May 9, 2012

Developing a Cloud Migration Strategy, Part 1: What Systems Can You Migrate?

The cloud, the cloud, the cloud. It seems you can’t open up a web browser or go to a conference without being inundated with advertisements and enticements for how the cloud can solve all of your IT problems.

The challenge seems to be clarifying exactly what this so called cloud is and how it can help our organization operate more effectively and deliver services more efficiently.

At its core the “cloud” is a scalable architecture that allows data to be accessed from anywhere with an internet connection. Having that basic definition in mind, it’s important to recognize that the cloud, or perhaps more accurately cloud services, is just another IT resource.

There are certain obvious benefits that the cloud can provide: scalability, high availability, and low recurring pricing. On the other hand there are also some downsides to moving to the cloud: vendor lock in, complex terms of service, and unexpected additional costs.

While it may be tempting to move to the cloud because of your free 10 Salesforce licenses or free Google Apps account, it’s critical to answer the question: Why migrate?

The simple answer may be that your email server is crashing every week and you need something more reliable. The motivation may be sparked by a desire to collaborate more efficiently with partner organizations on documents or perhaps a new business continuity requirement from your organization’s Board.

Once you have answered the question of “why migrate”, the next step is to identify what systems to migrate.

If you have the space to plan out your IT and IS infrastructure the easiest systems to migrate to the cloud generally are, in order of priority:

  1. Websites
  2. Test Environments
  3. Email
  4. Constituent Relationship Management (CRM)
  5. Files/Collaboration

Our approach to moving systems to the cloud has been developed over many years of working in a wide range of network environments. Generally speaking, smaller organizations can more quickly move their IT resources into the cloud than larger organizations with more developed business processes. That being said, each situation is unique and there may be specific reasons for why an IT system is setup in the manner that it is.

Websites
By this point, most organizations have made the decision to put their website on a server that isn’t in their office. The desire to save a few dollars/month to self-host is appealing, but the performance and reliability from a basic cloud web host are well worth the minimal investment. For those organizations with a more significant web presence, integrated web hosting from Convio, Salesforce, and Google provide scalability and integration that simply aren’t available to organizations looking to do it themselves.

Test Environments
At CITI, we perhaps have the unique need to create and build many test environments. While we used to do a lot of work in our own internal lab, we’ve slowly made the transition to building most of our test environments in Amazon’s Cloud. Using Amazon, we have a scale that would be cost prohibitive to build on our own. Using Amazon’s Cloud, we can also take advantage of prebuilt applications and appliances. Because Amazon’s Cloud is a utility model, we only pay for what we use. If we need 10 servers for 1 hour, that’s all we pay for.

Email
Moving beyond the externally facing web and test environments that are well suited to the cloud we email, email is a great example of an application well suited to live in the cloud. There are a lot of tools and utilities available to move email in and out of systems, which helps make a quick migration, but also helps avoid getting locked into a vendor (whether you’re paying for service or not). One of the other primary benefits gained from moving email to the cloud is the improvement in backup and business continuity. While your in-house mail server may have been up for the past year, you can count yourself lucky. Most cloud based email systems will give you a 99.9% uptime guarantee. You could build your own system to provide that same level of performance, but would have to spend much, much more than buying that service from Google Apps or Office 365.

Constituent Relationship Management (CRM)
CRM solutions are also prime candidates to move to the cloud. Over the past several years, improvements in these systems give end users a robust experience, often without installing any software. Implementing or migrating to a new CRM is a complex process and shouldn’t be taken lightly. These systems contain the vital information assets of your organization, so deliberate planning and implementation is key. The initial price of a system may be appealing, but like an iceberg the true cost is often hidden. When evaluating systems, take a 5 year look at the direct costs associated with the software purchase & maintenance, then start to add in indirect costs like internet upgrades, backup & data retention services, add-on apps, training, and staffing. CRM systems can fundamentally transform how your organization works, so careful planning and ownership is critical.

Files/Collaboration
At first glance, files may seem like an easy asset to move to the cloud. In some specific cases it is the perfect fit. Smaller organizations (say under 5) who use only office documents can benefit greatly from solutions like Box, Office 365, Google Drive, etc. Larger organizations or those with larger files (mostly Adobe) can have a frustrating experience due to challenges syncing data or applying and updating security permissions. The cloud can also present some data management challenges as staff have yet another place to put their information. Instead of checking their desktop, the file server, and a thumb drive, you now have to add another or multiple cloud solutions that can store and manage data.

Read “Developing a Cloud Migration Strategy, Part 2: Process, Costs & Things to Consider“.

Matthew Eshleman
Matt Eshleman is responsible for shaping Community IT’s strategy in assessing and recommending technology solutions to clients, as the Chief Technology Officer at Community IT. With a deep background in network infrastructure technology, he fundamentally understands how technology works and interoperates both in the office and in the cloud. Matt joined Community IT as an intern in the summer of 2000 and after finishing his dual degrees in Computer Science and Computer Information Systems at Eastern Mennonite University he rejoined Community IT as a network administrator in January of 2001. Matt has steadily progressed up at Community IT, and while working full time received his MBA from the Carey School of Business at Johns Hopkins University. Matt is a frequent speaker at NTEN events and has presented at the Inside NGO conference and Non-Profit Risk Management Summit. He lives in Baltimore MD with his wife, daughter and son. Matt is an active member of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and the support committee of the Baltimore Mennonite Voluntary Service unit.