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Cloud players: king of the beasts right now

This month Dr Peter Chadha comes over all philosophical about vendors and exit strategies

In last month’s column, I talked about a modern-day business guru. But, there are plenty from ancient times who still have relevance for today’s IT-driven world. Take Aesop for example.  Yes, he of the fables.  My daughter came bouncing in from school recently having read one of his short allegories and our conversation really got me thinking.

What’s the story?
A lion texts a message to the rest of the nature reserve that he’s dying (This is 2013, so I’m modernising). He wants the animals to come and hear his last wishes. The goat arrives at the den and listens to the lion for a long time. Then a sheep arrives and, before she leaves, in goes a calf.

Time passes and the lion starts to recover, wanders to the mouth of his den for a bit of fresh air and sees a fox (yes, probably the same one that was after the bunch of grapes in another fable). The lion asks why the fox hadn’t entered the den to pay his respects. The fox replies: “Sorry, bruv, but I noticed plenty of my mates had already gone in, but there weren’t a whole load of hoof marks coming back out. Until I see them back in the open, I think I’ll chill here” (or words to that effect).

So what has any of this got to do with the cloud? Imagine the lion as a vendor and the animals as customers. Substitute its last Will and Testament for a service contract and you can start to see where I’m going with this.

Entering the lion’s den
Right now, the cloud is king of the IT jungle. Every other IT ad seems to be for a cloud provider, service or app. We haven’t yet seen the consolidation and casualties that result from the over-enthusiasm and over-capacity of any expanding market sector. But, that time will come.

When it does, the calls of vendors desperate to keep their businesses alive will attract the inexperienced and unwary, with potentially catastrophic consequences for their organisations. While some of these vendors may emerge, blinking, into the light of a new cloudscape, the costs to their clients may be significant. For those that don’t survive, they may well take their clients with them.

Staying alive
The species of our planet have generally found a way to live largely harmoniously – or at least in parallel - with their fellow animals. It’s no different in the cloud world. On the whole, vendors and their customers have a successful, collaborative and positive relationship. Suppliers are helping to transform both business and personal computing into an ever more accessible, reliable, always-on environment. 

However, it’s important to understand the law of the jungle to recognise and avoid the dangers. Ironically, it is the creature the lion fears most (according to Aesop in another fable) that can also lead businesses into the most trouble – the mouse. The ability to sign-up to cloud-based services with a couple of clicks means caution is key. This requires some simple common sense and a bit of jungle savvy.

  1. Know your surroundings: Research the cloud – its benefits, capabilities, opportunities and risks - before you enter (or move any further into the ‘cave’). Get a feel for the environment and talk to others already there. If you’re uncertain about which information to trust, genuinely independent IT consultants are often a good starting point.
  2. Know the inhabitants: Get to know the providers and support organisations that inhabit the cloud. The big beasts may provide protection, but may also have a less supportive approach to small organisations. Be realistic about where your business fits into the cloud ‘food chain’ and consider a vendor that works effectively at that level while allowing some room to expand.
  3. Understand the rules: It is essential to understand the key principles of cloud and the way in which services are supplied, supported and maintained. Thoroughly research service and contract structures, compare like-for-like as far as possible and consider issues of compliance, integration and compatibility before signing up.
  4. Know where the exits are:  The exit strategy is perhaps the most important element of the allegory. If you enter the lion’s den, you need to know how to escape if things are not all they seem when you first arrive. I have seen quite a few businesses being tied into long-term, inflexible, immutable contracts – whether knowingly or unwittingly – with no means of escape. In some cases, the financial and structural costs to these companies have been dramatic once they realised what they thought they had signed up for was not what they actually wanted or were sold. 

And the moral is…
Let me be absolutely clear: in most cases, cloud vendors aren’t predators waiting to swallow whole any unwary customer. However, like Aesop, my purpose is to forewarn. The moral Aesop provided was: “It is easier to get into the enemy's toils than out again.”  

Bring that moral into the time of cloud and it reads It is easier to sign-up for a cloud-based IT contract than walk away if you don’t like it.”

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