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Top considerations for choosing a cloud provider

With options ranging from AWS to Rackspace, choosing a cloud provider can be tough. Consider these key factors before taking the leap.

Let's face it: choosing a cloud provider is no easy feat.

In addition to the vast array of vendors to choose from -- ranging from startups to 800-pound gorillas like AWS -- many target multiple sectors of the cloud computing market, such as infrastructure as a service, platform as a service and software as a service.

There are, however, steps you can take to simplify the cloud provider decision-making process. But be sure to involve both the business and IT leaders in your organization before making the final call.

Know your business objectives -- and ensure your provider does, too

Before signing with a cloud provider, make sure that provider is fully committed to understanding your business and the specific objectives you hope to achieve with cloud, said Puneet Shivam, head of U.S. and global co-head of the outsourcing vertical at Avendus Capital, Inc., a financial services firm based in New York.

To do this, listen to what providers promise you, Shivam said. If they only boast technical gains -- such as 99.9% uptime -- it could be a red flag. Instead, opt for a provider that can speak to the business advantages you would gain through their service, such as higher customer retention or streamlined product delivery.

"If they are too focused on only technology outcomes, then they may deliver excellent technology, but may not be relevant to your business," Shivam said.

Organizations within a specific vertical market -- such as financial services, healthcare or retail -- should ensure providers have knowledge of their specific market. This might mean, in some cases, your organization opts for a smaller, niche provider -- even if they're used alongside services from a larger player like Amazon Web Services (AWS), Shivam said.

SumAll, a New York-based marketing analytics firm, did just that. After using AWS' infrastructure as a service (IaaS) platform for roughly a year, SumAll switched to Rackspace. It was Rackspace's 2013 acquisition of ObjectRocket -- a MongoDB database as a service provider -- that convinced SumAll to make the switch, said Dane Atkinson, CEO and co-founder of SumAll.

SumAll creates reporting dashboards that allow organizations to track and analyze the effectiveness of their social media marketing campaigns. The company grew quickly, with more than 350,000 businesses having deployed SumAll since its launch in 2011. As a result, it required an IaaS platform that could scale quickly to keep pace, while meeting its unique, big data analysis needs. 

Rackspace -- especially after the ObjectRocket buy -- became a "specialty" vendor for SumAll, Atkinson said. AWS, which still hosts a small portion of SumAll's workloads, is more of a commodity provider.

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"We needed something that was more responsive to what we were building -- and [Rackspace and ObjectRocket] were the ones," Atkinson said.

Another important factor when choosing a cloud provider is to give business leaders -- not just IT -- a seat at the table, according to Shivam. This ensures your business objectives are communicated clearly, and ultimately understood, by the provider.

"Technology is getting closer to the business," Shivam said. "So what's happening is that some of the decision-making and selection and management will necessarily pass into the business units."

SumAll involved both IT and business leaders in its decision to switch from AWS to Rackspace, Atkinson said.

"Because of the dollar amounts -- we spend millions of dollars a year on our infrastructure -- it's a significant portion of our costs and is probably our second biggest line item, so it becomes a business decision," he said.

Security and cost

The location of a cloud provider's data centers should also be considered, said Catherine Spence, principal engineer and cloud architect at Intel and chair of the Technical Coordination Committee for the Open Data Center Alliance (ODCA).

We have been here at 3 o'clock at night, and [Rackspace] has gone into the office to help. You don't realize how important that is until you actually need it.
Dane AtkinsonCEO and co-founder of SumAll

"When we talk about the location of the data centers, if [your] application is very sensitive, you want it to be close to where your users are," Spence said. "So, look at where your users are. You want to get the best user experience for them, which might lead to where you want to host that application geographically."

Global enterprises should be especially cognizant of where a provider hosts data. This is because security and compliance regulations can vary drastically country-to-country, particularly in Europe, said Ed Simmons, executive director of platform engineering at financial services firm UBS.

"If you are a worldwide organization, your rules around data are somewhat location-specific. So the key things are data, latency and the availability of the network and the price to move data around," said Simmons, who also co-chairs the ODCA's Infrastructure Workgroup. "Obviously, from a resiliency standpoint, you probably want providers that have data centers in multiple locations or at least far enough away from each other that they aren't on the same electrical grid."

Security and cost are also significant factors. Unfortunately, comparing vendors' costs and security prowess isn't always easy. In many cases, it's simply not an apples-to-apples comparison. What's more, tracking down information related to a provider's costs and security strategy can be tough.

But there are some options.

"From a security perspective, obviously how [a provider] secures their network, their data and your data is very important," Simmons said. "One of the interesting questions that has come up a lot is transparency in how they do that stuff. That's a new area that people are really starting to talk about."

In an effort to standardize how the market evaluates a cloud provider's security, the Cloud Security Alliance (CSA) and British Standards Institution (BSI) launched in 2013 the Security Trust and Assurance Registry (STAR) certification program. Through the program, service providers undergo a third-party assessment of their security environments. Providers who achieve the certification are then listed as such in the CSA STAR Registry, giving existing and potential customers better insight into how robust their security is.  

Steps are also being taken to simplify how a business evaluates the cost of working with one cloud provider versus another. The ODCA, for instance, has published a Proof of Concept document, highlighting ways to compare performance and ROI metrics between two providers. However, the industry still lacks a definitive, standardized way for performing vendor cost comparisons, said Simmons.

"It's incredibly complicated and incredibly non-linear," he said.

As a result, the ODCA is now pushing for an industry-wide "Cloud Facts" label. Similar to the Nutrition Facts label on food, this would give IT pros a snapshot into a provider's performance, cost and other key metrics, making it easier to compare them to the competition.

Atkinson, for his part, urged other organizations to perform "reference checks" -- especially when it comes to support -- before taking the leap.

"I would certainly, in the future, call a couple customers through my own network that are using [that provider] to see how it's worked out," Atkinson said. "I mean, we have been here at 3 o'clock at night, and [Rackspace] has gone into the office to help. You don't realize how important that is until you actually need it."

Kristin Knapp is the site editor for SearchCloudComputing. Contact her at [email protected] or follow @kknapp86 on Twitter.

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