Stormy Weather: 7 Gotchas in Cloud Computing

Service Disruptions

Given the much-discussed outages of Amazon S3 , Google's Gmail and Apple's MobileMe , it's clear that cloud users need to prepare for service disruptions. For starters, they should demand that service providers notify them of current and even potential outages.

"You don't want to be caught by surprise," says Methvin, who uses both S3 and Gmail. Some vendors have relied on passive notification approaches, such as their own blogs, he says, but they're becoming more proactive.

For example, some vendors are providing a status page where users can monitor problems or subscribe to RSS feeds or cell phone alerts that notify them when there's trouble. "If there's a problem, the cloud service should give you feedback as to what's wrong and how to fix it," Methvin says.

Users should also create contingency plans with outages in mind. At PC Pitstop, for instance, an S3 outage would mean users couldn't purchase products on its site, since it relies on cloud storage for downloads. That's why Methvin created a fallback option. If S3 goes down, products can be downloaded from the company's own servers.

PC Pitstop doesn't have a backup plan for Google Apps, but Methvin reasons that with all of its resources, Google would be able to get a system such as e-mail up and running more quickly than his own staffers could if they had to manage a complex system like Microsoft Exchange. "You lose a little bit of control, but it's not necessarily the kind of control you want to have," he says.

Overall, it's important to understand your vendor's fail-over strategy and develop one for yourself. For instance, Palo Alto Software Inc. offers a cloud-based e-mail system that uses a caching strategy to enable continuous use during an outage. Called Email Center Pro, the system relies on S3 for primary storage, but it's designed so that if S3 goes down, users can still view locally cached copies of recent e-mails.

Forrester Research Inc. advises customers to ask whether the cloud service provider has geographically dispersed redundancy built into its architecture and how long it would take to get service running on backup. Others advise prospective users to discuss service-level agreements with vendors and arrange for outage compensation.

Many vendors reimburse customers for lost service. Amazon.com, for example, applies a 10% credit if S3 availability dips below 99.9% in a month.

Vendor Expertise

One of the biggest enticements of cloud computing is the promise of IT without the IT staff. However, veteran cloud users are adamant that this is not what you get. In fact, since many cloud vendors are new companies, their expertise -- especially with enterprise-level needs -- can be thin, says Rene Bonvanie , senior vice president at Serena Software Inc. It's essential to supplement providers' skills with those of your own in-house staff, he adds.

"The reality is that most of the companies operating these services are not nearly as experienced as we hoped they would be," Bonvanie says.

The inexperience shows up in application stability, especially when users need to integrate applications for functions like cross-application customer reporting, he says.

Serena itself provides a cloud-based application life-cycle management system, and it has decided to run most of its own business in the cloud as well. It uses a suite of office productivity applications from Google, a marketing automation application from MarketBright Inc. and an on-demand billing system from Aria Systems Inc.

So far, it has pushed its sales and marketing automation, payroll, intranet management, collaboration software and content management systems to the cloud. The only noncloud application is SAP, for which Serena outsourced management to an offshore firm.

According to Bonvanie, "the elimination of labor associated with cloud computing is greatly exaggerated."

The onus is still on the cloud consumer when it comes to integration. "Not only are you dealing with more moving parts, but they're not always as stable as you might think," he says.

"Today, there's no complete suite of SaaS applications, no equivalent of Oracle or R/3, and I don't think there ever will be," Bonvanie says. "Therefore, we in IT get a few more things pushed to us that are, quite honestly, not trivial."

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