Cloud sourcing: Consolidate suppliers or go best of breed?

If you are going with public cloud services, there is a certain appeal to centralizing your apps with as few suppliers as possible to minimize the management overhead. But given the recent outages with Amazon and other leading players, some observers say you’re better off using a multi-cloud sourcing strategy. What’s more, a slew of specialized SaaS offerings are emerging that give you the option of taking a best of breed approach. Experts argue opposing views about cloud sourcing strategy.

The Experts
Steven C Burrell
Steven C Burrell

Vice President for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer at Georgia Southern University says it is better to standardize on as few cloud service providers as possible because dealing with multiple suppliers adds complexity, administrative overhead and multiplies security concerns. View debate

Ed Mahon
Ed Mahon

CIO of Kent State argues that the diversity of the cloud supplier ecosystem lets you pick best of breed, and the benefits of that outweigh the downsides of managing multiple suppliers. View debate

Steven C Burrell

Limiting your suppliers increases control

The proliferation of public cloud services presents a tempting opportunity to pursue best of breed solutions from multiple vendors, but there are potential hidden costs and risks associated with this approach. By carefully choosing and developing cloud services with a single partner (or as few as possible), IT organizations can realize efficiencies while providing reliable applications and mitigating risks of data loss and extended service outages. What’s more, the IT team can then focus on delivering innovation and contributing to the bottom line.

Reasons frequently cited for adopting a cloud strategy include reduced time for application and infrastructure provisioning, flexible capacity, lack of internal technical resources, the benefit of variable costs, and a reduction in total cost of ownership, among other business-specific drivers. But if your reasons for adoption include cost and efficiency parameters then you should also be cognizant of potential costs amplified by a multi-solution approach.

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Multi-vendor cloud deployments impose additional complexities and administrative overhead, including the need to:

  • Manage multiple contracts and business relationships.
  • Monitor and enforce multiple service-level agreements.
  • Monitor systems performance, conducting root-cause analysis on issues and applying resolutions.
  • Manage multiple charge-back schemas if you’re passing costs on in your organization.
  • Perform audits on multiple cloud service providers to meet compliance requirements.

There are also technical complexities to consider:

  • Managing resources across multiple providers often requires the use of third-party services that provide a consolidated management platform for server and application monitoring, access controls and policy enforcement.
  • Programming with multiple APIs or employing costly API middleware to create integrations among applications.
  • Network connections to multiple cloud providers must be managed to ensure peak performance and security. 
  • And using multiple providers means maintaining multiple network management schemas. 

Security is often a primary concern when adopting cloud services and the multi-vendor approach poses some additional challenges:

  • Managing multiple security schemas introduces complexity and risk and can require additional resources to monitor and manage.
  • Single sign-on capabilities among disparate cloud providers may require additional third-party services or create additional complexities on developers.
  • Security managers may incur additional overhead for enforcing security policy and meeting compliance requirements.

One of the key benefits of standardization on as few cloud services as possible is limiting the variety of environments you manage, thus reducing your administrative overhead. Minimizing this overhead leads directly to operational expense savings. And when you are dealing with a single (or a few) provider(s), your staff becomes well versed in the environment, which enhances IT agility, speed of service delivery, elasticity of services and acceptance of new systems.

Cloud services now dominate IT deployments for most CIOs who are cost, value and time conscious. As the CIO of a large and complex research university I’m responsible for the technologies that operate many businesses inside the institution, such as transportation, food service, hotels (residence halls), healthcare, public safety, sports entertainment, and of course, education and research. As is certainly true for other business organizations, the ideal of using a single cloud service provider is probably unrealistic, but it is still ideal to strive to use as few suppliers as possible.

At Georgia Southern University we’ve standardized largely on Google as our primary cloud service provider. Our strategy is to leverage Google’s capabilities to provide cloud-based applications, compute and storage capabilities that serve the diverse needs of the university. We do leverage other cloud services, but only after careful consideration of the many issues, complexities and requisite resources associated with adding providers.

Our experience hasn’t been without difficulties or tense moments, but as a result we’ve significantly reduced costs, improved service availability, and fostered an environment of innovation that leads to improved services for our students.

While concerns about vendor lock-in in a single-provider scenario are legitimate, these concerns can be effectively managed and planned for:

  • Choose vendor-agnostic applications that will run in many cloud vendor infrastructures, which will help keep your options open. Open source solutions often provide excellent levels of functionality and reliability. Moreover, they’re portable among many cloud providers.
  • Have an exit strategy and make sure that strategy and any associated costs are part of your continuity of operations plans.
  • Consider where your data resides and if the provider utilizes data replication services across multiple sites and infrastructures.
  • If you deploy instances in multiple data centers of a single cloud provider you can realize comparable redundancy you might obtain from multiple cloud providers.
  • Negotiate a performance-based contract with solid service-level agreements you can live with. Take an honest look at your business.  Can you live with a minor outage? You probably did before you consolidated services in the cloud. 
  • Write contracts that provide clear dispute resolution agreements. Taking the time to build a clear and favorable language helps mitigate risks associated with billing disputes or a disagreement over the interpretation of a contract that can cause rifts in your relationship with a cloud provider, which may lead to service disruptions.
  • Work with your network and cloud provider to optimize the route between your points of business and your service provider. Discuss and document up-front what the capabilities are for optimization and alternate path utilization.

Even if your organization doesn’t adopt a single-vendor approach, but rather limits cloud service partners, the concepts presented here will help ensure you’re making contributions to your organization's bottom line while limiting costs and mitigating risks. For Georgia Southern University, this strategy has helped enhance services, reduce costs and improve graduation rates for students. That’s something everyone can be proud of.

Steven C Burrell, Vice President for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer, Georgia Southern University

Ed Mahon

Multi-sourced delivers best of breed

Most CIOs agree the cloud is no longer an if but a when, so the question now is how to orchestrate the transition. Once you have determined which applications and services should migrate, you have to decide if your organization should go with a single vendor or multiple cloud suppliers. For enterprises looking to the cloud to increase efficiencies, effectiveness and customer satisfaction, a multi-cloud sourcing strategy is the way to go because multiple vendors provide the flexibility and the rich functionality required. 

The following are the most compelling arguments for a multi-cloud sourcing strategy:

  • Only a multi-provider solution can suffice for all of your cloud needs. Currently, only a multiple-vendor cloud solution can effectively meet the vast and continuously changing needs of the enterprise. Large organizations, after all, have a wide range of complex needs that would be hard – if not impossible – for any one supplier to address. What’s more, going with multiple providers makes it easier to develop and implement effective solutions.
  • Having multiple providers is cheaper. The very existence of multiple vendors in a marketplace causes prices to drop. Providers who specialize only in certain services or areas of expertise can charge lower prices.
  • Having multiple providers is quicker. There are many providers who offer plug and play cloud solutions which can make things as easy as possible. (Google Apps has a basic sign-up with no installations needed)
  • Using multiple hypervisors doesn’t have to be a big deal. Providers are making it easy to move virtual machines from hypervisor to hypervisor so mixing and matching suppliers doesn’t come at the expense of flexibility.
  • Multiple exit strategies doesn’t mean double the difficulty. Exit strategies do not have to be hard, and once you have developed one you can leverage the same core with multiple providers.

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While the process of selecting multiple cloud solutions can be lengthier, it is important to remember that going this route will ultimately make the enterprise more efficient, with the benefits outweighing the extra effort required. After all, in an on-premise enterprise environment we avoid single solution environments so we can take advantage of hardware and software competition, and the cloud is no different.

In fact, one of the most enticing things about the cloud is the availability of a wide range of specialized services. A full range of services will not be available from any one cloud provider; it is the variety of vendors and their expertise that provides enterprises with the ability to pick and choose the services that best fit their needs. 

When and if you decide a multi-cloud environment is right for you, transition issues you’ll need to address include:

  • How to remain agile while maintaining overall costs
  • How to develop a strategy that manages risk, addresses staff skills, and takes into account a sustainable timeline
  • How to assess vendors and make selections

I suggest pursuing a broader cloud effort that includes more than just Infrastructure as a Service  plumbing because the payoff is greater.  And if you go broad, that more or less makes the multi-cloud vendor approach inevitable.

 

For example, if you take a broader view you’ll soon recognize the need for applications and infrastructure components that likely won’t be available from vendors that would be selected to manage, say, an archiving solution or cloud based virtualized server environment.

Granted, a multiple-vendor solution will make a cloud vendor exit strategy more complex. However, the functions and benefits from having a range of vendors outweigh the small amount of extra work required to develop multiple exit strategies, especially if you can model each exit strategy after a core strategy. Moreover, exit strategies are only used if you decide something is wrong, which may never happen if the appropriate research and discussion with vendor(s) is completed prior to the migration.

When you take all of this together, it is clear enterprises can move forward with multiple cloud vendors to develop not only a feasible solution, but a preferable one.

Ed Mahon is CIO at Kent State University.

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