Moving your infrastructure into the cloud can transform your business – but what happens when it's time to move on?
Moving your business infrastructure into the cloud can greatly simplify your internal operations. It also gives you the benefit of expert support, and helps to keep costs to a predictable, regular schedule. However, it isn't necessarily a case of picking one service provider and sticking with them forever. Businesses evolve, and a cloud partner that suits your needs today may not be a good match in a few years' time. Also, service and support may not live up to your expectations.
Even if you're not looking to make a move right now, it's a good idea to consider your exit strategy – always be prepared for the eventuality that you may want to migrate to a different provider. Frank Jennings, a commercial contracts lawyer specialising in cloud services, has been involved in plenty of migration projects. “When I speak to cloud providers,” he says, “they're generally quite happy to migrate a customer who doesn't want to be with them. That's the way the sector is developing. It's unlikely that they'll specify up front exactly how much it will cost to migrate out, but there are ways to reduce uncertainty – for example, they might agree a day rate for helping customers migrate.”
To ensure things go smoothly, however, it's important to understand exactly what your rights and obligations are. That begins with taking note of the minimum term of your contract. Not all contracts come with such a stipulation: plenty of providers rent out storage and server power on a flexible, pay-as-you-go basis, including the big boys such as Amazon Web Services (AWS).
However, larger migrations often come with a time commitment to allow the provider to recoup their setup costs. “If you're moving your whole infrastructure into the cloud, it's going to involve heavy investment up front by the provider,” Jennings notes.
This means you can't necessarily move on at the drop of a hat–even if the service isn't performing as expected. “There are plenty of sales promises that don't make it into the final contract,” warns Jennings. “IT providers generally use SLA [service- level agreement] get-outs, so the'100% availability' promised by the salesperson might be translated into '99.999% except for scheduled downtime', along with various other exclusions. Another thing to look out for is service credit as a sole remedy – I've yet to meet a customer who's happy with getting a credit off their next invoice for a cloud provider who's not performing.”
Also, consider your data- protection obligations. There's no legal problem with allowing a third party to handle your customer records, and when the time comes to migrate, they're obliged to hand over all your assets. However, you should get confirmation of how and when sensitive data will be deleted from the original server. Happily, this isn't normally a problem: “The outgoing provider will probably be more than willing to delete that data,” Jennings notes. “They won't want to hold on to an extra resource that they could otherwise sell on to somebody else.”
Cloud providers may not always be eager to see customers leave, but they're predictably keen to help new customers migrate onto their platforms. Some operators, such as AWS, offer clever handover systems to make it as easy as possible to get on to their systems. “We give customers tools to make the transition as easy as possible,” explains Amazon's Ian Massingham. “Something customers use is a combination of Amazon VPC [Virtual Private Cloud] and AWS Direct Connect. This means customers can extend their existing networks, either from their premises or existing cloud providers, into AWS, and it operates like an extension of their existing environment. Data can be synchronised or migrated with minimum interruption, and when they're ready to make the switch, they can simply amend DNS [domain name system] records and start serving customers from their new AWS infrastructure.”
This still leaves plenty of practical issues to consider. The first one, according to Simon Mohr of Stonegate IT, is a simple question of timing. “How much downtime is acceptable to the business, and when can it take place?” he asks. “Businesses need to allow enough time for a migration to take place, without duress brought about by unreasonable timescales.” Aside from business targets, that can include hard deadlines, such as a move to new premises.
In particular, Mohr warns against gunning too hard for a zero-downtime move. “There are tools that can be used to synchronise data in real-time,” he notes, “but synchronising live data brings new risks. Accepting a small amount of downtime during times of low usage is a lower-risk approach to data migration. ”Then there's the human aspect. Although providers will do what they can to help out, a pain-free migration will inevitably require some in-house expertise. “Even if you outsource the migration,” explains Mohr, “you need in-house project-management skills and resources. Business-application owners need to be involved with the co-ordination of migration events and testing. And the ability to support services post-migration must be considered: what happens when the migration is finished?”
Despite the challenges, Mohr encourages businesses to consider migration as a core element of the long- term cost of ownership. That means planning ahead, and running your business in ways that will permit a smooth migration when the time comes. “Ensure your hardware, operating systems, services and software are regularly patched, and kept up to date,” he recommends. “Comply with industry standards and avoid reliance on legacy systems. If possible, work with open standards.”