We're probably less than half a percent into the full realization of public cloud, yet there already are more cloud computing providers in the market than users can count. So how are you supposed to settle on the right cloud services provider when the multitude of types and choices is dizzying? We'll tell you how.
Enterprises that want to contract for cloud services might be frustrated to find it takes months just to compare what's out there in any thorough way. What's even more frustrating is that, after all that work, many new cloud providers will have been added to the list while others may have changed their financial and service terms, been acquired by a larger vendor, or gone out of business altogether.
This can leave IT managers wondering if the cloud will always be a moving target. The answer to that, of course, is yes. But all technology is -- and should be -- a moving target.
Over time, service offerings will converge into a few specific categories based on the type of service as well as certain features a customer is willing to trade in order to pay a lower price. Most services are price/feature tradeoffs; the more you want the more you pay. Some of that convergence, in fact, is already underway; and because we can see some categories of offerings emerging, potential cloud service customers look at what's being developed to at least shorten the time involved in the massive vendor review process.
New and shiny: the cloud computing startup
The largest amount of market dynamism and confusion is emerging from cloud startups. Many of these companies are offering services that are specialized in a vertical (industry) or horizontal (software type); many cloud startups are hosting cloud offerings on a third-party network rather than creating their own.
So when should you consider a startup? The risk versus reward equation here is fairly straightforward; startups are more prone to a sudden business failure or a sudden change in prices and policies. Development and pilot projects are better suited to a startup cloud provider than long-term, mission-critical production projects are.
When examining a cloud startup, you should consider how difficult it would be to replace this particular provider on short notice. The more difficult it is, the less suitable a startup player will be. For casual cloud projects, which don't involve mission-critical applications or people, don't require much effort to move in and out of the cloud or are used as test environments, features and pricing of a startup player can be compelling. The startup of today could be the Amazon or Google of tomorrow.
How community cloud meets specific needs
A potentially related category of cloud provider model is the community cloud. Community clouds, like startup cloud services, often are hosted on a larger provider's infrastructure. The community cloud is different in that it's often targeted at industries or buyers with specific concerns about security, availability, compliance, etc. The community cloud provider can add these features to a "bare" cloud service, which results in a product that's less expensive for customers requiring more features than an ordinary public cloud provider can promise.
When should you look into a community cloud? Not to be obvious, but the answer is when you're in a very clear community.
Companies that are in a common industry, that are subject to a common set of regulations, and that exchange or share information may want to consider a community cloud. Whether the community cloud provider actually guarantees any of the features that distinguish its offerings will be the final aspect. Does the provider really offer better security, compliance auditing and certification, or does it just claim these benefits without clear proof?
The first determining factor is if your company is really a member of the community being served -- with all the same issues and concerns. The second factor is whether the claims of the community provider stand up to a hard contractual review.
Reliability and the carrier cloud provider
If neither a cloud startup nor a community cloud fit your enterprise's needs, you may be a candidate for a carrier cloud provider. Many telecom carriers are now getting into cloud computing, and though these companies rarely are price leaders, they offer two specific benefits that may be important to your applications.
Carrier cloud providers offer better integration between cloud computing and the delivery network through which you access cloud services. If your company has an IP VPN from a major provider, or from several providers, that provider will probably be able to tightly link cloud services to your VPN and write a more concrete service-level agreement (SLA) for the cloud service experience. Carrier cloud providers also understand reliability and availability more than most competitors, and so you're likely to experience less downtime with this option.
Which carrier's cloud should you pick? Generally, you should pick the provider that offers the broadest range of telecommunications services. You should also consider the location of the cloud provider's facilities relative to your data center locations; picking the provider who serves your enterprise's data centers is often the best choice. If you're hybridizing public cloud services with your own IT, maintaining a communications connection between your facilities and the cloud is particularly important.
All technology is -- and should be -- a moving target.
Final points: cloud services pricing and contracts
When making the final decision on which cloud computing services provider to choose, no other point is more critical than pricing plan specifics. Most cloud providers have very specific policies for pricing cloud services and features, and often these policies will influence the total price you pay for cloud services more than the familiar virtual-machine-per-hour metrics.
Many cloud applications will require data storage and may involve querying cloud-hosted data frequently. So pay particular attention to pricing for data storage and for "outbound" data traffic when choosing a cloud provider. These data charges can grow beyond basic CPU usage charges, creating some unanticipated costs when bills arrive.
Finally, remember that no service is any better than its contract. A cloud provider who either will not deliver an ironclad contract or whose financial situation makes it unlikely that you will receive effective recourse against the provider in case of default is a bad choice -- no matter what other factors are involved.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tom Nolle is president of CIMI Corporation, a strategic consulting firm specializing in telecommunications and data communications since 1982.