Cloud Migration Can Lift a Business

Cloud computing enables small businesses to offload all sorts of heavy tech lifting to a third party, freeing you to focus your efforts (and local storage space) on core services and clients. Cloud computing can mean many things, but in essence it describes IT tools delivered through Internet-based services. A growing number of services provide infrastructure, platforms, and software that lives in the cloud.

For example, many businesses find managing a data center on-site to be not only undesirable but impossible. Small companies waste money and work hours keeping heavy-duty hardware and software running. Shifting to an offsite virtual server makes those headaches vanish.

In addition to removing server management from the equation, shifting to the cloud can reduce expenses and increase productivity in connection with software. You can use subscription-based online apps in place of expensive software licensed for individual desktops, and you can give employees unlimited access to databases and other shared resources. Service-based software is flexible and easy to expand on the fly.

Cloud services are particularly attractive for start-ups that have minimal physical infrastructure to rely on. For companies with legacy systems, migrating to the cloud can be more complex, but it doesn't have to be.

Cloud migration resists a one-size-fits-all approach. Though the cloud involves abstract concepts, the data and tools you move are the lifeblood of your business, so you must develop a solid strategy.

For instance, you need not relocate every application and every shred of data from desktops and in-house servers to the cloud. An IT pro should help you select what and how much to move forward. If you archive business information from the 1990s on a system that you can access in a pinch, that may be good enough. You probably don't need to migrate data that's been stale since the last century.

In addition, maintaining local assets--such as Photoshop for your designers or HR software for the payroll team--continues to makes sense. Other tools are better left to the cloud, especially for roaming workers. Customer relationship management databases via Salesforce, for example, are accessible across multiple platforms, including smartphones.

"The cloud is in a sense your front end, and on-premise is your back end," says Rick Villars, an IDC analyst who specializes in storage. "Information in the cloud brings advantages in terms of accessibility."

Moving to the cloud won't eliminate the need for IT professionals, but it will reshape their duties. They may no longer have to wake up at dawn to patch servers, but they'll have to ensure that the company can get what it needs from remotely housed data or applications. A cloud migration may quell familiar headaches, but as with any shift in technology, new problems will crop up.

Administrative tasks may lessen as strategic thinking moves to the forefront. New, ongoing tasks for tech workers are likely to require fewer nuts-and-bolts capabilities to set up and fix storage and local networking.

IT pros may need to polish their people skills as they emerge from the back room and respond increasingly to requests from managers and other users. Can employees get to data whenever they need it? IT pros may find themselves asked to retrieve special sets of data to help a company comply with financial, privacy, and other legal codes.

What happens if data vanishes from a remotely hosted database? The hands-off aspect of remote storage may make it harder to determine the cause of the disappearance. Because many cloud services involve multiple hardware and software vendors, solving other problems also can be tricky.

An off-site data center may promise all sorts of checks and balances in case of an emergency, but you should do additional research, plan a disaster recovery plan specific to your business, and make sure that it prepares for more than one potential point of failure. Such planning may be tricky, as no third-party programs exist at this point for certifying internal backup arrangements among cloud services. Moreover, in the virtual world, backing up data and backing up a virtual machine are different processes.

Once you've created a strong migration plan, choosing the right service providers may boil down to a matter of trust. Migrating to the cloud carelessly or haphazardly is worse than thoughtfully retaining assets in your hands.

Next page: How a cloud move helps a growing mortgage business

Case Study: Mortgage Company Set to Expand With Cloud Migration

Bridgewater Capital serves mortgage borrowers in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. Its staff of 12 consists of 10 employees at its main office and 2 remote workers--down from 40 workers before the 2008 mortgage crisis. Bridgewater's IT infrastructure originally worked well, as trained staff managed the company's Web, e-mail, and database servers.

The Problem

While other mortgage companies were closing in 2009, Bridgewater reduced its staff and froze its IT spending. Afterward, the owner was forced to manage the technology.

"Customer e-mails got caught in the spam filter, servers were left unpatched, data wasn't backed up regularly, and free disk space disappeared," says Ted Theodoropoulos, president of Acrowire IT consulting.

When mortgage rates plummeted in early 2010 and the business climate began to thaw, Bridgewater called Acrowire to solve the IT challenges before they began affecting customers on a large scale.

The Solution

Acrowire is migrating Bridgewater from three onsite Dell servers to the cloud, except for an on-site Microsoft Active Directory server. That way, Bridgewater can access its PCs and printers even if the Internet connection goes down.

The Microsoft SQL Server and the Web server on the Dell machines are moving to a dedicated virtual server in Acrowire's data center, whose hosting platform uses Microsoft Hyper-V virtualization. The local data center that will host the environment offers 24/7 monitoring of servers and supports easy expansion. In addition, Bridgewater retired its tape drive backup in favor of online backup.

Acrowire is also shifting from Sage ACT Desktop app to Salesforce's online customer relationship management (CRM) tools. Since Bridgewater was using ACT only to manage new sales opportunities, Acrowire arranged for each salesperson to import their active contacts. The project took just 20 hours.

Microsoft, Salesforce, and Acrowire are responsible for disaster recovery for their cloud offerings. Each pledges documented, continuously tested continuity plans, with full redundancy across multiple physical locations for seamless failover.

Employees use Dell Dimension desktop PCs running Windows XP, Office 2007, Adobe Acrobat, and Ellie Mae Encompass360 loan-servicing software. All workers need remote access to e-mail through their PCs and through a mix of BlackBerry, iPhone, Android, and Palm devices. Microsoft's Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS)--which lets users sync their desktop data with any smartphone and use Outlook Web Access for access on personal desktops and laptops--is replacing the company's Microsoft Exchange server.

The Outcome

The biggest benefits of the migration to cloud-based services are the capability to scale infrastructure as the business grows and the reassurance that data is safe in the cloud, thanks to multifactor authentication and encryption.

Bridgewater's owner can spend his time helping customers rather than struggling in the server closet. He no longer has to deal with software security updates, "out of disk space" errors that shut down e-mail servers, or the need to rotate backup tapes between office and home.

The overhaul also saved money. The company previously spent some $3500 per year on downtime, software licenses, and subscriptions for its spam filter, antivirus software, and firewall maintenance. The owner had spent at least 120 hours trying to keep the lights on, with no room for enhancements.

Ted Theodoropoulos and Mike Zucker of Acrowire in front of Bridgewater's old server equipment.
Ted Theodoropoulos and Mike Zucker of Acrowire in front of Bridgewater's old server equipment.
The tech makeover cost only $2000 in consulting fees, and the new cloud services will cost $3000 annually--so Bridgewater should break even in about a year. In addition to reducing its ongoing costs, Bridgewater can enjoy improved productivity and reliability.

--Case study submitted by Ted Theodoropoulos, president of IT consulting firm Acrowire, which provides application development, infrastructure support, and business process improvement in Charlotte, North Carolina. Theodoropoulos is a Microsoft Certified Professional, and has worked for Microsoft as a product specialist on the client/server support team. He also spent 10 years as a senior vice president of technology compliance at Bank of America. You can reach Acrowire at 704-900-1601.

If you're an IT solutions provider serving the small to midsize business market, and you'd like to learn how you can contribute to PCWorld Tech Audit, send e-mail to techaudit@pcworld.com. We're always looking for more talented pros.

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