How to spot cloud service provider lock-in and stay nimble

Cloud service providers are making it easier to get data onto the cloud, but moving between environments continues to be gnarly. There are ways, however, to avoid cloud lock-in.

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Many companies refuse to move data to a services model until there is an easy way to migrate workloads from mixed data centers and between different cloud environments. While that level of flexibility doesn't exist quite yet, there are ways to avoid cloud lock-in.

Lock-in isn't a problem in every aspect of cloud computing. You are no more locked in with a cloud-based version of SAP than you are with a locally installed version, but it becomes a problem when a provider prevents customers from taking their data back, said Nigel Fortlage, vice president of IT at GHY International, a customs brokerage firm in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

How professional [cloud providers] are when you bring up the possibility of leaving should give you a good idea of what you'll be dealing with.

 

Nigel Fortlage, vice president of IT, GHY International,

Fortlage uses cloud services to support the company's human resources and customer relationship management (CRM) applications, and he may consider more services in the future, albeit with caution.

"Where I draw the line is that we require portability of our information," Fortlage said. "Sure, we are leveraging the cloud service to run our business, but we want to be able to take our data out when we need to."

Removing data from a service once you are in is especially difficult when cloud providers require customers use proprietary application programming interfaces (APIs) and processes, said Robert Mahowald, an analyst in IDC's Software as a Service (SaaS) and cloud services practice. That's how lock-in happens.

Salesforce.com is notorious for lock-in because customer data runs on its own database, middleware and applications. "The company may own the data, but since the processes are all owned by Salesforce, you can't move your data to a different platform," Mahowald said.

Fortlage said technology-based lock-in is one reason he didn't choose Salesforce.com. Another reason was the fees that Salesforce.com charges as part of its exit clause. "Some vendors will lock you in simply by charging you thousands when you want to leave, which in itself keeps you from leaving," Fortlage said.

Instead, Fortlage chose a small firm to host CRM -- Toronto-based Luxor Corp. -- and negotiated a mere $75 charge with 30 days' notice if he chooses to exit.

Stuck on Xen, ESXi or Hyper-V with no way out
Cloud providers also lock in companies by being homogeneous. For example, the largest cloud players each support one virtualization platform -- Amazon EC2 runs on Xen, Salesforce.com runs on VMware and Microsoft Azure runs on Hyper-V -- so it's not possible to move data between those different cloud environments or from disparate virtualization platforms.

Homogeneous cloud environments are a big problem for IT professionals who create mixed data center environments to avoid lock-in, said Lawrence Guillory, CEO at Racemi, an Atlanta-based business portability software company. Guillory has worked for various Web-based services firms.

"Companies with tens of thousands of servers look at the cloud and say, 'You have got to be kidding me. You want me to recreate my entire environment and put it on your platform just to save a few bucks?'" Guillory said. "No [cloud providers] are looking at a heterogeneous approach, and there needs to be one."

Some observers say these lock-in tactics are holding back mainstream adoption of cloud computing. "Fortune 500 companies demand the ability to both import and export from the start, and they won't even consider a cloud provider unless both of those capabilities are provided," Guillory said.

Providers opening up -- sort of
The most flexible cloud infrastructure and platform providers today are Amazon and Google because they don't constrain customers as much as some other providers and are open to partner opportunities. For instance, someone using Google cloud services can go to a third-party company for storage or application management, IDC's Mahowald said.

Microsoft is approaching Azure in the same way, particularly by letting companies build with the .NET standard and giving customers choice as to where they access and manage activity. Azure users can move apps to other platforms with a third-party portal or service aggregator if they need to.

"Of the large solution providers, Microsoft may have the most fully evolved cloud strategy," Mahowald said. "They are trying to be open because the cloud represents what the Windows platform used to be, and they want to incent customers and partners to use their platform."

Other cloud providers are taking steps to be more open. For instance, Rackspace recently announced OpenStack, which lets developers build clouds using open source hypervisors, XenServer and Hyper-V in private test lab before moving to a public cloud.

And though VMware's cloud strategy involves Salesforce.com, it is a more open approach. The combined VMware-Salesforce offering, VMforce, gives Java developers a standard environment for building applications and uses the Spring framework. Building on VMforce enables IT pros to migrate new or existing Java apps to cloud platforms.

Although cloud platform providers are making it easier to get data onto the cloud, moving between different cloud environments is still a problem in most scenarios because the underlying technologies are proprietary, Mahowald explained.

Protect against cloud lock-in
One way to minimize lock-in is to conduct due diligence with service-level agreements (SLAs) to get a clear understanding of who owns the platforms, processes and data.

"How a provider responds in upfront negotiations and how professional they are when you bring up the possibility of leaving should give you a good idea of what you'll be dealing with," Fortlage said.

No [cloud providers] are looking at a heterogeneous approach, and there needs to be one.

 

Lawrence Guillory, CEO at Racemi,

In addition, cloud migration tools are emerging that provide flexibility. For instance, Racemi introduced a technology this week that moves server images between systems, regardless of the underlying operating system, applications, software and configurations. It will also translate hypervisors, so IT can convert VMware virtual machines (VMs) to Hyper-V or Xen to move VMs between different cloud environments.

The company's cloud migration capability is in beta today and will be part of its DynaCenter product delivered via OEMs. Racemi may also launch the technology as software service or as a stand-alone product that companies can buy directly, Guillory said. In addition, CA Technologies plans to release Racemi's cloud migration technology in its server automation offering by the spring.

IDC's Mahowald also suggested using a technology escrow service provider such as Iron Mountain, which backs up data and application images. This is a particularly good idea when using small cloud providers; if the provider goes belly-up, you still have a copy of the data.

Let us know what you think about this story; email Bridget Botelho or follow @BridgetBotelho on Twitter.

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