Ask the IT Consultant

Boston SIM Consultants' Roundtable Blog

July 25, 2010  8:00 PM

Evaluating Cloud Computing Services – Part 3

Posted by: Beth Cohen
cloud computing, Cloud Services, emerging technology, enterprise architectures, enterprise cloud services, IT Innovation

Question:  As an enterprise customer, I need robust services that will support the global reach of my company.  What types of cloud products and architectures will meet my requirements?

As we discussed in parts 1 and 2, cloud services can be classified into five broad categories:

  • Consumer Grade
  • Small Business Grade
  • Mid-sized Business Grade
  • Enterprise Grade
  • Private Cloud

While the consumer and the small business cloud services are well established and accepted by the customers who are looking for the cheapest possible services, and the mid-market  is slowly gaining acceptance as the growing number of cloud services catering to companies that want enterprise class services at  mid-market prices, cloud at the enterprise level is an entirely different animal.  Part 3 of this series will cover the cloud architectures and services that appeal to the needs of the large enterprise.

Enterprise Grade – The newest entrant in the cloud arena are services that specifically designed to satisfy the more demanding enterprise customer.  These offerings are premium priced, but deliver higher availability service level agreements, failover, security and other features that are appealing to companies that need those features, but do not have the resources or the interest in building a private network.  I predict as the cloud ramps up in the marketplace, this is going to become the largest and most profitable piece of the cloud marketplace, since the clients are typically companies with deep pockets and a deep understanding of the economics of scale.  These are companies that already have substantial investment in data centers or large multi-year contracts with outsourcing providers such as IBM, HP, CSC or others of similar ilk.  The new services will be developed and marketed by these same vendors.  An interesting company exploring this space is Cloudswitch with its private virtual data centers in the cloud approach.  IBM is announcing enterprise grade cloud services.  How they will be able to balance their need to keep with the times and customer demands, while maintaining their existing customer base for traditional managed data center services should be interesting to watch.

Private Cloud - These services are essentially a repackaging of the more familiar managed services.  The primary difference is that they leverage virtualization and the more efficient cloud architectures.  Users of such services are primarily governments, large corporations, financial institutions and others who either already have a major investment in IT infrastructure or have a need for the privacy and security that this approach affords.  Of course, there is less opportunity for gaining the maximum efficiencies that the public cloud offers.  One recent entrant in the private cloud migration business is Acadia, a company founded by a coalition of EMC and Cisco, with additional funding by Intel and VMWare.  Acadia is packaging a private cloud solution utilizing the Vblock infrastructure, to partners and customers that want a Build, Operate, Transfer (BOT) model.

With multi-million dollar contracts riding on the line, the competition by the vendors to chase the enterprise cloud market will be furious, but will the big vendors be able to move fast enough to catch up with the innovators?  Whatever happens, the next few years will be an exciting ride.

About the Author

Beth Cohen, Cloud Technology Partners

May 27, 2010  9:00 PM

Evaluating Cloud Computing Services – Part 2

Posted by: Beth Cohen
cloud computing, Cloud IT, Cloud Services, IaaS, IT portfolio management, IT services, PaaS, SaaS

Question:  As a mid-sized enterprise customer, can I trust that the cloud is ready to be added to my portfolio of IT services?  What should I be looking for in cloud products that will meet my requirements?

As we discussed in part 1, cloud services can be classified into five broad categories:

  • Consumer Grade
  • Small Business Grade
  • Mid-sized Business Grade
  • Enterprise Grade
  • Private Cloud

For the consumer and the small business, cloud services are widely available, cheap and fairly robust if you are willing to put up with the limited services and self help support.  But for the enterprise, hoping that Amazon will not accidentally compromise your data, is just not going to be enough to satisfy your auditors or risk analysts.  Part 2 will discuss products that are more suited to the more sophisticated requirements of mid-sized and larger enterprise customers.  Part 3 will cover the cloud architectures and services that appeal to the needs of the large enterprise.

Mid-sized Business Grade – This is the classification that is the hardest to characterize.  Many of the newest entries into the cloud space fall into this category as vendors ramp up products that will appeal to companies that cannot afford the risk of implementing the consumer grade services available to small business customers, but who are unwilling or unable to pay for enterprise grade products or private cloud implementations.  In general the mid-sized enterprise is not going to be satisfied with the minimal customization available to the small business market.  The value that cloud services bring to mid-sized companies is access to applications with features and capabilities long available to enterprise customers at a fraction of the cost.  This market is full of niche products that cater to narrow specialties, such as facilities maintenance and asset management solutions (MaintenanceConnection and WebWork), and more sophisticated products with broader appeal, such ERP (NetSuite).  These is also a growing set of products being marketed as cloud portfolio management tools, such as Cloudswitch, a migration and virtual cloud data center management tool.  Many of these offerings have the capability for greater customization and better support services, which make them attractive to the mid-sized market, but the vendors tend to be relatively small so there is a risk of vendor lock-in and less robust back-end architectures than might appear on the glossy website.  Expect to see the most growth in these types of products as mid-sized enterprise customers become more comfortable with moving their IT applications to the cloud.

About the Author

Beth Cohen, Luth Computer Specialists, Inc.

May 14, 2010  3:00 AM

Evaluating Cloud Computing Services – Part 1

Posted by: Beth Cohen
cloud computing, IaaS, IT portfolio management, IT services, PaaS, SaaS

Question:  With over 3000 products available in the cloud already, is there any way to classify them so that I can evaluate the services that fit my needs without going crazy?

OK, we get it.  Cloud computing is big – really big.  In the interest of clearing away the massive amounts of vendor hype, here is a simple formula for sorting out the vast array of available — over 3000 at last count — and emerging cloud services.  In general, cloud services can be classified into five broad categories:

  • Consumer Grade
  • Small Business Grade
  • Mid-sized Business Grade
  • Enterprise Grade
  • Private Cloud

Part 1 will cover consumer and small business grade products.  Part 2 will discuss products that are more suited to the more sophisticated requirements of the mid-sized and larger enterprise customer.

Consumer Grade – This represents by far the largest segment of the currently available services in terms of usage.  Close to 100% of all consumers are using some kind of cloud services, if you count email.  These products can easily be characterized by their extremely low price, little or no support, and limited customization.  They are designed for automated delivery of relatively simple vertical services with broad appeal to the mass market; the fast food of the IT world if you will.  Some examples of consumer grades products are webmail (Gmail, Hotmail), on-line backup (Mozy, Carbonite), photo sharing ( Flickr, iStock), and some web-based office productivity products (Google Docs, Office Live).

Small Business Grade – This category is growing by leaps and bounds.  However, the quality of the services, support and price vary wildly.  Again these services are pitched as low price alternatives, but they are focused on the business market rather than the consumer.   Many of the thousands of offerings are SaaS enabled applications that were formerly sold as in-house standalone server based systems that are being converted to cloud offerings to capitalize on the attractive subscription pricing model.  While some available services have broad appeal to any small business, like virtual file servers (Nasuni), database systems (Oracle), web hosting (Rackspace), accounting services (Intuit), payroll (ADP), HR management (Capterra), and sales force automation (Salesforce.som, Sales Metric), many of the products are extremely focused on their particular narrow vertical niche, anything from organizational membership management software (Wild Apricot, NetForum), facilities management applications (Maintenance Connection), to medical billing collections services (Athena Health, AllScripts).  If there is a small business application, then more than likely someone has made it available on the cloud.  While the price is attractive for a small business, the per seat model doesn’t scale well.  The biggest issue with many of these services is the lack of any customization and the mostly self help support.

About the Author

Beth Cohen, Luth Computer Specialists, Inc.

April 13, 2010  10:00 PM

Real Life Business Continuity Planning

Posted by: ITKE
BC/DR, business continuity, Data center operations, Disaster Recovery, Enterprise datacenter

Question:  What are some operational considerations to expect while running a disaster recovery (DR) site during an actual disaster?

You are in a panic.  Suddenly, your primary data center is down and you are planning to failover your business critical application production to your carefully planned DR site.  Assuming a successful recovery, your first realization is that the DR site is now your production site, albeit temporarily.  All of a sudden you realize that you need to run your backup site in full production mode, i.e. it needs to be run as your ran your recently disabled production site.  Just because you are using the backup site, does not mean that all the normal business rules no longer apply.

When you were putting together your DR/BC plan, you figured that you only needed your backup site to be just a ‘bare bones’ operation that would only support critical functions, but the reality is that life at the DR site will include most, if not all, of the normal production operations headaches.  When putting together your BC/DR plan including the following considerations will make an actual disaster situation that much less painful:

  • Full operations management of the DR environment is necessary to keep recovered production running. DR servers have all of the same issues that any server does. Is a full set of your administration and monitoring tools ready to use at the DR site?
  • Backups will be required. Production data requires the same level of protection, especially if customer service level agreements are involved. Have you provided for these?
  • Support of the ‘hands on’ variety may be needed even though you can manage your infrastructure remotely. If your DR site is far away from your primary site, getting staff there may be a challenge. Have you arranged for appropriate on-site assistance?
  • Security controls have to be as stringent as ever because the risks are the same (and perhaps even worse) and all legal requirements still hold. Can you control and monitor access to your DR site?
  • Applications still require support. Patches and emergency releases will inevitably be needed to keep the business running. Are all your code libraries and the tools needed for development and testing installed at the DR site?

The planning implications are clear – since your DR site is a substitute for your primary production site, think of it as such and outfit it to perform at the same level. Even though it will not be as large as the primary site, it should offer all of the same capabilities as the primary site.  In some situations, it just might be your home for a long period of time.

About the Author

John McWilliams, JH McWilliams & Associates, Business Continuity Consultants

April 2, 2010  3:30 AM

A New IT World Order – IT as a Utility

Posted by: Beth Cohen
cloud computing, innovation, IT Infrastructure, IT Innovation, IT services

Question:  It seems to me that IT is so for granted that it is rapidly becoming a commodity.  How will that trend affect the future of IT and business?

IT services have turned into commodities.  Hardware platforms are close to completely interchangeable, operating systems are virtual, ubiquitous networking insures that we can connect from anywhere and at anytime and data exchange standards are moving closer to the day that we can move information effortlessly between applications without worrying about expensive conversions and integration.  This vision might not be completely true yet, but this reality is close enough to see where IT services are heading for the next few years; they are rapidly turning into utilities, reliable, invisible and cheap.

Moving IT services to the nebulous cloud means business owners no longer need to worry about IT support for costly data centers and expensive systems.  The services are available only when they are needed.  From a business perspective, outsourcing all IT services and infrastructure to cloud vendors who have specialized expertise in their domains makes eminent sense.  IT has always been the largest unrecoverable expense in the average company’s balance sheet anyway, so moving it entirely to the expense side is going to make the bean counters happy.  It is clear that in the not too distant future, companies will pay for their IT service like they pay their electric or gas bills.

Most people see this trend as something good, but there is a catch.  While I generally support this trend, I am also somewhat nervous about its implication for continued IT innovation.  Nobody cares about where their gas and electricity comes from.  Nobody has a burning desire to improve or question the current system.  There was a time when people were looking at other options for generating and delivering electricity, but the semi-monopoly enjoyed by the utility companies has effectively cut off any serious interest in developing distributed alternatives.  I fear the same thing will start happening in the IT services arena.  As IT becomes a ubiquitous commodity, the services will be delivered by a few large semi-monopoly vendors.  Since the vendors are more interested in maintaining the status quo, there will be a steep drop off of interest in developing non-standard IT systems, which ultimately starves all IT innovation.  If this scenario becomes a reality, it will be a sad day for the IT business.

About the Author

Beth Cohen, Luth Computer Specialists, Inc.

February 18, 2010  2:00 PM

Five Tenets for Achieving High Availability for Critical Applications

Posted by: ITKE
business applications, business continuity, Business Value, high availability

Question:  My organization demands critical applications such as email and ERP be “always on” (whenever users want to access them).  What is the best way to achieve “always on” IT systems?

The pervasiveness of the Internet has put IT executives in a bind.  Nowadays, organizations rely so heavily on IT to run their businesses that users have become IT’s top priority.  IT is expected to deliver high availability and predictable performance for key user applications — the always on imperative.

Yet, many IT departments lack sufficient resources – skilled personnel, streamlined processes and effective technology – to keep IT operations running smoothly when needed.  Moreover, existing applications were often designed and deployed from IT’s perspective, not the business, or users’.  For example, IT generally concentrates on analyzing technical specifications, defining IT acceptance testing, and managing project deliverables.  User requirements get little attention which often leads to poor user adoption, negating the expected project ROI.

This technical mindset of designing, deploying and managing IT systems is no longer sustainable.  Application development needs to be prioritized for business requirements, user needs and business value.  The deployment phase should be concerned with user acceptance, training and usage, first.  Incorporating metrics for business impact (e.g. application availability & performance for the users; user adoption rates; and productivity gains) ensure that these goals are met.  Operations must concentrate on high availability and performance.  A through awareness and visibility into the applications and all other elements that must function optimally will make certain critical business services are enabled properly.

Adopting the following five tenets will deliver “always on” applications and lead to high availability and predictable performance of key applications for users:

  • Design with the end in mind – Meet the objective of high availability and performance over the entire multi-year usage period
  • Follow the money – Stay focused on financial and business benefits of IT systems instead of technical benefits
  • Focus on user experience – Shift perspective from technology performance to user productivity
  • Break the silos – Create cross functional teams to achieve high collaboration between IT and users
  • Manage from the business process perspective – Monitor critical applications down through underlying equipment to understand business impact of all system components. This will hasten problem resolution and reduce unplanned downtime.

About the Author

Robert Johnson, Director of Product Marketing, Atrion Networking Corporation

February 14, 2010  3:30 AM

Where have all the New Technology Jobs Gone?

Posted by: Beth Cohen
IT futures, IT Innovation, IT job creation, Off-shoring

Question:  As we came out of the bust of 2001, there was an increased number of interesting technology jobs coming from promising startups.  As the Great Recession recedes will we start to see more technology hiring in the coming months and years?

With a nod to the old Pete Seeger song, “Gone to other countries, every one…”

Historically, new small businesses and entrepreneurs have been the engine that has generated many new jobs, even in a prolonged down economy such as this one.  According to the US Department of Labor statistics, firms with fewer than 500 employees accounted for 64 percent (or 14.5 million) of the 22.5 million net new jobs between 1993 and the third quarter of 2008.  Since smaller companies represent over 50% of the total national employment; any shrinkage or flattening of job creation in this sector is significant.  Yet, despite the recent expansion of the economy, job creation has remained stubbornly flat.

Why aren’t all those start-up technology companies generating huge numbers of new jobs?  The answer is that it is not that technology companies of all strips aren’t generating new jobs; they are.  What has changed for Americans is that the new jobs are being created in India, China, Russia and pretty much any other technology center in the world.  This is happening for two reasons.  One, the venture funding folks frequently pressure new companies to outsource development very early in the business cycle because they assume it will be cheaper, and two, more significantly, the new technology leaders are no longer based in the US.  After years of overseas investment in technology education and workforce training, following the massive off-shoring of development, the Chinese and Indians quickly realized they didn’t need the American knowledge workers except as consumers.

I hear lots of IT executives talking about the need to move more development off-shore to reduce costs, while at the same time they bemoan the shortage of good local talent.  This has in turn has created a vicious cycle; students entering the workforce are not choosing technology careers (I wouldn’t if I were them either) so the American pipeline of emerging talent has rapidly dried up.  As jobs continue to disappear off-shore, never to return, the American technology job market now has a severe shortage of jobs and little future for the industry.

To pick up where we began, “When will they ever learn, When will they ever learn.”

About the Author

Beth Cohen, Luth Computer Specialists, Inc.

January 28, 2010  10:00 PM

Getting Started with Cloud Services

Posted by: Beth Cohen
cloud computing, enterprise architectures, IT Infrastructure, IT Innovation

Question:  I am interested in moving some of my applications to the cloud.  What issues I should be thinking about in the planning process?

What internet access/bandwidth will I need?
Unless you are still using dialup, your current band width should be fine if you don’t have need for large file transfers, email of large attachments or other bandwidth clogging applications.  There are ways to mitigate that as well, if there are needs for lots of bandwidth.  If you have access to it, business FIOS or cable services can be quite cost effective options.

What is the learning curve for users with hosted applications?
Generally the learning curve is small.  If you switch to hosted exchange it can be a matter of an hour or two, since the client is identical and it is just a matter of changing server settings.  Migrations to Google services are also smooth, unless the users are used to using something ancient.

What are the positives and negatives of using hosted applications?
The positives are that the costs are monthly and spread out, rather than capitalized up front.  The administrative costs of maintaining a set of servers and a data center are eliminated.  If you have a portfolio of hosting solutions, there might be integration issues since there is no data standard for cloud services as of yet.  The negatives are that you are giving up control over the servers.  Some see that as a plus because of the reduced overhead, but having your data sitting on the cloud does have some business ramifications you need to be aware of.

What will happen during the transition?
Generally, converting email is relatively easy, particularly if you are already using Outlook as your mail client or if you are using a webclient.  Other applications can be more difficult because you need to migrate the data into a new format that doesn’t always map easily.  There is a growing group of tools to making migrations easier available to fill in the gaps.

How would this type of change affect relationships with existing IT vendors?
It depends on what your IT consultant currently does for you.  If they are doing desktop support, that will remain pretty much the same.  If you migrate to a hosted email solution, that is one less server they will be supporting.  Some IT consultants are partnering with hosted solutions because they see it as a way to cut their costs.  You might be using hosted services now without knowing it.

What is your process for evaluating and recommending options?
You need to have a good understanding of your business and technical objectives to moving services to the cloud.  Do an assessment of your current IT function and then look for solutions that cut costs without complicating your lives.  Chosen carefully, the cloud makes small companies more efficient, not less.

About the Author

Beth Cohen, Luth Computer Specialists, Inc.

December 21, 2009  2:00 AM

The Rebirth of the Dumb Terminal

Posted by: Beth Cohen
cloud computing, Consumer IT technology, IT Innovation

Question:  How can I access my files without having to worry about synching the data between my computers and many PDA’s?

Tell me that this has never happened to you… You are stranded in yet another dreary airport and the company’s most important client calls requesting some revisions to the new proposal you have been hoping to land before the New Year.  After several frantic phone calls and e-mails, you realize that there is no way you can access the latest version of the proposal file sitting on your desktop system in your office, so you unhappily peck away at the older version you have stored in your email on your Droid.  Anyone who is at the least bit computer savvy realizes that syncing files and data among all of the many electronic devices we all carry can be fraught with the potential to misplace data.  There has to be a better way.

There is.  A quiet revolution is going on right under our very noses and nobody seems to be paying much attention.  With the increasing power and reach of cloud-based applications such as Google apps, SharePoint and the like, as long as you have an Internet connection, there is no need to download or sync any files to a PDA or a computer.  All your files can be accessible directly through a browser application, just like reading webmail.  It doesn’t really matter if the device is a PDA, a laptop or a dumb terminal.  You read that correctly, a fancy and colorful dumb terminal.

While I see the future in ubiquitous cloud based software applications, as more people move their data to the cloud so that it is accessible from anywhere and at any time, it is easy to forget that cloud computing assumes good and reliable Internet connectivity and high availability data centers to meet the demand for universal access.  Without it, people quickly revert to squirreling away copies of their data in multiple places and fall back into the syncing nightmare.  The good news is that in the big cities around the globe that instant connectivity is already a reality.  Outside major metropolitan centers and densely populated areas, there are still large portions of the world that have limited access to the cloud computing promise.  I foresee that changing in the near future as companies scramble to meet the growing demand for turning our PDA’s and workstations into cloud terminals.

About the Author

Beth Cohen, Luth Computer Specialists, Inc.

December 9, 2009  12:00 AM

Changing Times, Changing Technology, Changing Assumptions

Posted by: Beth Cohen
IT futures, IT Innovation

Question:  It seems like my kids take computer technology for granted.  Is it just me or do they really have a different perspective on technology and its role in their lives?

Along with my consulting practice, I also teach college at a number of local schools.  I find it incredibly interesting how differently my students view technology that I am still totally enamored with.  I recently asked  my sophomore business students how many of them were using the various Web 2.0 social networking sites.  The answer came back loud and clear – Facebook was the only one that counted.  Linkedin was seen as something for their parents, Myspace they reported was creepy, and the recently shutdown GeoCities was thought of as “old-fashioned and doughty”   Yes, they all had several gmail accounts, which they seem to be willing to change at the drop of a hat, and high tech PDA’s of all stripes, which they use incessantly before, during and after class.  They reported that they would be lost without their PDA’s and fully a third of them own a Mac laptop rather than a PC.  When I asked them a question about what kind of networks a typical global company might need, they looked at me like I was from another planet.  Who needs a network when you have wireless at your fingertips?

So there you go, out of the mouths of babes, the future of IT technology.

This is a generation that started using computers at the age of six.  For them a computer network is a utility to be taken for granted.  It is just there and of course it works.  They have little understanding or patience for how IT systems actually work.  Sort of like my generation’s understanding or interest in the telephone.  You pick it up, it has a dial-tone, and you can connect to anybody in the world at any time, so what.

What does this mean for the future of the IT profession?  Sadly, it is no longer seen as either glamorous or as a way to make it big in industry.  There you go folks, in a nutshell the reason top students are no longer flocking to the Information technology majors is clear – it has become routine.

About the Author

Beth Cohen, Luth Computer Specialists, Inc.

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