We recently announced the upcoming StorageCraft Cloud Services, which will be available this fall. This paper explores the current state of cloud computing and outlines our philosophy for what a good cloud computing solution should look like. When it comes to backing up your data, and more importantly, recovering from a disaster, you definitely need solutions you can trust. This white paper is our take one what that kind of solution looks like. It is based on the keynote address given by our very own Matt Urmston at the October 2011 SMB Nation.
Download the full paper here, or see the full text of the paper below.
Cloud, Smog, or Fog: The StorageCraft Take on the Cloud
Cloud, Fog, or Smog? Our Forecast on Business Continuity and the Cloud
You can’t go anywhere in the IT world these days without hearing about the “cloud.” It seems to be everywhere, in every new product, the solution to every problem.
But as with any hot new trend, you’re probably wondering if the cloud, cloud computing, or cloud-based backup live up to the hype. Is this something you should use yourself? If you’re a managed service provider (MSP) or a value-added reseller (VAR), is it something you should recommend to your clients?
Before you jump in, you need to know how the cloud is positioned today, understand its many value propositions, and look at how you can get the most out of it in your own business.
Are There Bright Skies Ahead?
If you listen to the marketers of the world, using the cloud for backup, storage, and disaster recovery seems like a no-brainer.
A simple Internet search yields countless testimonials on its manifold benefits, some of which might include the following:
Customers are not dependent on a single server.
Data stored in the cloud can be distributed across a wide array of servers, which are often geographically disparate. Since every machine will fail sooner or later, storing data in the cloud seems to offer good protection.
Customers have no direct hardware dependency.
In addition to not having to worry about the failure of a single server, cloud adopters don’t necessarily need to have any hardware on-site. This can reduce costs, among other benefits.
Customers can purchase and expand cloud services dynamically.
Whether a cloud adopter is purchasing storage for the first time or growing what they currently have, the pay-as-you go model makes it easy to get just the right amount. This applies not only to storage space, but to hardware and to dedicated IT staff as well.
Customers can maintain business continuity in the case of a site disaster.
Even though most “disasters” are smaller in scope, businesses always need to prepare for the possibility of a large-scale disruption of their site. Everything from hurricanes to tornados to construction trucks accidently driving through an office have demolished businesses in the past and they will continue doing so in the future. Having data stored in the cloud protects it from such on-site disasters.
Customers can provision virtual storage containers that are larger than the physical space available.
The advent of virtual technology has made it possible for cloud adopters to create storage that is larger than the physical server that’s hosting it, cutting costs.
Customers can access all of their storage from a single interface anywhere in the world.
Whether it’s on a computer, a smart phone, or some other device, cloud adopters have access to their data anywhere.
Or Just Thunder Clouds?
Looking at these benefits, it’s easy to get swept away by the cloud.
Unfortunately, there’s thunder on the horizon. The truth is that there’s still a lot of uncertainty about the cloud. For example, Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle, recently told the Wall Street Journal,
The interesting thing about cloud computing is that we’ve redefined cloud computing to include everything that we already do. I can’t think of anything that isn’t cloud computing with all of these announcements….Maybe I’m an idiot, but I have no idea what anyone is talking about. What is it? It’s complete gibberish. It’s insane. When is this idiocy going to stop?
Ellison’s quote appears in an article called “Oracle’s Ellison Nails Cloud Computing,” suggesting the CEO is not alone in his suspicions and confusion. But the darkened sky is more than simply uncertainty at the proper way to use the latest marketing buzzword. In practice, the cloud has run into some serious problems. Consider, for example, this small selection of headlines from the last few years:
The consistency with which major cloud providers have failed is alarming and some experts predict that it will only get worse. According to Gartner, “By 2014, a major cloud-computing service provider will suffer a cascading failure, resulting in unrecoverable data loss and permanent business impact for multiple customers.”
The Truth About Cloud Adoption
Of course, what we’ve shown so far are the extremes.
As with every emerging technology, there are loud voices pushing for adoption, frustrated voices complaining about failure, and the truth somewhere in between.
A cloud adoption study published by Microsoft in 2011 offers a good perspective.
They surveyed 3,258 companies globally with between two and two hundred and fifty employees and asked them about how they were currently using the cloud and how they expected to use the cloud in the future. Microsoft identified nine specific services that could be adopted in the cloud (including accounting software, project management, and data storage and backup) and asked participating companies to evaluate their current usage of these services, as well as their projected usage in three years. The survey also distinguished between free cloud services and paid ones.
The results clearly demonstrate the patchy adoption of cloud services thus far.
For example, at the time of the survey, 66 percent of the respondents used some kind of cloud service (free or paid). Within three years, that number will grow to 74 percent. Of that, however, only 39 percent will be using paid services. And 64 percent of those paying for the cloud will only pay for three services or fewer.
The survey also reveals other telling features of the cloud as it is and will be in the near future.
Eighty-two percent of the respondents claimed that buying a cloud service from a local provider was important, and those who did purchase services from local providers were more likely to use paid services. At the same time, those who don’t plan on paying for cloud services were more concerned about control than anything else. Fifty-seven percent wanted to keep things in house because they believed they’d have better control.
Fifty-three percent said they wouldn’t acquire cloud services because they simply didn’t know enough about them to make a good decision.
In summarizing the study, Marco Limena, vice president of business channels for Worldwide Communications Sector at Microsoft, assessed the current and future state of cloud computing: “Cloud adoption will be gradual, and SMBs will continue to operate in a hybrid model with an increasing blend between off-premises and traditional on-premises infrastructure, for the foreseeable future.”
Partly Cloudy With a Chance of Rain
It’s difficult for anyone these days to navigate this current state of the cloud. Which technologies do you adopt? How deeply do you invest? Is the technology ready for you to jump in all the way?
For MSPs and VARs, the question is even more complicated. Not only do you need to figure out which cloud technologies will work best for your own business, but you need to determine how cloud offerings fit into your products and services as well.
The high-level summary of these various studies is that businesses will be slow to embrace cloud computing and when they do, they’ll still maintain some kind of on-site backup. At the same time, when they do adopt, it will likely be from local, trusted sources. This means that as a solution provider, you need to be ready with the cloud story you’re going to tell.
At StorageCraft, our forecast for the cloud is simply this: partly cloudy with a chance of rain. In other words, cloud computing isn’t going to go away, but it is going to grow slowly and is still fraught with potential risks. As such, we’ve prepared a number of recommendations for partners who are looking to push forward:
- Be the expert (or find a partner who is).
- Understand the cloud provider’s SLAs.
- Build solutions that meet client needs and budget.
- Don’t rush.
Be the Expert (Or Find a Partner Who Is)
Consider again this statistic from the Microsoft study:
53% of respondents agreed with the statement “I don’t know enough about cloud computing to be able to make decisions about using cloud service.”
This is a significant percentage and it underscores the need for MSPs and VARs to become the experts, to become proficient at educating their clients in the ramifications of the cloud. The businesses described by this quote are simply sitting back and waiting for someone to help them understand the trend. If you’re not an expert, or haven’t partnered with someone who is, then you’re missing your chance to educate that client and meet his or her need.
Clients are coming to you to tell them what to do when it comes to their backup and disaster recovery. They don’t have the time to become experts on the cloud, so if you’re going to offer it, you need to fill that role. And if you can’t (or choose not to), be sure to partner with a cloud provider who can.
Understand the Cloud Provider’s SLAs
Most IT service providers guarantee a specific level of service to their customers. Whether it’s 99.9% uptime, no data loss, or guaranteed replication to another server, these service level agreements (SLAs) are crucial to how the provider operates.
In fact, in many cases, the SLA becomes the differentiator between one organization and another.
When looking to partner with cloud providers, then, it’s vital that you understand those SLAs and evaluate which offers the best service for your needs. If you are going to be offering cloud services to your own clients through a third party, then you need to know exactly what you’re offering.
At the same time, it’s just as important that you take all SLAs with a grain of salt. Some guarantees are virtually impossible to enforce. For example, what if your cloud provider goes out of business? Imagine you’ve moved all of your own data or the data of your clients into storage with a cloud provider that files for bankruptcy. How can they possibly meet their promised level of service then?
When Amazon’s EC2 cloud service crashed in 2011, the fallibility of SLAs became apparent. The letter reprinted below is one Amazon sent to a client following the crash (as reported on MSNBC).
A few days ago we sent you an email letting you know that we were working on recovering an inconsistent data snapshot of one or more of your Storage volumes. We are very sorry, but ultimately our efforts to manually recover your volume were unsuccessful. The hardware failed in such a way that we could not forensically restore the data.
What we were able to recover has been made available via a snapshot, although the data is in such a state that it may have little to no utility…
If you have no need for this snapshot, please delete it to avoid incurring storage charges.
We apologize for this volume loss and any impact to your business.
Not only is the client’s data completely lost, but if they do not remove the corrupted file, they’ll continue to pay storage charges. Imagine having to explain this data loss to your own clients.
As important as it is to understand the SLAs of the providers you’re partnering with, it’s just as important to recognize that no SLA is completely bullet proof. This is that chance of rain in our forecast and frankly, you need to be the umbrella.
Consider each SLA and look for points of weakness, then bolster your own offering to protect your own clients. As one Amazon customer told its own clients, “Our development team is also hard at work to limit the impact of any future AWS interruptions.”15 Don’t wait until after a disaster to implement procedures that control the way your cloud provider affects your clients.
Build Solutions That Meet Client Needs and Budget
It should be apparent by now that the cloud is not a one-size-fits-all solution.
As such, it is imperative that you understand your customers’ business models, their needs, and their budgets as you create solutions to move their data to the cloud. Within the context of those needs and budgets, you can then work to build a backup and disaster recovery plan that takes advantage of the cloud, but still protects them from the rain.
To start out, we always recommend that you include a local backup in your plan. That way, if your cloud provider goes out of business or has that major cascading failure predicted by Gartner, your data is protected. Once you have that local copy, you can create an off-site solution.
The traditional off-site model is to simply replicate to a data center somewhere. Whether you’re using a colocation center or simply storage at your office or home, the data center model allows you to recover easily from a site-specific disaster. Data centers are not technically a cloud solution and it does not offer many of those benefits, but they are still a perfectly respectable and reliable solution.
A second solution is to create a corporate cloud. This is a hybrid approach. Here, you’ve taken your corporate cloud and virtualized it so you can quickly provision machines and work with elastic data sets. This allows for dynamic growth and the manipulation of images you’ve moved there. You can spin them up, restore them to a virtual or physical machine and so on. A corporate cloud even allows you to test disaster recovery plans. A corporate cloud can meet requirements of many executives to back up to the cloud without relinquishing control of your customer’s data to a third party. With a corporate cloud, you still have complete control.
Unfortunately, with a corporate cloud, you take on all the cost and risk yourself, which is no small thing.
The third option, of course, is simply replicating to the cloud. There are many benefits to this, but it’s important to remember that once you replicate data to a third party cloud provider, you’re no longer in control of it. You can’t go into their cloud environment and do failovers or test restores with your own data. There are a few services that allow this, but not many. As you make your cloud plan, then, you need to be sure that you’re meeting your customer’s needs. If all they need is to transfer their data to the cloud, then it may be the perfect solution. If, however, they need to recover that data quickly, if their recovery time objective is a day or less, then the cloud may not work. The time it takes to pull data back from the cloud, whether over the Internet or by some other route, may be a deal breaker.
Of course you could always mix these options, replicating your local backup to a data center, for instance, and then replicating it into the cloud. In any event, it’s imperative as you create your cloud offering that you understand what your customer actually needs. Each of the options offers different benefits and drawbacks and you won’t do yourself any favors trying to force a solution on a client that doesn’t meet their needs. No one likes to be sold something they don’t need.
Most people think about the cloud like it’s an application. You buy it, you install it, and that’s it. But that’s not really how it works.
Using the cloud is really a phased process. Once you understand the needs of your customers, you can provide solutions that allow them to take advantage of the cloud as they truly need it.
The research presented in this paper suggests that cloud adoption is going to happen slowly, as users gradually move business-line applications to the cloud as needed. This allows them to get a sense of the benefits the cloud is actually providing in a measured and controlled way.
As an MSP or VAR, you should do the same. You don’t need to throw everything into the cloud all at once (partly cloudy, remember?). You can take the time to learn how cloud computing really fits into your offering and how it can meet the needs of your customers.
Getting Out of the Smog
The truth is that for all the hype about its benefits, the cloud is not yet living up to its promises for many people.
That doesn’t mean it will never meet those expectations, but right now we should consider it for what it is: an emerging group of technologies that have promise but that are still trying to figure out exactly how they work. With that perspective, we can be smart. We can take our time, and we can develop cloud strategies that meet the needs of our clients and that make sense.
Image Credit: Pink Sherbet Photography