Public cloud deployment lessons learned from IT pros

Public cloud adoption may be growing in the enterprise, but the experiences of two IT shops show that legacy apps and infrastructure aren't simply taking a back seat.

As security and lock-in concerns become less prevalent in the enterprise, public cloud adoption continues to rise. Revenue for public cloud services will reach $204 billion in 2016, a 16.5% increase from the $175 billion spent in 2015, according to Gartner.

While there are a variety of drivers for public cloud deployment, the experiences of two organizations -- Gibraltar Area Schools in Wisconsin and Watchfinder & Co., a watch retailer in London -- illustrate that cost is still a big one. They also show, however, that some workloads are better left in-house.

Gibraltar Area Schools goes all in with AWS -- almost

Gibraltar Area Schools is a public K-12 school district in Fish Creek, Wisc. that serves approximately 110 employees and 565 students. In June 2011, Steve Minten, District Director of IT, faced a common IT choice: how should we upgrade our systems? The district's eight Dell, nonvirtualized servers were nearing the end of their five-year lease. Sticker shock occurred when Minten looked at moving to a virtualized environment.

"The cost would have been about $44,000 for us to upgrade our server hardware and software," Minten said.

We were starting to collect a lot data, and wanted to do more than just run virtual servers on AWS.
Jonathan GillIT director, Watchfinder

A public cloud deployment became an attractive alternative because it didn't require such a large upfront investment. In addition, it would allow the school to offload some of its maintenance requirements; the cloud vendor, rather than the district, would be responsible for troubleshooting and fixing any data center infrastructure equipment problems.

Gibraltar Area Schools evaluated public cloud services from Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure and Rackspace -- eventually choosing AWS. "Amazon Web Services had the widest range of features and a longer track record than the other vendors," Minton said.

So, the school migrated most of its applications, including Microsoft SharePoint, email and backup, to the AWS public cloud. The educational institution eliminated ongoing licensing costs and reduced its maintenance requirements. Minter estimates that the district now spends about $1 per student per month to deliver IT services, compared to $2 per student per month with the on-premises systems.

But the change created a few challenges. AWS constantly upgrades its services, so staying abreast of the system's functionality can be time consuming. Also, the district uses Skyward Inc.'s Student Information Management Suite to support its operations. Currently, that software's design does not mesh with AWS services, as it isn't written to automatically support newer functions, like web interfaces or cloud APIs. As a result, the Skyward implementation continues to run on on-premises servers.

Watchfinder decides it's time for a change

Founded in 2002, Watchfinder, which has 155 employees, serves consumers that want to buy and sell preowned luxury watches. The firm's website completes around 1 million unique interactions per month.

At the turn of the decade, the retailer began to wean itself off of its on-premises systems. Maintaining 13 servers required that the data center team spend four to six hours a month on mundane maintenance, such as patching, testing and configuration, just to keep the systems running and secure. The business wanted its IT staff to focus more on software development and less on hardware maintenance. In fact, the organization has written most of its business applications, including the point-of-sale (POS) system running in its stores and its e-commerce system.

Watchfinder used AWS services for a handful of years. In August 2015, the company decided to take another look at its public cloud deployment options. "We were starting to collect a lot data, and wanted to do more than just run virtual servers on AWS," said Jonathan Gill, IT director.

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The watch retailer relies heavily on Microsoft software, and its applications are written in .NET. In stores, Watchfinder's customers use Windows 10 to browse stock on Microsoft Surface tablets and 42-inch screens; in-store staff is equipped with mobile Windows POS devices.

Microsoft also fit with the retailer's future plans, which center on big data and machine learning. Watchfinder has built algorithms that price watches, but it wants to improve its sales presentation. The enterprise is developing software that understands processes, like how many people view a page and how quickly a watch sells. By using machine learning, the firm expects to do a better job matching customers' interests to its inventory.

Watchfinder, which now has all of its applications in the public cloud, moved from AWS to Microsoft Azure in June 2016. "We now have an IT infrastructure that can respond effectively to the business' needs," Gill said.

More companies are thinking like Watchfinder. Businesses see the public cloud as a simpler, less expensive way to deliver computer services than on-premises systems. While a public cloud deployment does not mesh with all applications, it's quickly becoming the foundation for a growing number of IT workloads.

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