The cloud-based future is no Utopia

TR member dcolbert shares his experience with a cloud-based solution in his organization. Find out how the cloud can help companies focus on their core business but at the cost of giving up granular control of their systems.

My organization faces many of the same challenges that most other IT shops in small- or medium-sized companies face. We have significant constraints on budget, manpower, and the ability to compete for quality employees on salary, perks, and benefits. At the same time, we're expected to deliver world-class support, performance, and reliability for a diverse environment of hundreds of employees in their end-to-end technology needs.

However, requirements have spiraled over the last decade, and they are increasingly difficult to meet. Data has grown exponentially, causing endless cycles of storage subsystem upgrades. Also, protecting that data is more difficult. As the world adjusts to an increasingly digital world, regulations and record-keeping make the expectations for long-term retention and eDiscovery a constant concern and burden for the smaller IT group.

Faced with these challenges, we tried to make our environment easier to manage. For example, we moved to larger, less expensive storage subsystems that go a long way towards retiring the concept of tiered enterprise storage solutions. We also moved to virtualization and consolidated those VMs on high density blade platforms. These steps have allowed us more secure remote access, better and less expensive high availability solutions, and a smaller physical footprint with less energy, UPS power, and cooling requirements. We are more effective with less employees and senior-level experience.

But even that hasn't been enough. These technologies are expensive, and they must be refreshed, recycled, and renewed on a frequent basis. A small- or medium-size company that has just invested tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in a data room often feels like this is a purchase that will last them for the lifetime of the business. However, that's very rarely the case. Today's awesome top of the line, fully-populated Blade Enclosure with an attached 27TB of usable storage on a SAN will be tomorrow's limping infrastructure, holding the company back from delivering world-class performance.

All of these factors come together to make the cloud a very attractive alternative - in particular to the executive management and IT / Data Center managers increasingly under pressure to reign in both salary and hardware costs that support the organization's IT needs.

Like a lot of IT professionals, I have a certain distrust for the cloud. There's a growing perception that IT shops don't like the cloud because they see it as another threat to job security. This is obviously a valid observation - and probably at least partially valid. The same guys who argue that better remote access means they can do anything from home that they can do at the office are the first to verbalize the dangers of outsourced and cloud-based solutions when those options are put on the table. But recently, we had an experience that illustrated first-hand the dangers of cloud-based solutions.

My shop is actually fairly open-minded to cloud-based solutions. We're a healthcare organization with a focus on large databases. That's our core technology driver. Much of the rest, a lot of the infrastructure, isn't our core business. But like most shops, we spend a great deal of time worrying about security, reliability, recoverability, email, and dealing with infrastructural issues. Of course, that time would be much better spent optimizing, enhancing, and maintaining our core environments.

Email in particular seems to have become a stumbling point for many organizations. Users want a 24x7x365 solution that offers long-term file storage and file transfer. They expect it to be their calendar, contact, and PIM solution - both at the office and remotely. They want it to attach to their devices, and they expect a single, unified view, regardless of where or how they're connecting. And when something doesn't work, they want it fixed immediately. "It's only email! Can't you IT guys do anything?!?"

Email is also one of the most challenging environments to support, requiring a broad cross-discipline breadth of knowledge and skill in the IT industry. You need to know systems, networking, and all of the various different apps that come together in a modern corporate email server environment. You fight a never-ending battle with spam and virus infections, because email is one of the largest targets in any corporation. It's also one of the first places everyone turns when there's some kind of "issue" that may involve sensitive legal matters. Lawsuits, investigations, privacy issues - all of the sensitive areas of IT that have the potential to have civil or legal impact directly on the IT staff seem to start right at your email servers.

Since email is probably the biggest burden, resource-sink, and general liability in most organizations today, why would you want one of these things in your office, under your responsibilities? Outsource that sucker, and let someone else deal with it. This is especially appealing when email is a support role and not your core business focus.

Like many places, we struggled with a rapidly increasing data volume and relied on the same tried and untrue methods for backup. Cleaning tapes, failed tapes, lost tapes, licensing costs, inability to meet backup windows, and clients installed all over the network - all of which caused undesirable results. Tape backup has always been a nightmare, and in today's environment, it just doesn't make sense. We spent months doing research with various "backup-to-disk and offsite replication" solutions. We looked at local vendors, top-tier vendors, hardware appliances, and "roll-your-own" solutions.

Eventually, we settled on a solution. I'm not going to mention them by name, but think of a toothy fish immortalized by a Heart song and a classic muscle car. At first, things worked very well, but on our first production recovery - an email server restore, ironically enough - we hit a roadblock. The first tier support directed our backup engineer to do things incorrectly and kept trying the same wrong steps until we demanded escalation to a higher tier. The higher tier support instantly discovered the issue, corrected the problem, and got our email server restored, but only after 6 hours of unnecessary extended downtime.

Shortly after this relatively disappointing experience, other things started to fail. Our backup engineer was on vacation, and so his secondary worked on the issue. He said, "Well, the problem is that it's failing, but I can't actually see anything but the very basic web interface. I can't read logs or see granular details of what's gone wrong. I have to call their support and let their guys read and analyze the errors, and they're not very talented or skilled in 1st tier, so I don't trust them."

A light went on over my head. The alleged beauty of this solution - one of the selling points pushed by pre-sales - is that the IT staff doesn't have to worry about issues like this. Just work with the support staff, they set up the jobs to back up what you tell them to, they manage it all remotely, and if there are any problems, they take care of it - freeing your staff from the tedious role of babysitting backups to focus on core business needs. Everything you need to do, you can do through a simple web-based interface.

In other words, it's a cloud-based solution. I told this to the secondary engineer, who - even more ironic - is the primary engineer researching cloud-based email solutions for our organization.

As is so often the case, first-hand experience is necessary to illustrate the risks and perils of a particular direction toward a solution. I often use a little saying I picked up long ago in retail sales: "Consumers want three things - the best price, the best product, and the best support - but a merchant can only give two of those three. Which one do you want to give up?"

The same framework applies here. You've got to give up something with any decision you make. When you go to the cloud, you give up the ability to directly troubleshoot and have granular control. You're letting someone else drive and do the heavy lifting. It goes with the territory. Instead of an employee who's interested in keeping his job, you're dealing with a company that may or may not be very motivated to keep your business - and they may think that the hassle of moving to a different solution might make you stay around, regardless of how upset you are.

If my current experience with off-site backup solutions by a cloud-based provider is any indication, the cloud-based future I keep hearing about is shaping up to be anything but a Utopia.

Do you have any experience moving to cloud-based solutions with your shop? Was the pay off worthwhile for your organization? Let's hear your thoughts in the discussion thread.

By Donovan Colbert

Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his profession...