ISACA Journal
Volume 4, 2,014 

Columns 

Cloud Computing: Trial by Fire in Cloud Development Pays Dividends 

Tim Myers 

Dual Role as User and Provider Drives Vital Learnings About Cloud Adoption

As a national provider of broadband network connectivity and cloud services to small and medium businesses and a user of cloud technology, Cbeyond has had a unique vantage point that informs how the company itself is embracing the cloud. Three key dynamics drive its cloud strategy:

  • Developing and testing on itself first and owning the “trial by fire” that so often occurs when rolling out new cloud services. This allows Cbeyond to battle test its services before rolling them out to customers.
  • A keen focus on deepening its cloud expertise and enhancing its in-house cloud capability, performance and support while growing its cloud services business
  • Friendly licensing terms and agreements that allow for cost-effective cloud solutions, particularly when moving from on-premise to cloud or when doing upgrades of hardware and business applications

The fact that Cbeyond delivers and manages cloud services to several thousand customers creates a natural bias toward cloud migration for its internal systems. However, as with many of its customers, Cbeyond’s cloud use is continually evolving.

Today, Cbeyond operates in a hybrid environment in which portions of its enterprise IT infrastructure and applications are cloud-based and portions are still on a physical platform. Some of its enterprise functions, such as finance, accounting and customer relationship management (CRM), run primarily, albeit not totally, in a Software as a Service (SaaS) environment. Cbeyond is also in the process of moving the bulk of its applications development and testing to the cloud as it is far more efficient and cost-effective.

The main reason Cbeyond is not completely in the cloud is that the organization does not have projects that require full SaaS implementation (or, in some cases, the projects are not yet SaaS-friendly), so for timing and cost-control reasons Cbeyond has taken a modular approach, based on business process priority and availability of SaaS-based solutions for its business systems. Its ability to develop, test, implement and support cloud applications is continually getting stronger, so much so that it now has a strong bias toward cloud-ready systems and makes many IT purchasing choices based on growth in cloud use.

Its cloud customers are also benefitting from its growing in-house expertise. Cbeyond infuses its services with the knowledge and best practices it has gained from piloting cloud applications and processes on its internal platform. For example, before introducing its mobile-to-private branch exchange (PBX) Communications on the Go solution to customers, it tested it with its own internal teams and sales force in parallel with its IT beta testing and got immediate feedback, which it then used to implement necessary changes to make the solution market-ready.

All or Nothing?

Being on both the owned and offered sides of cloud services has given Cbeyond valuable insights into what works and what does not as a business moves to the cloud. One critical priority is to establish the level and depth of support the business needs. More than any other consideration, support requirements should drive choice in cloud management strategy.

Until recently, cloud-hosting choices fell primarily into all-or-nothing management categories. Businesses could choose between a cloud provider that offered a fully managed cloud services platform, or they could pursue a self-service model in which the company could self-administer and provision most of the necessary services. There were no good choices available that offered a hybrid approach using both scenarios.

In developing its own cloud strategy, Cbeyond found that each model has strengths and weaknesses that make them more or less optimal options based on the nature of the business and its technology requirements. For instance, a fully managed public cloud service’s platform offers strong support, but eliminates the ability for fully flexible customization and limits the addition of some value-added services. On the other hand, self-service cloud service platforms are highly customizable, but offer little or no support and can require additional administrative time and expense.

What Cbeyond envisioned for itself—and ultimately its customers—was a more flexible cloud-based platform: one that could enable varying degrees of scalability and customization based on the dynamic needs and requirements of a rapidly changing, growth-oriented company. The platform would support full, light or no management within a solid and standardized framework.

Cbeyond also wanted a platform that would support more complex and advanced cloud services requirements. It had to be an enterprise-class infrastructure that could enable such advanced self-service capabilities as virtual machine (VM) provisioning and management, while also allow for customized proprietary applications as well as standard a la carte services to be layered in as needed. Businesses have varying degrees of technical ability from very basic to very advanced, either with their own in-house IT staff or through technical partners. Thus, Cbeyond developed its multiple cloud products with this flexible approach and consideration to offer what makes financial and technical sense so its customers can maximize their cloud experience and investment.

As Cbeyond surveyed the marketplace to find this type of cloud platform, nothing really met the criteria. So, Cbeyond decided to create it. The organization made a calculated investment in the people and tools to make this process easier for customers and itself. It continues to use its cloud products in-house for its own teammates so it is actively gathering feedback from its own use as well as examining customer feedback to continue refining its cloud product offerings so the company can exceed customer expectations and is competitive in the market.

Being a consumer of its own services has also allowed Cbeyond to fine-tune the planning, implementation and testing processes necessary for successful cloud migration. Cbeyond has leveraged that experience to create replicable methodologies. The following are some key considerations:

  • Determine where data and applications reside in the organization’s current platform. Develop a diagram or design plan that maps so the same scheme can be created and replicated in the cloud.
  • Prioritize network availability so the most critical business applications get the highest quality of service. Consider the impact of choosing different providers for network and cloud services. On-net providers of network and cloud, such as Cbeyond, have a significant advantage when it comes to cloud performance, support, integration and security.
  • Take a phased approach or easier path to migrating data and applications based on business priority.
  • Choose a partner that knows the components of the cloud and will learn your particular business, develop a plan, provide the level of support needed to migrate to the cloud, and protect and backup data.
  • Decide what “access anywhere from the cloud” means in the organization and ensure that the application, network and infrastructure provider(s) support it.

Governance of the Cloud—Best Practices

A firm foundation for business continuity, disaster recovery, off-site backup and data replication is essential for cloud governance. These functions are increasingly important for compliance-focused businesses, such as law practices, medical practices and financial services firms.

It is also important to know how best to use public and private cloud platforms. The private cloud is best suited for applications and data that require the highest levels of security and protection, e.g., financial and patient health data. Applications such as web sites or development/test systems that have lower data security concerns are best suited for the lower-cost public cloud.

Since most businesses outsource cloud technology and services, there are important considerations in selecting a provider:

  • Accessing the cloud through a single provider that operates both the cloud platform and the network ensures service level agreements (SLAs) on both and offers a true private cloud that is secure at all end points.
  • The provider must be able to offer individual security policies, segmenting its platform to create a dedicated, private, true multitenant cloud.
  • The cloud backup and restore service must support multiple server image rollbacks and multicenter data replication for disaster recovery.

Conclusion

Although implementing cloud computing can be complicated, following the three dynamics of cloud strategy can help organizations maximize the benefits of cloud computing.

Tim Myers is chief information officer of Cbeyond Inc., where he is responsible for technology and operations strategy and execution that support the growth and transformation priorities of the company. Myers has more than two decades of experience in broad enterprise infrastructure delivery, application portfolio management and delivery, e-commerce, and IT program management.

 

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