I was reassured to read in the last issue of Housing Technology’s ‘Editor’s Notes’ that housing providers are now very willing to embrace the benefits of cloud computing. The editorial suggested that “the sector’s adoption and use of IT is now catching up with and eclipsing other public and private sectors”. It highlights a trend towards “technology-centric strategies” with IT services moving from a keeping-the-lights-on role to becoming increasingly central to strategy and decision-making.
This trend reflects the recognition of IT as a core business enabler – a view that we have held for some time at InTechnology. It’s in supporting IT’s strategic role that cloud computing comes into its own. By enabling the cloud-based delivery of hosted voice and data services to diverse groups of workers across multiple sites, managed service providers (MSPs) can offer the infrastructure and support for back-end operations, freeing up in-house IT teams to concentrate on the front-end business-critical activities that will generate value, revenue and competitive advantage.
Value-adding utility service
It’s not just about this operational advantage, though. Last issue’s editorial made reference to IT’s new position as a “value-adding utility service”, and the pay-as-you-go model offered by MSPs makes the delivery of IT and communications over the cloud similar to utility services like gas, electricity and water. At the same time, it gives housing providers important budget predictability in today’s persistently difficult economy, and its flexibility means that data and voice services can be scaled up or down as required.
So we’re not surprised that one of the trends highlighted in last issue’s editorial is “cloud-busting”. Of course, housing providers are not alone in recognising the benefits of cloud computing. When Gartner released its annual Hype Cycle for Cloud Computing in July 2011 looking at the adoption of specific technologies, the analyst company called the hype around cloud computing “deafening” and in its research report, Reimagining IT: The 2011 CIO Agenda, it ranked cloud computing as number one on the CIO’s technology priority list, predicting that the percentage of companies with “the majority of IT running in the cloud or on SaaS technologies” will rise from the current 3 per cent to 43 per cent in as little as four years.
Expectations vs. disillusionment
So it’s clear that the cloud is here to stay, but this is where a large note of caution is needed. Gartner’s Hype Cycle shows cloud computing as just beyond the “peak of inflated expectations” and heading towards the next stage, the “trough of disillusionment”.
We have already heard of companies where the disillusionment has set in – companies which had expected a great deal from their cloud service provider but who had been let down. So what’s the answer? How do you, as housing providers keen to exploit the benefits of cloud computing, ensure that your expectations are met?
What are you buying?
The fundamental question that you need to ask is, “Do I really know what I’m buying?” In other words, is what you’re being offered truly an enterprise-grade service that reflects real value for money?
In the last issue of Housing Technology, my colleague Stefan Haase suggested that, to make sure the money you’re investing in outsourcing your data to a third party isn’t wasted or compromised, you should be looking for a company that can provide a complete end-to-end infrastructure capable of delivering a full suite of data and voice over a secure resilient scalable MPLS network.
And that’s really the argument in a nutshell.
Young pretenders & the real deal
Disillusionment sets in when young pretenders, who until recently described themselves resellers, VARs and the like, have rebranded themselves as ‘cloud service providers’ with neither the pedigree nor the infrastructure to support their claims. Their low headline prices can reflect a consumer-grade service and you can find yourself putting your trust in a company which remains nothing more than a rebranded reseller. Operating by subcontracting equipment and services from other companies, this type of provider often washes its hands of maintenance, management and support responsibilities, especially if there’s a problem.
The important thing is to establish who actually owns the network, the data centres connected to it, the services available and the platforms on which they run. Providers who own the infrastructure themselves will be much more committed to a continuing investment programme, upgrading to the latest technologies and performing regular testing and servicing of network and data centre equipment, all of which guarantees a more secure and reliable service than is possible from disjointed, subcontracted services.
One further element to investigate is the level of support you will get. The best managed service providers will offer 24-hour manned support, proactively monitoring their systems and equipment both onsite and remotely. In addition, where the network, data centre and platforms are all owned by the same provider, if a problem occurs the customer won’t become embroiled in arguments about which supplier is responsible for fixing the fault. And, of course, with one overall owner, you remove the costs and time you would otherwise need to spend ensuring that each of the separately-supplied components works with the others.
In the end, it comes down to a question of ownership and investment. As always, our advice remains to investigate these issues and visit the prospective provider before signing any contract.
Bryn Sage is the chief operating officer at InTechnology.
10 key questions for finding a business-class cloud services provider:
- Are the headline prices all you will pay or are there extra hidden charges for business-grade services, such as having to pay extra for sole use of the network’s bandwidth?
- Do they own and manage their own infrastructure?
- How long have they been established – do they have proven expertise in investing in and delivering genuinely business-class services?
- How resilient is the network – can it withstand multiple concurrent failures or could you lose access to your voice or data service for several hours?
- How resilient is the data centre? Is it designed to at least ‘tier 3’ standards, guaranteeing dual power supply and uninterrupted power supply (UPS) systems?
- Can you get a full suite of voice and data services delivered down a single pipe?
- Do they have failover systems, safeguarding against local application failure?
- Do they have their own staging, development and live platforms, ensuring that testing doesn’t affect revenue-critical services?
- Will you get a robust service level agreement?
- Can you visit the data centre and look round? If not, avoid them.