Death in the Cloud


Author: Steven Zolman

Fans of so-called cloud computing (or SaaS, if you like) will tout any number of positive benefits of using a network-based, non-locally-installed software program. And, to be fair, there are many: lowered (or no) installation costs, lowered support costs, instant scalability and right-sized usage, etcetera. They'll also usually talk about deployment speed, with virtually turnkey-like timing to go from nothing to everything. But almost never do the fans (or the service providers themselves) mention the downsides, especially the biggest one - death of the service.

The logic is simple: no one wants to believe that the service will ever cease to exist. I understand the mentality and the reasoning, but it’s naive to believe that these services (or providers) will be around forever, even when the service provider is the size of Salesforce.com, Google or Microsoft. I'm not talking about a too-big-to-fail scenario here, that's a post for another day. Rather, I'm talking about the simple realization that in the cloud, you tie your continued operations to the whim of the service provider.

A little more than a year ago, Google announced a new service called the Google Wave. It was described as "a new web application for real-time communication and collaboration" (http://wave.google.com/about.html) and some said it would not only change communications as we know it, but would end email. Thousands of users flocked to the service - interested in the new platform and the ways in which Google Wave would enhance collaboration. Even if you never understood the service or used it yourself, many others did... and some to the point of reliance for portions of their business operations. (http://www.helium.com/items/1664764-google-wave-and-business)

On August 4th of this year, however, Google announced that they were turning it off (http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2010/08/update-on-google-wave.html) at the end of the year. Poof. Gone. And, in a spirit of helpfulness, Google says that they're working on tools to "so that users can easily 'liberate' their content from Wave."

But those tools don't yet exist and Google is under no obligation to make them available - they're just "working" on them. So anyone who adopted Google Wave now hopes for a solution before Google completely shuts Wave down.

The moral of this story is simple: make sure that you have considered the eventuality of the cloud dissipating before your very eyes. For that reason, NET(net) recommends 7 rules for working in the cloud:

1. Get it in writing. Make sure you have a signed agreement that lists the responsibilities of the service provider, especially as it relates to shutting off the service.

2. Transition. Within the agreement, verify that there is a clear path to a NO-COST-TO-YOU data export and/or migration assistance process so that your data isn't trapped in an arcane or unusable format... or simply thrown away. Or, in the event that you WANT to transition to somewhere else, make sure you have the blueprints (http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2010/08/hp-holds-navy-network-hostage/).

3. Notice. Consider how long it took you to decide upon the specific course of action that led you to the cloud. Ask for that same amount of time as a notice period in the event the service provider plans to shut down. Additionally, ask for "most favored nations" status to keep your data available and alive for as long as the longest commitment they have to any other customer.

4. Backup. In addition to transition costs, you should still be getting a data extract or backup on a regular basis. NEVER rely on the cloud provider for the only copy or even the only backup copy of your data.

5. Ownership. Remember that you ALWAYS own your data, even in the cloud. Be clear on this point in the agreement.

6. Fees. Payment for a year or more up front may net you discounts, but be cautious with new service providers. It's much safer to pay over time, even if you pay a little more, than to pay up front and have the service provider go Poof. If you're going to pay up front, make sure that it's clear that you're still paying for service for a specified time period and that early termination will result in a pro-rata refund.

7. Escrow. Rare these days is a software supplier that offers escrow. Especially for cloud computing, most customers realize that they don't have the technology to bring up all that is necessary to re-establish the entire hosted environment... and so they concede the escrow desire in the face of reality. But even if you know that it's impractical, you should still ask for it - FOR FREE. Merely include the ability to have a licensed version of the software installed locally in the event of a service shut-down. The longer you're with a provider, the more ingrained the app becomes to your business - local installation feasibility may change over time and AN option is always better than NO option.

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