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How to Select a Public Cloud Provider

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It might seem like public cloud services are all the same, but enterprises are coming to realize that the leading vendors have different strengths and weaknesses. A recent Vanson Bourne survey commissioned by security vendor Barracuda Networks found that the average enterprise uses three different cloud providers.

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Why so many?

Of the 907 respondents who used more than one public cloud computing service, 63 percent said that they did so because different providers have different strengths.

For many organizations, selecting a cloud vendor is not a one-time event but an ongoing process that occurs every time they deploy a new workload to the cloud. And they are moving more and more of their jobs to the cloud. In the Vanson Bourne study, the average organization had about 40 percent of its infrastructure in the cloud today, and respondents expected that to grow to nearly 70 percent within five years.

Market research also indicates that use of the public cloud is likely to increase dramatically over the next few years. For example, according to Gartner, “The worldwide public cloud services market is projected to grow 18 percent in 2017 to total $246.8 billion, up from $209.2 billion in 2016.”

As organizations increase their use of public cloud services, many experts recommend making the cloud vendor selection on a case-by-case basis. While that process may take more effort, it can pay off in lower costs, improved performance, increased agility and greater availability.

Considerations When Selecting a Public Cloud Provider

Traditionally, lower costs have been one of the key factors motivating migration to public cloud services. And in the Vanson Bourne survey, reduced IT expenditures was still the number one benefit experienced by organizations with workloads in the cloud, cited by 52 percent of the respondents.

However, costs aren’t the entire story. An equal number of those surveyed pointed to greater scalability as a top public cloud benefit, and high numbers also reported greater agility (45 percent), improved security (44 percent) and less time spent on IT maintenance (44 percent).

Many organizations approach their cloud projects with an eye towards achieving all of these benefits. Thus, the choice of a public cloud vendor becomes a complicated decision that depends on a wide variety of factors, including the following:

  • Services Offered and Vendor Strengths — Peter Kraatz, national portfolio director at Datalink, which specializes in cloud consulting and services, says that when it comes to factors that organizations should consider when choosing a public cloud vendor, “Service and workload alignment of the vendor offerings to your business requirements are certainly number one.” While one vendor might be the best fit for your backup and recovery needs, another might be a better choice for your cloud analytics workloads and a third might have the best features for an Internet of Things (IoT) application. Most of the vendors offer trial periods for their services, and trying before you buy can be a good way to compare the relative capabilities of the different providers’ services.
  • Support for Existing Technology and Tools — In the Vanson Bourne survey, 57 percent of respondents selected “easy integration with legacy technology” as an important driver for choosing a public cloud provider, making it the number one response. So, for example, if an organizations runs Windows servers in its data centers and relies extensively on other Microsoft software, it might make sense to use Microsoft Azure extensively. Or if a company already has extensive investment in mainframe technologies, IBM might be a better choice. Along the same lines, Kraatz says, “With information security/risk management, tools used for public cloud should include same functionality as on-premise security tools. Assessment of toolsets should be done before making a choice to identify the business’s needs.”.
  • Pricing — While pricing might not be the primary differentiator among different cloud providers, it is still an important consideration. For some types of services, vendors’ prices are nearly identical, but for others, large discrepancies exist. Unfortunately, calculating cloud costs in advance can be extremely tricky as the different providers sometimes charge for services in different ways. However, the leading vendors do offer pricing calculator to help customers estimate their potential bills. Some organizations also choose to use third-party software or consultants to help them predict cloud costs.
  • Security — A majority (54 percent) of respondents to the Vanson Bourne survey selected “strong protection of public cloud applications” as an important consideration for cloud vendor selection, making it the second most common response. Organizations will need to evaluate the authentication, intrusion prevention, encryption and other security features available on the cloud platforms and determine whether or not they will integrate with existing security measures. Kraatz recommends that enterprises “use but don’t rely only on AWS/Azure tools. You may need additional monitoring capabilities, including vulnerability scanning, intrusion detection, and security information event management (SIEM).”
  • Mobility — As organizations become more comfortable with hybrid cloud and multicloud approaches, they are increasingly concerned about their ability to move data and applications from one cloud to another. The cloud provider that is the best fit for your needs today may not be the best fit in the future. Before deploying a long-term or mission-critical application to a particular public cloud, consider how easy it will be to migrate that application to a different platform in the future. Vendor lock-in often has costly negative impacts.
  • Location of Data Center(s) — Different enterprises have different needs when it comes to data center locations. Depending on your compliance requirements, you might need to use a cloud data center in a particular part of the world. If you are running a high-performance application, you might need a data center nearby in order to minimize latency. On the other hand, if you are using a cloud service for business continuity/disaster recovery purposes, it might make more sense to use a data center located far away from your physical site so as to minimize the likelihood that both will be affected by the same natural disaster. The key here is to know your own needs so that you can make the best choice.
  • SLA Provisions and Availability — Your service level agreement (SLA) with your cloud provider will specify any uptime guarantees and spell out the remedies if those guarantees are not met. Make sure to read any proposed SLAs carefully to make sure that the services you are being offered are a good fit for your particular workloads. For example, your ecommerce application might need high availability, but your archived data from five years ago probably doesn’t. Make sure that you are paying for a level of availability that is appropriate for your project. Also, make sure to note whether you need to meet certain requirements in order to qualify for uptime guarantees.
  • History of Downtime — Every cloud service goes down sometimes, but some have better track records than others. Look at the past performance for the particular services you are considering before making a decision on your cloud provider.
  • Customer Support — Your SLA will also specify the level of support you will receive, and it makes sense to choose a higher level of support for mission-critical applications. You can also talk with other customers about the support they have received from the various public cloud vendors and read online reviews. Poor support can drive up the total cost of a given project as well as creating hassles for your IT team, so choosing a vendor with good support can be an essential part of making sure you realize the benefits that you anticipate from cloud computing.
  • Speed of Setup — Most cloud services can be configured and deployed in a matter of minutes or even seconds. However, some services, such as bare metal servers or customized configurations may take much longer. Do your due diligence to make sure you understand the setup process before you choose a vendor.
  • Strategic Partnerships — The leading cloud vendors have large marketplaces of third-party services available on their platforms. When you select a cloud provider, you aren’t choosing just a single company, you’re selecting an entire ecosystem of available services. When you make your choice, consider the relationships and partnerships the provider has, particularly relationship with other technology vendors whose products and services you already use.
  • Innovation — Finally, you may want to consider a public cloud vendor’s history of innovation, especially if you are choosing a vendor for a cutting-edge area of technology like analytics, artificial intelligence, IoT and others. Is your provider likely to add new capabilities and features to your service over time that will make your investment in its services more valuable? For some types of workloads, it may be worthwhile to go with a provider that has made a strong commitment to a particular area of technological research.

Potential Pitfalls When Choosing a Public Cloud Provider

By far, the biggest mistake that organizations make when choosing a public cloud vendor is not doing their homework. Kraatz says that he sees organizations “arbitrarily believing that one public cloud provider is better than the other without going through an evaluation of vendors against business requirements” or “arbitrarily thinking that it is easy to migrate to a specific vendor compared to another vendor.”

Instead, organizations should carefully investigate potential providers using the criteria listed above. Organizations need to understand the contract, SLA, cost structure, licensing and customer support before they begin using a cloud service.

Kraatz also warns that different regions may offer different services. Organizations need to make sure that the services they want are actually available in the data center they want to use.

Adopting a Multicloud Strategy

As previously mentioned, many businesses are taking an ad hoc approach to selecting cloud providers, matching particular vendors and services to individual projects. As a result, multicloud approaches are on the rise. The market researchers at IDC have predicted, “More than 85% of enterprise it organizations will commit to multicloud architectures by 2018, driving up the rate and pace of change in IT organizations.”

However, this multicloud approach might not be right for every organization. Organizations should understand the pros and cons of multicloud before using multiple cloud vendors.

Advantages of a Multicloud Approach

The biggest benefit of a multicloud strategy is that organizations can find the best fit for each of their workloads. That in turn can lead to performance improvements and potential cost savings.

Multicloud environments may also offer greater agility and scalability. They also give customers more options when it comes to selecting the best data center locations for their needs.

Disadvantages of a Multicloud Approach

The big disadvantages of the multicloud approach center around management. Obviously, it takes more effort and time for IT to manage and monitor multiple cloud vendors as opposed to a single vendor.

Compliance and security are also bigger concerns. Kraatz points out that the “auditing landscape is larger,” and when it comes to security, organizations “will need more tools to make sure bad habits aren’t proliferated and creating security breaches.

Interoperability and mobility may also be issues.

Additional Public Cloud Resources

Datamation has a number of other cloud computing resources available to help organizations with the public cloud selection process. They include the following:

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