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Dead Cloud Man Walking ?

Dead Cloud Man Walking ?

A few years ago, a salesperson interviewing for a job with our Managed Service Provider (MSP) told me I was a "dead man walking" because we hadn't abandoned on-premises servers for the cloud. To borrow from the great Mark Twain, "news of my Cloud-triggered death has been greatly exaggerated".

For years the marketplace pundits have been telling us that Cloud is the future. And, in many ways, that is true. Sort of.

There is more to the story.

Let's dig in a bit to see if all servers should live in the cloud.

Cloud is great for things like email.

While our Managed Services Provider (MSP) business still supports a handful of Microsoft Exchange email server installs, it just doesn't make sense to host your own email any longer. Too much data storage (and backup), too much bandwidth, too much spam, etc. And, for only a few dollars per month per mailbox for Microsoft Office 365, it's also too much dinero to license, host, and support your own email server.

Score 1 for Cloud for email.

Scoreboard: Cloud 1. On Premise ZERO

Cloud is great for things like hosting your website.

Friends don't let friends host their own website! If managing the uptime doesn't kill you, the flaming transformer on the utility pole outside your office will. Yes, that has happened to us -- a long time ago, but the memory is still fresh. While it makes for a bit of a funny story that involves a generator, a borrowed electrical outlet (which took about 15 years to replace), and a few other Macgyver-inspired heroics, it is not an experience I wish to repeat any time soon. Put your website where it belongs -- in a data center on a machine which is built for hosting your website, with backup power and bandwidth. Unless you have specific "application" needs, your website will want to live on an appropriately cost-effective cloud server. We run our websites typically with either Expression Engine or Word Press Content Management Systems (CMS) on reasonably-performing Linux servers running advanced security with an active intrusion detection system (IDS). This approach works really well for our site and for our hosting clients. Caution, make sure you don't use one of the really "cheap, $5 per month" hosting providers for your business. Trust us, you will pay for this decision.

Score 1 for Cloud for Website hosting.

Scoreboard: Cloud 2. On Premise ZERO

Phones -- this is a tricky one, because you need to interact with others for your phone system to work effectively and you really need a phone close to you. If you doubt me, answer this question for me -- "True or False, your cell phone is within 3 feet of you for more than 20 hours per day?" Phones are just different.

For many businesses, you will want a cloud-based phone system, though in some cases a "hybrid system" can make sense -- particularly if you have lots of extensions locally and you make a lot of internal, extension-to-extension calls. In our consulting practice, navitend typically works with one of three different phone systems -- two which are hosted and one which is a hybrid system. If you're trying to figure out what kind of phone system you need, there are a number of questions to consider. You can find a starting point here. Let's call this one a draw. And to help out our On-Premise scoring, we'll award +1 for both.

Scoreboad: Cloud 3. On Premise 1

Cloud is looking pretty good at this point. Maybe that dead-man-walking warning was on the money?

But what about the "server" needs of the typical SMB (Small and Medium Sized Business...)? Can we just move their server to the cloud -- think Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google, Rackspce, etc? Does that work?

We can, but the value may not be all that the pundits and dead-man-walking-warning people suggest.

First, do you really "need" a server?

Any reasonably mature business with more than a handful of people really need a "domain controller" to implement the required policies that come part and parcel with running an organization. You may have heard the term "GPO" -- Group Policy Object? This is basically the set of highly configurable rules that allow people who run and manage networks like us, to provide all of the security for people who use those networks. A domain controller permits you to implement what we often refer to as AAA -- Authenticate, Authorize, and Audit. Without the ability to perform AAA, you really don't have security for your network. If security is not important to you go ahead and skip to the next article, tell your friends you're "in the cloud" and move on with your day. If you take security seriously, even a little bit, keep reading.

When you have a need for a server which is always up and running (like a doman controller), supporting a number of users in one location, it is hard to beat the value of a dedicated server running in your building. This is like buying a solid Chevrolet (or Toyota, etc) and driving it until long after you've made the last car payment rather than paying for a low-mileage lease month after month, year after year on a modest luxury vehicle.

What about "backup" for my server?

You can put in a Backup and Disaster Recovery (BDR) appliance like a Datto to protect your server at a very reasonable price point and you have the peace of mind that you can run your business and not pay a premium just because someone at the club said you should be in the cloud.

Backing up cloud servers is not inexpensive, so a local server and BDR device is actually quite competitive with a "cloud" server and appropriate for many SMBs.

Here are the scenarios where we think it makes sense to have servers in the cloud:

The aforementioned web server should live in the cloud, 99% of the time.

You should not own an email server, 99% of the time. 

Your business has highly variable workloads. This is where sometimes you need a lot of compute capacity and then the work falls off -- in other words you scale up and down over time. Think about a business like Netflix that needs to run tons of servers at various times of the day across the week, but at other times (when the rest of us are working), they run comparably fewer servers. There is no need to pay for servers when no one is using them if you can architect your services around pay-as-you-go. The key here is the you can architect things such that you only pay when your servers are running. This requires a non-trivial amount of automation and sophistication. If you're hiring an MSP for out-sourcing your IT support, odds are that this is not a fit for you.

Temporary or short time-horizon networks. If your need for a server is less than a couple of years or there is some uncertainty around your needs beyond a few months, explore cloud offerings. For example, some newly funded companies or re-capitalized companies that need to quickly scale a sales team and anticipate an "exit" within a short time horizon may burn investor's money to find a larger pot of gold quickly. In that case, tell your private equity company to just stand up services in the cloud. To carry our vehicle analogy from earlier, there is no new driver to hand down the long-paid-for Chevrolet to drive to high school or the mall. When you're done with the BMW, you're going to give it back!

You are designing the software yourself and have a high degree of control over which types of server components you are using. This might look like "serverless computing", hosted databases, hosted desktops, etc.

You have a service business and you need more resilience to your operation than a single, in-house server affords. For example, navitend hosts its MSP ticketing system in a cloud-based data center to guard against local power and internet outages. Hurricane Sandy was a hard task-master on that point. More on this point -- see Colocated Servers. In this case, you will likely have a local domain controller and put your "application server" in either a colocated facility or hosted on a virtual cloud server.

Regardless of your business size or history there is no automatic right answer for where your "server" is going to live. Take a hard look at whether it makes sense to put your "servers in the cloud". If you don't think about this critically (i.e. use a spreadsheet), you may find that your wallet gets very thin and never has the chance to recover. You can be "be cool and run in the cloud", but at a non-trivial cost.

We performed an analysis for a medical device company as they were trying to decide if they should put their data analysis servers in the cloud. Spoiler alert: they didn't because it was cost prohibitive.

We have often explored "desktop as a service" for our clients but sticker shock is not uncommon.

Making solid IT decisions is similar to making solid financial decisions with your retirement account -- it usually pays to get advice and guidance from an expert. navitend offers expert advice at reasonable rates -- give us call -- we're here to help.


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