What To Look For In A Cloud Hosting Provider

In my April article I wrote about Demystifying Cloud Computing.  In June I wrote about the Benefits of Cloud Server Hosting.  This month I focus on what a small or mid-sized business should look for when selecting a cloud hosting provider.

Let’s assume you’re ready to move your legacy applications to the cloud and eliminate your aging and expensive-to-maintain on-premise server(s).  Great!  Now come the questions…

  • Who can help me figure out how to do this – without risk and without needing to become an IT expert?
  • How many servers are needed? With what processors?  Memory?  Disk space?
  • Who will migrate the data? How long will it take?  How much downtime will we incur?
  • What will it really cost each month?
  • Who will provide support?
  • What if I’m not happy with the result?

You first thought may be to work with the giants in the cloud hosting industry… Amazon, Microsoft and Google.  Their platforms and service offerings are, after all, incredibly broad and deep.  The downside is that they require that you decide what’s needed, that you configure everything (from security gateways to disk storage to backup, and much more), and that you manage the server infrastructure.  This works well – but only if your business has the internal IT technical expertise (something few small and mid-sized businesses have).

For most small and mid-sized businesses, you’re far better off choosing a cloud hosting partner that will do the heavy lifting and simplify the hundreds of options (and decisions) that need to be made, and then be there to provide unlimited support.  That’s where smaller cloud hosting providers come in, and why they play such a critical role in helping small business to successfully embrace cloud computing.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t carefully investigate potential service providers.  Here’s a short list of the questions you should be asking:

  • Will the cloud provider perform the necessary discovery to create the right, long-term cloud architecture for my business?
    This means that the provider needs to invest the time to clearly understand your overall business model, the Line-of-Business (LoB) applications you use, planned changes (if any) to these LoB applications, the underlying databases used by the applications, the technical resources needed (like CPUs, server memory and disk space), the number of users that will be concurrently accessing the infrastructure, etc.  If a cloud provider is not willing (even if at a fee) to do this, watch out!
  • Will the cloud provider take responsibility for completely configuring the server infrastructure (so we don’t have to)?
    This is critical, since one of your key objectives in moving to the cloud is likely to reduce the need for (and cost of) IT experts on staff.
  • What security measures will be in place to protect my data from viruses and theft?
    The cloud provider should be able to configure and support a secure, site-to-site virtual private network (VPN) gateway to allow all the users in your office to automatically and securely connect to the cloud servers (just as if the servers were in in your own office).  And they should be able to do this without you having to be come a “firewall expert.”
  • Do they provide a satisfaction guarantee?
    It really does take something of a leap of faith to make the transition from in-house to cloud servers.  You are, after all, giving up some control.  And in the back of your mind is… “will it work?”  Your provider should provide a 30 to 60 day period, after you go-live, during which, if you’re not happy, they’ll move your data back to your old servers.  Only after the guarantee period should any longer-term contractual commitments begin.
  • Is there a clear policy on backup & disaster recovery?
    Both a clearly defined backup plan and contingency plan should be in place. An example is a full daily snapshot kept for a rolling 30 days, with server images replicated continuously to a second (geographically redundant) data center.  The frequency of the backup and the length of the data retention should be adjustable and should address your unique tolerance for downtime.
  • Who owns my data?
    It’s your data, and only you should have commercial access to it. Your cloud provider is only a caretaker and should have no legal right to the data itself.  Knowing the steps (up front) to exit from a cloud provider is important.  And don’t forget to ask what happens to your data if the provider goes out of business.
  • Are training and support included?
    This is often the difference between success and failure. Be sure to verify that the provider will teach you how to access your cloud server platform.  And be sure to understand what is and isn’t covered when you call with a question of an issue.  Is support limited to business hours, or is it available 24 x 7?  Is the cost of support included in the monthly hosting fee, or is it additional?  What is the maximum turnaround time to receive a call back?
  • Will the cloud provider allow for easy scalability (up and down)?
    What happens if you need to add additional servers? More processing power?  More users?  And what happens if you wish to scale back some or all the above?
  • Is the data center purpose-built for the task?
    Is the data center highly secure, with access highly restricted? Is there enough battery and diesel (generator) power to ensure operation even in the face of a prolonged local outage?  If you can, consider an on-site visit to help you understand the technology in place.
  • Do they meet necessary regulatory compliance?
    Examples: If you’re in health care, are they HIPAA compliant?  If you’re in finance, do they meet FINRA regulations?  Do they need to meet DoD cybersecurity regulations?  Is the data center SOC 1 (SSAE18 / ISAE3402), SOC 2, HIPAA and PCI DSS compliant.
  • Will they provide me with reference checks of similar clients?
    Be sure to conduct reference checks with established clients that have been with the cloud provider for longer than the initial contracted term. This will help you to validate that the provider cares about and provides the right level of service and support to its client base.

Take the time to fully vet your potential cloud partners, and trust your instincts!  This will ensure that your business gets the best possible cloud solution… one that fits today, and for years to come.  Need assistance?  Call me.  I’ll be glad to help.


About The Author

Evan BerkEvan Berk is Managing Partner at Certus Technologies, an IT Managed and Cloud Services firm that specializes in helping clients dramatically improve their business productivity.

Evan is passionate about simplifying and demystifying complex Information Technology systems and believes that the best IT systems should make our lives easier and more productive, both in the workplace and at home. He can be contacted at EBerk@CertusTechnologies.com or at 973-944-5000.

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