How to choose your cloud provider: AWS, Google or Microsoft?

Tech leaders share their cloud strategies and decision making.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

The public cloud is fast becoming the platform of choice for IT leaders and their line-of-business counterparts. Worldwide spending on public cloud services and infrastructure is forecast to hit $160 billion in 2018, according to researcher IDC, which represents a 23 percent increase on 2017 investment levels.

Yet while the pace of the move to on-demand IT continues to quicken, CIOs are faced with a bewildering option of providers and services. How should organisations manage this selection process? Five IT leaders share their experiences of finding the right balance for their business.

1. Make the most of the range of options

Aaron Powell, chief digital officer at NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT), says he didn't set out to have a single-provider cloud approach. In fact, he embraces choice. "I have an instinctive preference for having more than one cloud provider," says Powell.

SEE: What is cloud computing? Everything you need to know about the cloud, explained

The organisation uses Azure for some services, such as a portal for blood donors, and Microsoft applications run natively on the provider's cloud platform. NHSBT also uses the IBM cloud to take advantage of analytical technologies.

Powell's approach differs from the stance of some experts. He recalls how he sat in a room with an executive from a big-name consultancy firm 18 months ago. The consultant told Powell no other CIOs were relying on a multi-cloud strategy. In fact, he was told by the executive that having more than one provider was a daft idea.

However, the multi-cloud strategy works well at NHSBT - and Powell believes other IT leaders will follow suit. "My sense is that reliance on a single provider is becoming less true and that more people are using a range of cloud providers," he says. "That range gives us a sense of resilience and a higher level of security."

2. Remain flexible to meet new business demands

The Met Office is taking a novel approach to on-demand IT, which eschews hybrid cloud strategies in favour of the adoption of public services. The organisation, which is the UK's national weather service, has been using on-demand provision for the past 24 months.

James Tomkins, chief architect at the Met Office, says cloud is a key element of a broader business transformation project. The organisation has embraced a three-pronged strategy, where in-house capability has been reinforced by AWS and support from third-party specialist Cloudreach.

"Moving to the cloud is all about finding the provider that's right for your organisation," says Tomkins. "We conducted a survey and went to market and engaged with all the major providers. Our decision was based around our business requirements, because we do have a unique demand in terms of data volumes."

The Met Office's relationship with Amazon is by no means exclusive. IT leaders must flex on-demand provision in-line with business demands. "So, although our internal development is focused on Amazon, we also deploy some of our services in Azure and our productivity applications also make use of the Office 365 platform," says Tomkins.

3. Stay open to give your clients choices

Akash Khurana, CIO and CDO at engineering specialist McDermott International, says the customer perspective is crucial. "Our clients use a broad range of platforms, so I cannot take an offering to one of our customers and say that they should only work with a certain provider," he says.

SEE: Top cloud providers 2018: How AWS, Microsoft, Google Cloud Platform, IBM Cloud, Oracle, Alibaba stack up

"That creates an interesting design challenge for our firm. We must figure out the product and platform that we're building, and think about how we make it available to our clients. We want to make sure the products we build are agnostic."

Khurana says open source technology presents a range of options for CIOs. Openness is crucial. He says IT leaders must ensure the choices they make do not lock their business into a way of working that also restricts its customer base.

"We need to make sure we use the capabilities of cloud providers like Google, Amazon Web Services and Azure to create the right storage and computing power. Once again, we're building our platform to ensure it is technologically agnostic," he says.

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4. Pick the provider that's right for your business

Julian Burnett, CIO at retailer House of Fraser, has used all the big cloud platforms during his IT leadership career. He worked with Amazon at Sainsbury's, with Google at John Lewis and, now in his present role, he is using Microsoft. House of Fraser has moved all colleague-facing technology to the Office 365 platform and is also using Azure.

SEE: Special report: The cloud v. data center decision (free PDF)

"There's always several factors at play when you're talking about these platforms," says Burnett, referring to selection criteria. While Amazon are "great", he says IT leaders must be careful to select organisations that do not create potential business conflicts. Amazon, for example, are a retailer as well as a cloud provider.

Burnett says he remains "very close" to some of the top people at Google and thinks the technology provides a fantastic platform. "They've been very thoughtful about moving towards being more than just a compute infrastructure, and creating a data infrastructure and processing platform for big data. I've got a lot of time for that trajectory," he says

However, Burnett says Microsoft is right for his business. "Azure offers an effective, price-performant and scalable compute platform," he says. "We've spent some time recently looking at Azure's big data capabilities and that's worthwhile, too. Overall, Azure's as good as any of the big three for what we require of the cloud."

5. Push as much to the cloud as possible

Brad Dowden, CIO at recruitment specialist Airswift, runs about 95 percent of his firm's enterprise applications on the cloud. Airswift is a heavy user of Microsoft's on-demand tools. The firm uses Dynamics 365, Office 365 and runs email in the cloud.

Dowden has also helped migrated in-house data to OneDrive and SharePoint. The result is a clean break from the traditional approach of managing and maintaining internal applications in a dedicated data centre.

"We don't have any physical, on premise storage," says Dowden. "We have some legacy systems that we've moved to the cloud and they run on Azure. Those applications will have a lifespan that we know already and they will also be decommissioned on the cloud."

Dowden says the only data sources that are not connected to the cloud are those that must be stored locally for legal purposes. "For those, we do use file servers to hold local data," he says. "But, otherwise, all our data is in the cloud and everything is synchronised, so users can access everything from a single mobile device."


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