Cloud computing: Don't get caught without an exit strategy

Before you trust your business to the cloud, be sure you know how to get out.

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Then, there's fear itself

Technicalities aside, lock-in is also an emotional issue, says Rene Bonvanie, senior vice president at Serena Software Inc., which provides a cloud-based application life-cycle management system and runs most of its own business on the cloud. He argues that data housed in traditional systems such as those of SAP, Oracle or Microsoft is just as locked in as any cloud system, but people are more concerned because the systems are not on their own premises.

"The common misperception is that because data is within reach, it's somehow more accessible than when it's remote," he says. "But the reality is that it's like money: If it's in a vault, it doesn't matter whether the vault is. It's locked up, regardless."

Exacerbating this fear is the immaturity of the cloud market, Staten says, adding that IT leaders can't help but ask, "When the shake out comes, is this vendor going to make it?"

That's the case for Christopher Barron, CIO at CPS Energy. "We are very concerned about being locked into a specific vendor for a multiyear time period without knowing if they have the capability to serve us properly," he says.

For that reason, Barron is moving into cloud computing slowly, choosing certain business processes that fit into this architecture without having to commit the entire enterprise to the cloud.

"By taking it in pieces, we can experiment, tune and adjust while mitigating a large financial commitment risk," he says.

"Vendor viability is less of a concern if you're using it for a short-term project like a promotional service or an application you want to test," Staten says.

Staying out of the vault

Another way to approach the lock-in conundrum is to use Willis's rule of thumb: The higher you go in the cloud taxonomy, the higher the risk of lock-in.

With cloud storage, for instance, data is easily transportable because it's stored in Linux servers, he says, but with cloud software and platforms come nonstandard APIs, system calls and other proprietary technologies. (Lamia Youseff of the University of California at Santa Barbara offers an interesting look at the cloud computing landscape -- download PDF.)

A case in point is Microsoft Corp.'s Azure Services Platform, which provides an operating system and a set of developer services to build cloud-based applications.

As Staten points out, with Azure, users write to a set of cloud services in a way that's different from writing to the same services deployed in their own environment. The calls to the SQL database, he explains, are different from the calls in Azure. To move to a different provider, users would have to understand how to translate those API calls into SQL Server calls, he says.

To minimize the complexity and cost of doing that, he says, cloud users should try to touch proprietary and nonstandard elements as lightly as possible. That's what RightScale claims to pull off with its management tools, which work with a variety of cloud infrastructure providers, such as FlexiScale, GoGrid and Amazon.com.

As Crandell explains, its tools create an abstraction layer on top of these services, which effectively minimizes user reliance on proprietary technology and makes its tools portable across providers. "We shield companies from having to write a specific solution for, say, Amazon and then have to rewrite again for each cloud," he says.

What's more, Crandell says, RightScale's source code is available to users, so if they wanted to move away from RightScale, they could.

This approach makes Christian Taylor, CEO of MeDeploy, feel that his company's infrastructure product offers freedom of choice. MeDeploy offers a system -- based on Amazon EC2 and managed with RightScale tools -- that allows film distributors to build online ecosystems for distributing and selling films.

"If anything, [moving away from EC2] would be easier than [exiting] an on-premise system," he says. "It uses standard hardware, so if a competitor made us think of switching to a different cloud, we could just set up a whole other cloud system, load it up and then switch over."

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