With the rapid-fire turnover in new technology these days, many must-have, “cutting edge” models and services are becoming obsolete almost overnight. Even the infrastructure available today will soon be as laughable as the giant cell phones in an ‘80s movie.

With a government initiative giving the cloud even further validity, technology’s newest kid on the block is starting to look even more appealing.

A Sign of the Times: Cloud First

In 2011, the U.S. government launched the Cloud First initiative requiring agencies to evaluate computing options prior to making any new investments in IT. They further sweetened the deal by allocating a hefty sum of $20 billion, or one quarter of its entire IT budget, to the cloud computing model.

Aside from putting its money where its mouth is, the federal government also made a bold statement by adopting this initiative: If the cloud is safe for government use, it’s safe for any business, even those with stringent compliance requirements. Accepting this assumption with open arms, cloud providers went into development overdrive hoping to snag a piece of that $20 billion pie. As a result, cloud computing should only get better over time. Some changes in cloud computing that are expected to take place down the road include:

  • Increased infrastructure
  • Lower pricing
  • Efficiency improvements
  • Enhanced security
  • Compliance compatible
  • Agility improvements
  • Innovation improvements
  • A Trend toward Zero Assets?

Gartner provided another endorsement for cloud technology when it predicted by the end of 2012, 20 percent of businesses will have absolutely no IT assets *—that’s one in every five businesses. Based on the rise of cloud computing, virtualization, cloud-enabled services and the high utilization of  corporate networks for personal desktops and notebooks, it’s conceivable that some businesses will be able move quickly toward having absolutely no IT assets at all.

It’s a gutsy statement. But if it’s true, what in the world could be driving so many businesses to change their entire IT business models at the speed of light? For many, it comes down to saving money pure and simple, and they’re finding that switching to the cloud seems to be their best option.

Data loss, whether due to a disaster or outage, equates to employee and customer frustration, compliance penalties and general chaos. Frankly, any type of outage can negatively affect a business due to lost records and/or permanently scarred transactions and accounting files. With this in mind, organizations realize the value in backing up data so they don’t lose money. In the past, this often meant budgeting and spending large amounts for backup infrastructure, such as tape or some configuration of disk-to-disk.

The Trouble with Tape

For many years, tape-based backup was the gold standard for the majority of businesses. Yet with tape, only the simplest restorations are possible, and only then if everything goes perfectly. Restorations can fail for a hundred different reasons, and even simple failures require a day or two to get new hardware in place before recovery is accomplished, causing frustration, wasted time and additional money.

Some common examples of this are:

  • Failed tapes that are unusable for recovery.
  • Loss of data due to time lag between data changing and nightly backups.
  • Backups failing due to locked/unreadable files during backup windows.
  • Lack of sufficient servers, disk space and software with which to perform restores.

The Cost of Disk-to-Disk

To avoid the problems associated with tapes, many businesses updated to real-time replication and restoration via redundant offsite servers. Although the design is nearly fail-proof and more cost-efficient, some downsides include:

  • Extra facilities and equipment, both of which will sit relatively idle most of the time.
  • Additional time associated with managing and maintaining the facility and equipment.
  • Integration of all the parts into a reliable solution.

The creation of a peak-versus-average problem. (You pay for peak, but only get the benefit of a very low average utilization since the redundant data center must meet the peak capacity of the IT department, but the average capacity utilization will be minimal.) 
With all this in mind, suddenly the prediction that businesses are racing to unload their IT assets as fast as possible doesn’t seem like such a stretch.

Switching to the Cloud

When considering a switch to cloud storage, first it helps to know how much data and time your company can afford to lose to justify a cloud budget. Two metrics that measure data and time are called the recovery point objective and the recovery time objective. 

RPO is the threshold of how much data a company can afford to lose since the last backup. Defining the company’s RPO typically begins with examining how frequently backup takes place. Tape backups are usually done only once a day because they are 100 percent intrusive to systems, so in this case, the RPO would be 24 hours. The best disk-to-disk software can detect bytes or blocks of data that change and replicate them in real time, so their RPO would be zero. However because disk-to-disk requires a duplicate set of hardware and software somewhere offsite, cloud computing can give you zero RPO without the cost and maintenance of redundant equipment.

RTO is the threshold for how quickly a company needs to have an application’s information restored. Some companies may be able to go a few days without email, for example, but restoring from tape or provision servers, storage, networking resources and virtual machine configurations can take considerable time. Cloud computing can automatically failover to applications running on redundant virtual servers in the cloud so users won’t even know there’s been a problem.

Cloud Risks

The cloud is not without risk. Security is the foremost concern, as is vendor lock-in and reliability of the provider to keep servers up and running. Therefore, it’s important to have a process for evaluating providers. There are several factors to consider before making a decision, but start by asking these important questions:

  • Can I buy capacity in very small chunks and change usage on the fly?
  • Will you bill me only for what I consume?
  • Is there a long-term commitment to any specific usage pattern or cost?
  • Can you protect all of my servers and applications?
  • Can you protect the OS and applications as well as the data?
  • Can I actually failover to the cloud without downtime?
  • Can I test the failover process to ensure the servers are recoverable?
  • Do you provide a mechanism to recover the data/servers without lots of downtime?
  • Do you provide free idle bandwidth, with (nearly) unlimited burst capacity?
  • Do you have data centers located in multiple countries?

Finally, determining which servers need to be protected is additionally important. But with the cost of cloud storage so low, businesses can typically afford to be safe rather than sorry. 

Eye on the Future

According to a recent article in the New York Times[J5] , “I.B.M., a bellwether in the corporate technology market, forecasts that it will have $7 billion in cloud revenue by 2015. Of the total, $4 billion will be customers shifting to cloud delivery from the company’s traditional software and services, and $3 billion is expected to be entirely new business.”  Though change is never easy, especially when it comes to running a business, with technology racing forward at the speed of light, change is inevitable when it comes to updating technology.

So start by working through your cost of downtime and estimate the cost of your current backup design. You may discover cloud computing provides a more reliable alternative to the tape and disk-to-disk storage you are currently utilizing. After all your evaluations, ask the right questions to secure a provider that meets your needs. With inexpensive costs and ease of setup, cloud is a worthwhile exercise for organizations of any size.

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