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Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Enterprise Apps: The Next Generation

The trade-offs of cloud migration: Be careful what you give up

Cloud has become the de facto choice for hosting enterprise apps. However, there are some trade-offs that are often underestimated.

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A few years ago there was a television commercial in which seemingly every problem was solved when an actor suddenly exclaimed "to the cloud!" as the solution to whatever computing challenge was at hand. In most modern IT organizations this scene has come to resemble reality, and the majority of IT leaders are now considering cloud-based enterprise applications as the default solution, with more traditional internal or external hosting models a distant second place.

There are dozens of good reasons for moving applications and infrastructure to the cloud; however, it's not always the right answer, and there are legitimate points that are often given only superficial thought. Here are some of the prime considerations to weigh before confidently exclaiming "to the cloud!" in response to your own IT challenges.

Fitted versus one-size-fits-all applications

The greatest asset of cloud-based applications can also be a key weakness. Cloud has made its mark by providing rapid provisioning and simplified pricing of generic applications and services; this is a boon for commodity IT services. Why host your own email system or ticket management application when someone else can do it better for less money?

As you look at core applications and services that differentiate your company, be mindful that a 'one size fits all' solution can create more problems than it solves. Just as a tailored suit or a dress fits your individual body perfectly, so, too, can a 'fitted' application differentiate your company or deliver a service that would require costly integration and customization efforts in the cloud.

Tailored suits look great, but they come at a price -- so, too, do 'fitted' enterprise applications. This cost can be money well spent in many cases, especially for applications that enable a differentiated product or service. Instead of assuming the cloud is the right solution, consider whether customization on the application or infrastructure side could generate a differentiated or strategic capability that is otherwise unavailable off the shelf.

IT muscles atrophy

It may have seemed impossible just a few years ago, but in many cases it's now possible to run an entire company without an IT department. A few contractors and vendors can augment users in provisioning basic infrastructure, while an array of cloud providers can deliver everything from CRM to data visualization. This comes at a price in organizational capabilities.

If anything from a failed router to upgrading your accounting software depends on external parties, you're at their mercy for diagnosis, support, and upgrade. A relatively straightforward enhancement that might be easily completed by a couple of internal resources becomes a significant procurement effort when your 'IT muscles' have atrophied or are non-existent.

An internal IT capability has a significant expense component, just like accounting, sales, or finance, and IT is becoming a strategic capability at even smaller companies. There's no defined company size, industry, or benchmark that will clearly tell you what level of internal IT capability you need, but consider the cost as well as the benefits, just as you'd think about any other capability.

Stability

Perhaps the worst aspect of cloud computing is when something goes wrong, and a critical application is unavailable. You'll start with a few hours of internal troubleshooting, and then rather than walking down the hall or calling a list of internal experts, you'll have to navigate the vendor's support structures. These can range from a dedicated support number staffed by competent technical resources, to an online form that provides no updates, fix estimates, or might not even be accessible in the event of a major vendor outage.

Internal IT has never been perfect, but there's a certain assurance provided by a dedicated staff that can be seen working to fix a problem, and can be interacted with directly, rather than a nameless, faceless web form. In the worst case, the company providing a key application might disappear seemingly overnight, leaving you without access to the application or your data, and no real means of recourse. Even Fortune 500 companies suddenly abandon cloud offerings, potentially forcing you into an unplanned migration or frantic search for a new provider.

Vet potential losses against perceived benefits

Good contracts and vendor vetting can help, but at the end of the day moving to the cloud requires you to place significant faith in the capabilities, longevity, and stability of the provider you've engaged. As cloud providers have matured, and industry peers, analysts, and consultants have been able to establish a track record for many vendors, some of these risks have been mitigated. Even then, it's easy to ignore what you lose by moving to the cloud, and to not account for the financial risks that a cloud transition entails.

Be aware of the immediate and the longer-term risks to your organization by moving key applications outside your walls. Vetting these losses against the perceived benefits will ensure you make a wise move, rather than something you'll regret in a matter of months.