We are trending towards a cloud hosted world- or, at least, that is how things have appeared to be trending for the last half decade. Major corporation after corporation have made their migration to cloud services a major selling point, boasting in accessibility, security, and redundancy. These companies claim cloud services will minimize costs and help unify their corporation across their many locations.
Large hosting providers such as Google support these migrations and claim doing so will be nothing but a benefit to you and your business. The truth and value of migrating to the cloud, however, may be less crystal clear than these companies imply. Moving to the cloud may be less about futureproofing and reducing cost, and more about how the mass of individual services the cloud can support may help your company in individual aspects or departments.
What is Cloud Hosting/Services?
To begin, it is best to elaborate on all the cloud entails. Many people hear about cloud hosting, and they immediately think of large data servers, storing vast amounts of information. One popular example of cloud hosting is OneDrive, the default cloud service for anyone with a Microsoft account- or Google Drive, every student’s favorite free reservoir for their assignments and important photos. Or, if you’re an iOS/Mac user, you have access to Apple’s iCloud for similar cloud services.
However, data storage is only one of the major uses of cloud services. Other popular uses are virtual desktops, where you can have access to the functionality of an entire computer based on specific hardware and software (OS) requirements. You also have AI learning services, you have website and domain hosting, you have video game servers/networks, development tools, word processors, network management, analytics tools, media players, and not to mention services such as Netflix, Hulu, Prime Video, and much more. In essence, if you have a software, hardware, or entertainment need, chances are there is some form of cloud service that provides a cloud-based alternative to hosting or running it yourself.
The three most popular providers of cloud services are Amazon’s AWS, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud. Each of these providers has its own unique selling points or pricing advantages. However, as will be detailed later in this article, these three may not always be the best option for your individual or corporate needs.
Marketing vs Implementation
Despite the many uses of cloud services, the question we wish to ask today is whether or not it really is the future of ALL technology, or if there is a more practical approach.
“It is a really great resource, useful in a lot of different applications.” Says Ryan Smith, Mindfire Tech’s IT Professional and a member of Mindfire’s Business Development team. “[However], I unfortunately think one reason a lot of people are moving to the cloud is because its such a buzzword and people have a lot of misinformation about what the cloud really is. One of the big ones I can think of is: ‘well, if our data is in the cloud, then it’s automatically backed up, it’s automatically protected, it’s automatically redundant,’ which is not really the case unless you configure it that way.”
As said by Smith, “One of the major misconceptions about cloud services is that everything is, by default, automatic. People assume that if they migrate their tools, data, or even desktop services to a cloud service, that all the maintenance, configuration, networking, software development, and all other IT tasks that come with hosting it yourself will be done by the cloud host or someone else. The reality is that unless you specifically pay for that kind of support (usually through a third-party partner), you will still have to manage all those aspects yourself. All you are doing, mostly, is eliminating the physical hardware from your end.”
“The cloud is just an infrastructure that’s not where you’re at.” Continues Smith,” So, you still have to configure your networking, you still have to configure your firewall, you still have to configure your redundancy, you still have to configure your backups, you still have to do all of the things that you needed to do before, but now there’s the added complexity of it not being in your space.” Smith has worked in the IT industry for many years and has spent a large portion of that career setting up servers both in person and over the cloud, giving him much experience with this topic.
Another downside to going cloud-based is the lack of control. “You have to remember that you also lose a little bit of control as well.” Says Mindfire’s CEO, Nate Zaugg, someone who has been developing software for well over 20 years. “If your hosting service decides one day ‘we’re not going to allow you to run MySQL 5.4.3,’ for example- and this is a true case, this really happened- and your code happens to use that, then you must fix your code in their time frame otherwise you’re done.”
Nate goes on that he has seen many instances of this happening, seeing very large or widely used services or tools get axed, forcing people to scramble in order to get their apps or programs running again.
“Again, it takes a lot of vigilance,” says Smith, continuing Zaugg’s point, “just moving your stuff to the cloud isn’t enough, you have to have somebody in the know, you got to be on top of things, on top of changes.”
“The cloud is both equally easy and more complex at the same time- this is a paradox- because, yeah, you can get right in there, click a few buttons, and bam you got a virtual machine up and running in just a few minutes; but, eventually, an enterprise or even a small business is going to need someone who really knows what they’re doing to get this stuff all configured correctly, working together- there’s just a lot of different aspects.” Says Zaugg, considering that he himself started his own business from scratch and has quite bit of experience with this process. “If you’re really going to do it (setup something on the cloud) professionally, there are scripts you got to consider, and if you want the high availability then you must make sure you get it deployed that way, if you want to make sure no one is stealing your data then you need to check all of your buckets- there’s a ton to do and rather than the IT guy you could’ve hired out of college who knows just enough about computers to fix them, now you have to find someone who is really skilled at AWS or Azure or Google Cloud.”
Benefits by Department
All of this in mind, one may wonder what the point of moving to the cloud is, then. Smith elaborates that while there may be many misconceptions about cloud services, there are still many positive and useful aspects to the cloud. “There are benefits, and there are cons- just like anything else, and it’s important for any business to weigh those benefits against the cost and the cons. Cloud implementation is just one of those things a business really needs to analyze. For example: ‘what type of redundancy do we need? What’s the cost of moving this system or service? Do we have the personnel to do this? Is this going to save us money over time?’ and for a company to just say, ‘we just want to move our entire business over,’ seems like a crazy approach to take. It should be a system-by-system analysis, department-by-department.”
In a 2022 article by Laurence Goasduff, published to Gartner (https://www.gartner.com/en/newsroom/press-releases/2022-11-21-gartner-highlights-ten-common-cloud-strategy-mistakes), this concept was explained quite well in the line “Cloud Strategy Must Coexist with Other Strategic Efforts.” In their article where they outline 10 common cloud strategy mistakes, they make it clear that a good strategy isn’t just moving everything to the cloud, but rather a well thought out plan made by those who know the process and system best, deployed where it needs to be or where it will be the most beneficial.
“One example of a type of business we work with that is rapidly moving more to the cloud, especially post-covid, are call centers.” Says Smith, considering situations where it would be a good idea to move to the cloud. Many call centers today following the Covid-19 Pandemic now work almost exclusively at home. Their employees can manage help lines or support tickets from the comfort of their own home office or even kitchen, allowing businesses to save money on buildings and utilities. “[Before migrating to the cloud], these businesses were spending a lot of money sending hardware to people in their homes, in a high turn-over position, to then potentially not get that hardware back. Where, now if they’re sending a Thin Client, which is much less expensive hardware, and all it needs to do is connect to the web and remote into a virtual desktop, then it may save a company a lot of money on hardware setup and shipping costs.
He also adds that “other nice things about the cloud, then, are you’re not maintaining your own hardware anymore, you’re not needing to upgrade your hardware every five years. It is just easier to migrate some of those things and not have to continually maintain your own hardware depending on what you’re paying for and how it’s configured.”
Another aspect of cloud services that can be very useful to a company is the scalability and resiliency of the cloud. “[For example], this week of the year I need a hundred servers, but every other week of the year I only need two or even one. That is pretty cool [that the cloud can do that].” Says Zaugg. “Because otherwise that same company would have to buy a hundred servers just for that one week that they needed them, and it would be a lot cheaper to do that on the cloud.”
“There’s also an argument to be made for resiliency, clouds make it much easier to do multi-zoning and that allows you to put high availability infrastructure into place, and that’s another really cool thing.” He adds.
“In another example, one of the reasons we moved some of the services of one of the companies we work with over to the cloud was for some of that resiliency. An auto-update system was one of things we felt needed to be up one hundred percent of the time, we needed it to be accessible,” says Smith, “and while we did have redundancy in our hardware, we did not have redundancy was in the network, we had only one internet provider, and in order to ensure one hundred percent uptime ourselves we would need to hire at least one more service provider. That is something somewhat inherent with the cloud and it becomes even more so with the multi-zoning aspects of it.”
Smith also adds that multi-zoning is one of the most important parts of cloud services to consider when a business is weighing the pros and cons. To put multi-zoning simply, it means you have servers (availability zones) not just in a single location, but in many different locations, whether that means within wide sections of the United States or even in different countries such as India or China. If one server or zone goes down, then you still have the other server(s) available. Moreover, connection speeds will be higher, and latency will be far lower for those who live closer to an availability zone.
“Let’s say you have a global organization, where you all need access to the same system. So, you build your server here with an availability zone in the US, you could even be specific to Western US or Eastern US, but you also have a location in China that needs access to the same systems, you could create an availability zone there that provides redundancy, but you’re also putting it in the China location, so the distance the network needs to travel to get to that availability zone is going to be much shorter, meaning you’re going to have much less lag, you’re going to have much better performance, and you’re going to have redundancy in your network.”
Another example where some of you may have seen multi-zoning in play is in video game networks, where your connection is automatically assigned to a local availability zone. For us here in Utah, that would likely be in the Western United States, or even more localized such as a server in Salt Lake City. If that connection goes down, we are likely to be connected to something nearby, such as a server in Denver, Colorado or Phoenix, Arizona. The lag or latency might increase, but at least the connection is stable so you can continue playing your online video game mostly uninterrupted. This same principle applies to business applications: the more availability zones, the more redundancy and the less latency for locations or people who live closer to that availability zone.
How to Choose Your Services
For executives, as the article written by Goasduff shared earlier says, it’s best to leave these decisions up to those who understand it best: “Another common mistake that organizations make is to adopt cloud computing because the CEO, CIO or the head of a business unit believes that doing so will result in cost savings. Gartner analysts recommend treating executive mandates as sponsorship to devise a cloud strategy and not as a cloud strategy in and of itself. The cloud strategy should also keep the connection to the business, ensuring that organizations know why workloads are moving and what the goal is.” Instead of you, the leader of your company or organization making the decision that everything must go to the cloud now- instead, build a team of those most qualified and/or experienced with your product/services and with cloud services, people who would be able to identify which departments and aspects of your business could actually benefit and save money by switching to a cloud-based server.
Another thing to consider is that while AWS, Azure, and Google Cloud all make the headlines, and are almost the exclusive hosts talked about in reviews and articles about cloud services/hosting, it is important to realize they are not the only option. Almost every major city has independent cloud services that can provide excellent alternative options to the big three, including unique features or benefits not offered by default by larger cloud services. Experienced IT experts or software engineers will likely be able to find local companies that offer far better prices for exactly the kind of cloud implementation/infrastructure your business requires. Finding these alternatives should always be considered when planning your cloud implementation strategy.
The reason AWS, Azure, and Google Cloud are at the forefront is because they are generalists who offer a bit of everything and have the best marketing. “It for sure [has a big effect on cost as well], I mean, it’s a market and when you’ve cornered the market with branding like [theirs], its really hard to compete against it.” Says Zaugg. This means that not only will local companies likely be easier to work with and provide more unique services, chances are they will also be cheaper. “It could be a matter of instead of paying $500 a month on cloud services, you could be paying $50 a month. It all depends on what you actually need.” Often times, the big-name brands are the way to go, but the reverse is also true. Once again, it’s all about expertly identifying the needs of the organization and the best way to satisfy them.
It was once explained to me that it is never a good idea to become too dependent on any single thing. Rather, it is better to look at all the possible avenues and tools available to us, and to take every tool that is given us and put it in a toolbox for future use when it will be most effective. Cloud Services are one of those tools, something that is incredibly useful and even revolutionary to our world. However, just because it is important and capable of much, that doesn’t make it the best tool for every unique situation or need.
Every business should think long and hard about what aspects of their business really could benefit from switching to a cloud service. Call centers were a great example to bring up for such, as the cloud allows extremely easy setup for large scale operations where dozens, hundreds, and even thousands of individual virtual machines need to be deployed and sent to remote working employees, who can now be hired from just about anywhere internet is present and reliable.
Moreover, leave the ultimate decision of what should be migrated to the cloud to the people who understand the technology and benefits best. Making the decision to migrate everything without fully understanding the value or reasons why may not just cost you far more money than you expected but could even lead to loss in profits and damage to your overall infrastructure if done incorrectly. Further to my point, as Goasduff had also stated, always have a backup plan and an escape route should cloud hosting prove not the right course for your company. According to Faddom, in 2021 only 52% of companies that migrated to the cloud, stayed in the cloud (https://faddom.com/why-many-companies-are-leaving-the-cloud/). That means 48% either couldn’t afford it or didn’t find the value they thought was there.
My final conclusion, then, is that you should definitely consider the cloud as an option for your company’s future. However, you shouldn’t just migrate everything, but move only what could benefit from moving to it. Make sure you understand that you will still need people to setup, configure, and maintain your services. And finally, recognize that there are many, many aspects and options available to cloud hosting, and that the big three are not your only options, nor are you limited to just cloud storage when it comes to what can be made cloud-based. Thank you for considering my final thoughts, and I wish you luck as you progress towards your goals and the future of the tech industry.
UPDATE: As explained in a recent article by The Register, a new alliance or coalition of Cloud Companies has formed to compete with larger tech giants. See their article at the link below.