to designating internal support contacts.

The good news is that all of the cloud adopters said they’d do it again, and all plan to move additional workloads to the cloud in the future. But despite the assumption of many that a main benefit of moving to the cloud is simplifying their IT setup, that is far from the case when all is said and done.

“The cloud has proven to be a viable alternative for nearly every use case, but the promise of simplicity is overrated,” said Jeff Kaplan, managing director of THINKstrategies Inc., a consulting firm that specializes in on-demand computing services.

Indeed, there’s ample evidence that companies are buying into the type a bit too much, then finding they have to backtrack. A recent survey by market researcher International Data Group, which was sponsored by IT services provider Datalink Corp., found that nearly 40 percent of organizations that have moved workloads to the public cloud later shifted some workload back on-premises. “It isn’t plug-and-play,” Kaplan said. “Cloud can require considerable data integration skill and ongoing management.”

The cost-saving myth

What first catches the attention of many organizations about cloud computing is the promise of lower costs. Pay-as-you-go pricing enables them to precisely match workloads to costs and avoid large capital outlays. But cloud adopters we spoke to agreed that cost-saving is actually one of the least compelling benefits of public cloud.

“It can be less costly to be in the cloud, but you have to manage your costs properly,” said Eugene Taube, chief information officer at PTC Inc., a developer of computer-aided design software. PTC is in the process of migrating more than 1,000 servers to Amazon Web Services Inc. Although short-term cost savings in areas such as real estate and depreciation are appealing, “in the longer run, cloud can be more costly,” Taube said.

His opinion is supported by a recent Forrester Research study underwritten by CloudHealth Technologies Inc. Fewer than half of the companies surveyed described their recent public cloud migration as a success. The survey also found that fewer than 40 percent of companies have met or exceeded their targeted cost savings from migrating to the cloud.

Realizing promised savings requires changes in IT processes. For example, companies need to shut down virtual machines when not using them to avoid wasted usage charges, a practice that isn’t an issue with on-premises equipment. They also need to take a greenfield approach to consolidating existing workloads and avoid simply “lifting and shifting” what they already have. That’s how PrimeSource Building Products Inc. will downsize 160 VMs to about 30 when it completes a migration from an on-premises IBM DB2 environment to the SAP SE Hana Enterprise Cloud.

“We looked at our costs in terms of power, licensing, administration and people management and we think we’re going to see about a 65 percent savings,” said PrimeSource CIO Tony Caesar. The savings are so substantial that the company elected to write off some investments it has made in equipment purchases over the last few years in order to accelerate the move to the cloud.

Those investments in existing equipment need to be taken into account, though, since shifting workloads off a brand-new server effectively writes off the value of that hardware. Deciding what workloads to move to the cloud “are based on where we’re at in the life of the server and our infrastructure,” said Leslie Cothren, IT director at North Carolina-based Universal Mental Health Services Inc. For example, his company is sticking with a relatively new on-premises Microsoft Exchange server for email until an upgrade decision needs to be made.

UMHS has moved about 60 percent of its infrastructure to the cloud and recently completed a wholesale replacement of hardware firewalls at branch offices around the state with a software-defined service from Cato Networks Inc. Instead of dispatching technicians to configure devices, IT administrators can now provision a new firewall in five minutes from the central office. They also have full visibility into network activity from a single location. “Management is exceeding our expectations,” Cothren said. “Just taking the load off my plate and giving it to someone else has reduced headaches.”

Fewer headaches

Stress reduction is just one of several benefits of the cloud that go beyond basic cost savings. Another is business flexibility. “We can now easily introduce new technology or applications by creating a proof of concept in a matter of days,” said Dewald Botha, chief technology officer at Tristar Medical Group. “In the past it would have taken weeks to plan, deploy and test these types of platforms as a service, which directly translates into time and money saved.”

Cloud infrastructure can also reduce or eliminate the considerable expense involved in building backup infrastructure for disaster recovery purposes. That’s one upside that PrimeSource  CIO Tony Caesar likes a lot.

When Caesar arrived at the company about a year ago, he found that no disaster recovery plan was in place for PrimeSource’s principal data center, which is in the path of aircraft landing at nearby DFW International Airport. “If something happened, it could have taken out all of our 37 distribution centers through the country,” Caesar said.

By moving to HANA Managed Services on the Virtustream’s IaaS platform, PrimeSource can get DR without any capital outlays. The company also gains the additional processor capacity needed to move about half of its batch workload to real-time processing for quicker turnaround.

Cloud infrastructure also buys the company the flexibility it needs to scale up and down at will. “You get the synergies and economies of scale where providers can build out servers and appliances because that’s what they do,” he said.

Another benefit: Virtustream has helped PrimeSource rebalance its workloads to get more mileage out of production systems. Service providers can help shortcut much of the learning curve of a migration, several users said. Domtar’s Witty credits cloud analytics integrator Pandera Systems LLC with helping broker multiple cloud vendors to speed a data warehouse into production and reduce management complexity.

PTC’s Taube credits CloudVelox Inc. with alleviating much of the complexity of moving a large number of VMs without breaking interdependencies. “The more complex the environment, the more difficult is it to migrate everything simultaneously,” he said. “CloudVelox automates the move and preserves the relationships between servers.”

Eyes wide open

Moving successfully to the cloud starts with understanding why you’re going there in the first place. “It’s not cloud for cloud’s sake,” Witty said. “Have specific goals in mind. If you’re trying to save money, how much money? If you’re trying to increase speed, know how much speed you want.”

The migration crowd also provided a number of tips for others following their lead:

* Be prepared for internal resistance, because ownership of some workloads and applications will change. “It’s similar to building a good strategy for your business, because everybody has to participate,”said PTC’s Taube. “You have to break boundaries, and that’s difficult.”

* Prepare a full inventory of applications, infrastructure and their dependencies. Try to move interdependent workloads in blocks, the early adopters advised. For example, Web servers should be moved in concert with their underlying databases. “Virtual servers don’t usually operate independently,” Taube said. “In most cases, a whole group of applications and services interconnect and serve each other. You have to determine the underlying relationships, and that’s a challenge.” Something as simple as change in a directory path, for instance, can cause applications to break.

* Have good connectivity in place. Businesses operating in the cloud are now more heavily dependent on the Internet than ever, the executives noted. “Nothing is worse than having a shiny, new platform that you can’t use because of issues with connectivity,” Cothren said. “Some of the struggles we’ve had have been when an office loses their Internet and they’re dead in the water.”

* Pay close attention to service level agreements and sweat the details on terms. For example, “average” availability isn’t the same as “minimum” availability. The former gives the service provider more leeway on downtime, which may create a problem. “A legally binding SLA keeps service providers accountable,” Botha said. “Unfortunately, most cloud providers will try to insulate themselves from recourse and spend little time explaining to customers what is covered and how.”

* Beware of lock-in. Cloud prices are constantly changing, and usually declining. Signing a three-year deal may leave a company with buyer’s remorse two years down the road. Domtar is now in the middle of a shift to the Google Cloud Platform that’s motivated in part by cost savings after an earlier three-year contract with another provider failed to keep pace with falling prices. Witty’s takeaway: “Have a way to move around and not get stuck in one cloud.” Integration partners can be of particular help in this area.

* Have clearly defined responsibilities and contacts for support needs. This is particularly important in a cloud environment since it’s often unclear what causes slowdowns and outages, and there’s no point in finger-pointing when applications are down. “It was challenging at first just figuring out who to talk to,” Witty said. “We now have detailed processes covering who speaks to whom and how much time they have to respond.

THINKstrategies’ Kaplan underscored the need for accountability. “Once the systems are property configured, there’s still the chance that things won’t be as clean as you expect,” he said. “You need to know who you’re going to interact with, what are their skill sets, how things will get escalated and how resolution will be handled.”

In other words, moving to the cloud is no silver bullet. But when planned with care, the payoff can be pure gold.

Image: Pixabay

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