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Q&A: ‘Not every cloud is born equal’, look for the best provider advises expert

If you run a tech startup, it is most likely that you are using cloud computing to some extent. It is no longer a question of whether you should be using it but rather which platform or provider you should be using.

So, do you know which cloud platform or service is better suited for your startup or what pitfalls you should be looking out for?

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Andrew Cruise (pictured), managing director of Routed, a Cape Town-based vendor-neutral cloud hosting platform provider, encourages startups to take care when looking for the right cloud platform or service provider.

In considering which cloud provider to go with he cites six crucial things startups should look out for. These are: whether the providers specialises in the cloud and has a commercial focus on the cloud, their facilities and infrastructure capabilities, the hardware being used, the type of cloud management platform used, the suite of services on offer and what kind of data security is provided.

Proper use of cloud platforms saves money in the long run, however going with cheap providers will likely hurt startups

Cruise, in an interview with Ventureburn, details some other important things tech startups should consider when considering what cloud platform to go with, from cloud models that suit your startup to pitfalls that you should look out for.

Ventureburn: Do you have an idea on the latest statistics around cloud adoption by small business in South Africa?

Andrew Cruise: Not specifically, but conversationally almost all businesses in South Africa seem to have a cloud strategy, but we are still at the beginning of the curve for adoption, especially for internal apps.

VB: What do you think are the most common applications of cloud services being employed by South African small businesses?

AC: Colloquially, it is assumed that businesses tend to start with backup, test or dev and disaster recovery services. However, interestingly and I think due to our somewhat late adoption, South African businesses are leapfrogging these cloud entry points and going straight to Infrastructure-as-a-Service (virtual private cloud or VPC).

The technologies and product sets around VPC are globally now quite mature and where overseas businesses initially resisted going all in (by starting with less critical, but more painful (to them) services, like backup for example.) I think local businesses are quite comfortable migrating production data centres into the cloud or even starting there instead of buying servers internally.

VB: Where could startups go wrong when it comes to cloud platforms and services, what pitfalls should they be looking out for?

AC: Not every cloud is born equal, look for best of breed. There is a lot of cloud washing going on and service providers whose focus is typically elsewhere, for example internet or IT services are jumping on the wave of public opinion, sometimes not being well enough funded or resourced to do a good enough job.

Service providers that do it all themselves are unlikely to do it all well. Go with a cloud specialist or with someone who partners with or resells services from a cloud specialist.

VB: What are the five main challenges tech startups or small businesses face using cloud platforms and how can they be overcome or be avoided?

AC: Firstly, not going for cheap providers. Assuming it’s cheap. Proper use of the cloud will save money in the long run but this is not due to saving on direct costs, but more through efficiencies and saving on opportunity costs and reduction of risk — it’s a strategic play. If you go with the cheap providers you are likely to get burnt.

Secondly, not having the support of senior management. Like all major projects involving business critical services, migrating to cloud needs evangelists in decision making positions.

Thirdly, not having the buy-in of IT teams. This is a tough one. IT Professionals may see cloud migration as a one-way ticket to unemployment. Businesses need to understand and educate themselves and their staff as to the benefits to their users and their IT teams, who will have more time and resource available to add value to the business.

Fourthly, not choosing the right services. It’s a minefield out there and everyone is jostling for a piece of the pie. Sound advice from a trusted consultant (either internal or outsourced) is needed to identify which functions are suitable to cloud and which should be kept in-house (not everything works in the cloud!)

Fifth is not choosing the right provider. Similarly there is growing competition among providers in offering services, and time needs to be taken to assess service providers to choose the right partner for your business.

VB: What should startups be mindful of when it comes to data security issues associated with cloud platforms and services?

AC: Businesses’ biggest concerns around cloud are security, performance and availability. By far the most important is security. This involves not only the service provider securing the network and infrastructure, but also the business or customer securing their own environment.

Critically, businesses need to acknowledge that security is a shared responsibility and ensure they have internal assistance in getting this right. Data security also requires reliable backup and archiving and disaster recovery in light of recent WannaCry, Petya and NotPetya ransomware.

All cloud providers will have issues, what’s more important is how they are dealt with

VB: When should a startup change a cloud platform service provider?

AC: All cloud providers, even Amazon Web Services, Microsoft or Google, will have issues, more important is how they are dealt with and how you as a business feel your provider is avoiding known risks and mitigating against potential threats to the availability, performance and security of their platform.

Regular downtime or performance degradation, twice a quarter or three to four times a year is a red flag that should not be ignored.

This is usually caused by a lack of investment in collocation facilities, hardware and warranty or support, virtualisation and cloud management software, expertise (qualified engineers) in architecture or deploying, managing and supporting the infrastructure – so if you want to pre-empt downtime, find out about these things in advance.

VB: What should startups that decide to move from one cloud service platform to another look out for and how best could they prepare for that?

AC: One angle to consider is that your existing service provider will not be best pleased at losing business and at the best of times will not assist in any migrations, at worst may be deliberately obstructive.

One way to pre-empt this is to ensure that the service provider is contractually obliged to assist with egress (getting data out) as well as ingress, in the master service agreement or other contractual documentation.

You may even wish to migrate in secret without informing your existing provider of your intentions, to avoid this ugliness. Another thing to watch out for is contracts with lengthy terms and onerous renewal conditions that make it difficult to cancel.

VB: Which cloud models are best for certain startups, for example which would be more appropriate for fintech, healthtech, edtech or ecommerce?

AC: This is a massive minefield with no correct answer. Most service providers only offer a contractual model, which allows specific resources to be contracted to for a term. Almost all startups will benefit from a pay-per-use model, which enables flexibility in growth, but just like a pay as you go cellular plan, may be more expensive on a unit basis.

In terms of the different cloud platforms, businesses which are built in the cloud like ecommerce, are typically suited to the hyperscale public cloud providers (Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure) as they will have mature application programme interfaces and are more suited to developers.

For business, critical internal workloads, that is replacing internal data centres, more traditional hardware and virtualisation software is best as its usually a lift and shift of Microsoft Virtual Servers, so go for a VMWare based cloud.

VB: What do you think are the five main cloud services that tech startups should definitely consider and why?

AC: Anything that reduces reliance on internal infrastructure and resource, freeing up people to add value elsewhere: hosted email like Office365 Exchange Online, backup or archiving, disaster recovery, infrastructure as a service for internal business critical applications (replacing the internal data centre) and cloud hosting for public applications like websites and mobile apps

What might be more pertinent is what startups should not consider… until connectivity and software improve (it won’t be long though) hosted telephony and web-conferencing should probably be avoided. It’s a bad image to perpetuate if your calls are jittery or your web conference facility is no better than free Skype.

Featured image: Andrew Cruise managing director of Routed.

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