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How to pick the right cloud provider

Updated: March 14, 2011 03:18 PM EDT
To find the right cloud provider, you want to do more than type the names of a few providers in a search engine. (©iStockphoto.com/Thinkstock) To find the right cloud provider, you want to do more than type the names of a few providers in a search engine. (©iStockphoto.com/Thinkstock)

By Todd Wasserman for IT Insider

As cloud computing pervades more and more of our everyday lives, it's not surprising that small to midsized businesses are also seeing the benefits. The question is, How exactly do you go about embracing the cloud?

To find the right cloud provider, you want to do more than type the names of a few providers in a search engine. But sorting through the mushrooming number of cloud providers crowding the market can be difficult. Because there's no third-party rating system for cloud computing firms -- and no directory either -- experts advise that the best way to seek a cloud computing provider is to do it the way you'd find any other service provider. "My biggest recommendation is forget about the cloud and just think we're finding a vendor to work with," says Patrick Grey, president of the Prevoyance Group. "Don't get caught up in the cloud." 

On the other hand, Charles King, principal analyst of Pund-IT, notes that cloud computing has its own particular issues. "You're really looking at something you're going to be engaged with 24/7/365," says King. "You really have to have a mind for what you need and what constitutes good quality."

Both Grey and King agree, however, that the key to finding a cloud computing vendor is following best practices. A few guidelines:

1) Use metrics.

Set benchmarks to measure good performance. Be realistic, though: 100 percent isn't always achievable, but maybe 99.9 percent is. Get a sense from prospective vendors what is possible and what's not.

2) Network.

The best resources for choosing prospective vendors are other IT decision-makers and other vendors. You might have luck cold-calling prospective vendors with a Google search, but you're better off talking to people who actually deal with the vendors. "You would be well-advised to touch base with vendors you work with closely," says King. "You basically have to get out and work the networks and see what you can find."

3) Make a test case.

A good way to test a prospective vendor is to give them a non-essential part of your business first. When you eventually move more critical pieces over, though, internalize Murphy's Law. "You have to have a plan if everything goes south," says Grey, and that plan would likely be to move to another provider or to move everything back in-house.

4) Consider data storage and security.

Take a look at how a cloud provider's data storage, data security and security infrastructures work. How do these firms protect your data? What kind of security measures are in place?

5) Use a service-level agreement.

For critical, sophisticated or big projects, include a service-level agreement detailing which metrics need to be met and what penalties will ensue if they're not met. Gray recommends "penalties that escalate at an increasing rate as the severity of the violation increases."

King cautions that the cloud computing business is the Wild West right now. "There's an awful lot of interest in the cloud area right now," says King, "but a lot of companies can't quite deliver on the services they're promising." Beyond kicking the tires, King suggests that you have a good idea of what you want if you're in the market for a cloud computing provider. Otherwise, says King, "It's a bit like going into a grocery store without a shopping list. If you don't know what you want for dinner, you're going to wind up with a lot of stuff in your cart."

Todd Wasserman is a New York-based journalist whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, Adweek, The Hollywood Reporter, Business 2.0 and Inc.

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