Once, cloud computing was broken into public, private, and hybrid. Today, the cloud (without a prefix) refers to public cloud computing. It’s an IT marketing term that’s gone mainstream. Trade magazines and thought leaders shout the benefits of cloud infrastructure, but how do you best take advantage of this new wave of IT?
Let’s begin with the obvious: One size doesn’t fit all. It would be naive to say that a given organization wouldn’t benefit from the cloud. Virtually everyone—individual or business—would benefit from moving at least some IT services into the cloud. The flip side is that moving all of an organization’s IT into the cloud is just as much a corner case as rejecting it altogether.
As with everything in IT, what’s best for your organization depends on its needs. In general, organizations seek the same three benefits from the cloud. Where do they best apply?
The one thing that public cloud providers do better than anyone else—including private and hybrid cloud vendors—is offer ease of use. The primary selling point of the cloud is that it’s remarkably easy for IT services to sign up. A username, password, credit card, and a few mouse clicks are all anyone needs to get started.
For any number of use cases, public cloud providers are hard to beat here. Dev and test environments that need to be created and destroyed endlessly and with ease are a natural fit for the public cloud. Software as a Service—where applications ranging from email to point of sales and accounting are delivered as turnkey offerings—are also natural fits for the public cloud.
But traditional static workloads don’t do well in the public cloud. They aren’t particularly flexible. They also don’t like being taken down, managed, updated, patched, or tinkered with on an automated basis. These workloads need to be treated like pets: individually named and cared for, with special attention paid to each or else you’ll have a real mess. The public cloud is best for applications and workloads that are like cattle: numbered, not named. They’re created and destroyed through largely automated processes and generally in bulk. Their utility, functionality, and operation are strictly pre-defined.
If this sounds like the opposite of agility, consider that the agility of the cloud isn’t in the flexibility of the workloads run on it, but in the ability to create and destroy those workloads without individual attention. If your business processes require a great deal of thought at each step, the public cloud may not be the best call. If your business processes are the same each time or follow one of a narrow set of paths, the public cloud is likely to be ideal for related IT workloads.
There’s much talk about cloud computing being more secure than doing IT yourself. This is both true and false all at once. Small businesses sometimes lack sufficient IT security expertise, so properly securing on-premises IT may not be possible even if care, attention, and dedication to security exist.
More secure defaults, however, are not a guarantee of security. Believing in the myth of cloud security leads many—if not most—cloud adopters to outright ignore security, trusting that it’s handled by the magic cloud elves. But even with public cloud offerings security settings often need to be changed after initial setup, and they may need special attention if a cloud solution has been modified in order to interoperate with other IT services.
The public cloud is also one big, fat target. Any attacker can come along and spin up a copy of the software you’re using with the same defaults you were presented with. Then they can attack their copy at will until they find an exploit likely to allow them to compromise your instance—the exact same problem we face when defending on-premises IT.
Security in the cloud isn’t a fire-and-forget type of call. But we all know the real answer to security vulnerabilities: Insist on updated, off-site backups. If you take your business into the cloud, you’ll want to make sure everything’s being securely backed up just in case. Then check again to make sure.
Cost is also frequently—and usually wrongly—cited as a reason to migrate to the cloud. Public cloud infrastructure is only cheaper than on-premises IT for a very small number of cases. On-premises IT requires power, space, cooling, IT staff, and more. Contrary to popular belief, the expensive part—the IT staff—is still needed when you move your IT to the public cloud. Needs assessment and proper evaluation of solution alternatives are required to find the right mix of public cloud and on-premises IT for your organization, and each organization’s needs will be different.
Fortunately for Canadians, experience and expertise is growing. Vendors are growing in competency, and service providers are increasingly able to perform complex hybrid needs assessments. When in doubt, ask leaders of your local VMUG or your nearest vExpert for a reference to a relevant cloud infrastructure expert.
There are absolutely benefits to embracing the public cloud. Uncovering and taking advantage of these benefits only requires that you avoid leaping in blindly.