The cloud as data-center extension

Customers talk about moving to the cloud because they ran out of room, and their lessons learned.

A year after Oregon's Multnomah County deployed an on-premises portfolio management application, the two IT staffers dedicated to it resigned. Other staff struggled to maintain the specialized server environment. Left with no other option to guarantee support of the mission-critical tool, the county leapt into the cloud.

"All of our IT projects are tracked through Planview," says Staci Cenis, IT project manager for Multnomah County, which includes Portland. "We use it for time accountability and planning. Monitoring scheduled and unscheduled maintenance shows us when staff will be free to take on another project."

Initially the county had two dedicated Planview administrators, Cenis explains. But over a period of around three months in 2009, both left their jobs at the county, "leaving us with no coverage, " Cenis says. "We didn't have anyone on staff that had been trained on the configuration of our Planview instance or understood the technical pieces of the jobs that run within the tool to update the tables," among other things.

   Staci Cenis
"I wish we had gone with the cloud from the start because it has alleviated a significant burden," says Staci Cenis, IT project manager for Multnomah County, Ore.

Cenis hadn't considered the cloud before that issue, but agreed to abandon the in-house software in favor of Planview's software-as-a-service (SaaS) offering after assessing the costs. Training other IT staffers on server, storage, backup administration, recovery and upgrades alone would have compounded the on-premises software expenses, Cenis says.

Nowadays, with the infrastructure and application administration offloaded to the cloud, IT can handle most configuration, testing and disaster recovery concerns during a regularly scheduled monthly call. "I wish we had gone with the cloud from the start because it has alleviated a significant burden," Cenis says, especially in the area of software upgrades.

Each upgrade handled by the application provider instead of her team, she estimates, adds numerous hours back into her resource pool. "What would have taken us days if not weeks to troubleshoot is generally answered and fixed within a day or two," she adds. At the same time, users can access the latest software version within a month or two of its release.

Multnomah County's embrace of the cloud is one of five models becoming more common today, according to Anne Thomas Manes, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner.

Gartner categorizes them as follows:

  • Replace, as Multnomah County did by ripping out infrastructure and going with SaaS;
  • Re-host, where IT still manages the software, but it is hosted on external infrastructure such as Amazon, HP or Rackspace public or private cloud servers;
  • Refactor, where some simple changes are made to the application to take advantage of platform-as-a-service;
  • Revise, where code or data frameworks have to be adapted for PaaS;
  • Rebuild, where developers and IT scrap application code and start over using PaaS.

"Not a lot of companies rebuild or do a lot of major modifications to migrate an application to the cloud. Instead, they either replace, re-host or refactor," Manes says.

Primarily, enterprises view the cloud as an escape hatch for an overworked, out-of-space data center. "If you're faced with the prospect of building a new data center, which costs billions of dollars, it certainly saves money to take a bunch of less critical applications and toss them into the cloud," Manes says.

Problems in paradise?

However, since first observing the cloud frenzy years ago, Manes recognizes companies have taken their lumps. "Many business leaders were so eager to get to the cloud that they didn't get IT involved to institute proper redundancy or legal to execute proper agreements," she says. Such oversights have left them vulnerable technologically and monetarily to outages and other issues.

Companies that moved applications and data to the public cloud early on also didn't always plan for outages with traditional measures such as load balancing. "Even if an outage is centralized in one part of the country, it can have a cascading effect, and if it lasts more than a day can cause a real problem for businesses," she says.

But Dave Woods, senior process manager at business intelligence service SNL Financial, disagrees. SNL Financial aggregates and analyzes publicly available data from around the world for its clients. Despite having a sizeable internal data center, the company's homegrown legacy workflow management application was testing its limits.

"Our data center was full" with both internal and customer-facing applications and databases, Woods says. The company didn't do a full-on analysis to find out whether it was server space or cooling or other limitations -- or all of the above -- but at some point it became clear that they were running out of capacity, and cloud software became attractive.

Though he briefly considered rebuilding the application and building out the data center, the costs, timeframe and instability of the code dissuaded him. "The legacy application lacked the design and flexibility we needed to improve our processes," Woods says. The goal, in other words, was not just to rehost the application but to do some serious workflow process improvement as well.

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