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How to select the best hybrid cloud provider for your firm

A successful shift towards a hybrid cloud corporate environment requires a new approach to trust throughout the organisation.

A successful shift towards a hybrid cloud corporate environment requires a new approach to trust throughout the organisation.

For IT, a well-orchestrated hybrid cloud strategy can support better communication and collaboration between IT teams.

Therefore, it is becoming more critical for enterprise IT firms to find hybrid cloud providers that have the right migration tooling to enable seamless relocation of existing services between dedicated private cloud and public cloud infrastructures, without lengthy or unplanned disruption to live service.

The governance of a successful shift to the hybrid cloud corporate environment also requires a new approach to trust throughout the organisation.

Development teams need access to the right public cloud tools to work efficiently, and must ensure the solutions they find provide security and control on a par with the internal datacentre.

With public clouds’ elastic resources, it becomes easier, faster and cheaper for the IT organisation to extend the reach of existing datacentre resources in real time according to business demand, instead of weeks or even months spent on provisioning new infrastructure on-site. So where do you go shopping to find the right tools, platforms and cloud service providers to get you into a virtuous hybrid cloud development cycle?

The questions that any cloud strategy must be able to answer

Management: What management tools or applications are available to control data, apps and processes across a hybrid cloud from the user desktop to remote public cloud environments? How well does it integrate with existing management systems?

Security: How are compliance mandates such as PCI-DSS or GAAP facilitated, and how does it affect the ISO27002 information security standard that governs the corporate datacentre?

Redundancy and portability: Does the solution provider offer credible redundancy that avoids single points of failure such as network connectivity? What open application programming interfaces (APIs) are available?

Latencies: While data transfer may be accommodating, apps may be sensitive to delays. Don’t expect to run any latency-critical applications in a hybrid mode. You need to do that on the same platform.

Service level agreements (SLAs): How are SLAs defined? General availability and latency are typical factors, but an SLA for business-critical apps is more important. What type of compensation is offered? Amazon, for example, offers a service credit in case availability falls over a one-month period. But is this good enough? If you have a month of poor service, do you want another month free?

Pricing: The basic cloud principle is pay per use. But how usage is calculated, whether there is a fixed monthly fee, what SLA-defined support is included and more means the total cost of ownership must be assessed carefully, monitored continuously and compared with the business value being gained to ensure the balance is always to the good.

Dedicated hybrid cloud providers

The number of managed cloud service providers offering hybrid cloud services continues to expand from the basic infrastructure, platform and application services to vertical industry solutions and enterprise architecture.

Typically, the hybrid cloud service pack of managed services will provide migration tools to enable fast relocation of existing services between dedicated, private cloud and public cloud infrastructures, that may include virtual servers and SAN storage, integrated on-demand servers, dedicated databases, firewalls, load-balancers, content delivery network (CDN) and streaming services. Leading global providers include Amazon, Verizon Terremark, Rackspace and CenturyLink (through its acquisition of Savvis and Qwest).

The UK boasts a vibrant hybrid cloud market for small and medium-sized companies looking for a hybrid cloud service partner, able to help them with governance and orchestration of a comprehensive hybrid cloud solution. This, far from a comprehensive list, illustrates the market boom well:

  • Attenda delivers fast migration tools
  • Niu Solutions has strong IBM ties
  • Claranet focuses on managed application hosting capabilities
  • Pulsanet provides managed hosting and a G-cloud provider
  • Commensus has VMware’s vCloud Director suite
  • Nasstar has strong security credentials
  • ioMart provides 100% uptime for critical apps

These companies are all recent arrivals and may represent a continuity risk, as illustrated by the messy demise of Nirvanix last year, and the more orderly retreat of Iron Mountain. So you should have contingency plans for evacuating your data and apps from a failing supplier. Cloud software is mostly proprietary, but there is a groundswell of open standards, which is also manifesting itself in the cloud world. OpenStack, managed by the OpenStack Foundation, aims to provide the ever-present open source cloud computing platform for public and private clouds, and more than 200 companies have signed up.

System integrators and telcos

Many mid-tier and large companies initially go to the trusted providers of their applications and networks: their systems integrators (SIs) and the telcos. Their challenge is agility, where the smaller dedicated cloud providers often move faster and are more willing to accommodate individual demands. For the customer it is safer to store data with a well-funded provider with the resources to make your SLA guarantees enforceable.

In some cases, such as Verizon, the telco buys a well-established cloud service brand such as Terremark to assure customers they know what they are doing. Others, such as Interoute, buy mid-tier cloud provider Quantix to integrate with their existing network services. Other big operators, such as BT, “roll their own”, and work closely with established global cloud providers. Recently, BT announced it now supports Cisco’s InterCloud service, working alongside Citrix and NetApp to broaden its Cloud Compute portfolio and improve the way its hybrid cloud solutions benefit customers globally. Vodafone’s Flexible Computing multi-tenant public cloud platform offers add-on computing power and storage on demand using EMC to deliver agile cloud storage, automated tiering and fully managed storage.

Hybrid cloud storage providers

Apart from pricing and flexibility drivers, hybrid cloud services expand disaster recovery and data backup options to address the enormous growth in data generation and retention.

Hybrid cloud storage leverages a combination of local and off-site resources to provide primary data storage, data backup, disaster recovery, secure sync and share, and more. They are cost effective and help organisations integrate existing IT infrastructure. Businesses also gain from the expertise of the hybrid cloud provider.

The easiest (but also most proprietary) solution is an off-the-shelf software application that stages data on to a server, which then offloads this to connected off-premise resources. Microsoft’s Windows Azure uses a proprietary agent to facilitate backup to the cloud. Management happens either using the Windows Azure management portal or with local tools such as Server Manager or Microsoft System Center.

Other hybrid solutions provide a local cache and manage the transfer of data from the local system to the cloud host based on a user-defined set of policies. You typically get everything you need from the cloud provider such as Amazon or Rackspace, including support if you’re willing to pay a little extra.

To avoid supplier lock-in, enterprise customers must look for cloud providers such as Flexiant with OpenStack and open APIs that provide direct access to the inner workings of the cloud supplier’s services

New options

As a buyer in a fast-moving market, keep your options open and make sure you can port your data and apps if you find a better offer or the current provider goes bust or changes ownership. That is partly a contractual matter, partly a question of portability and open portability APIs. Finally, keep an eye on the OpenStack community as it aligns with the software defined network evolution. With the introduction of OpenStack, software-defined networking and APIs for programmatic control over both physical and virtual infrastructure, new infrastructure as a service concepts are emerging. This may lower costs and open up higher levels of software and hardware integration right across the corporate hybrid network.

Bernt Ostergaard is an industry analyst at Quocirca.

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