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shutterstock_91647581Is that the question? Not really. First of all, unless you live in a cave (and a pretty remote one at that) you started using the cloud a long time ago. You use it every time you send or receive an email or look something up on the Web. You may be using it to stream movies, TED talks, cat videos and bicycle stunts. It’s where you go to participate in multiplayer games, to update social media and to access services like Dropbox or Salesforce. In fact, if your link to the cloud went down, you’d likely be limited to what’s on your desktop, laptop or tablet, and maybe what’s on the servers down the hall. You’d have to do a whole lot more phoning, snail mailing and walking to your colleague’s desk, and you’d be functioning more or less the way primitives did back in the 1980s. In other words, you already rely heavily on the cloud. We all do.

The real questions are more like these:

  • Do you want to trust some or all of what’s on those servers down the hall to strangers you’ll probably never meet?
  • Do you want to change the way you handle data and access to the rest of the world within your facility?
  • Do you want to change the way your employees and/or your customers interact with your organization?
  • Do you know where your data goes when you entrust it to the cloud, and does location really matter?
  • Do you know how much control you are really giving up when you put things in the cloud?
  • Do you know whether the cloud is safe and how important that safety is in your applications?
  • Do you want to move “cloudward” incrementally or go the whole nine yards all at once?
  • Do you know how much speed, access, and privacy you are willing to pay for?

First of all, let’s review (since you’re probably heard it before) the theoretical advantages of the cloud. I say “theoretical” for two reasons. First, there’s a lot of nuance—and let’s face it, a certain amount of hype—regarding the cloud, and second because some of those advantages come at a price.

Everything You Ever Wanted

On the plus side, the cloud gives you access, and plenty of it, to anything you’re willing to entrust to it. Within the bounds of security, anything you want to make available can be accessed from work, from home, on the road or at the airport. And if you so choose, all that accessibility won’t be limited to your employees. You can provide access, as appropriate, to your customers and your vendors as well.

Another plus: You can free the folks who work all hours to keep up with “the hungry beast in the data center” to do some long-term planning and turn IT into a profit center. You can trim the size of that power-hungry, air-conditioned data center and put the real estate to other use. And in the cloud you can pay as you go instead of laying out large amounts of capital to equip the data center and having to do it all again in a few years when everything within has become obsolete.

You can add storage or processing capacity on the spot when the customer care team has a need for a new application or when engineering is working on a project. No ordering, no waiting, no installing, no capital outlay; and when your needs change you can just let it go and stop paying (assuming you make the right arrangements with your service provider). And it is the service provider who stays late and works weekends to install the patches and updates, who configures redundant systems and backs up the data to make sure it’s available when you want it and who replaces the equipment when necessary. In short, you can outsource the tactical activity while keeping the strategic work in-house.

On the Other Hand…

As I sat down to write this, the radio was broadcasting news of a break-in to the IRS database that netted the hackers sensitive data on 100,000 tax filers , followed shortly thereafter by a break-in that got personal info on 4,000,000 government employees. The story didn’t say whether the data was stored in the cloud or in-house, but the attackers certainly came in via the cloud. Public sector or private, security is an issue, and the more valuable the data is to you, the more trouble it’s worth for the sneaky folks in the black hats. The good news is that cloud service providers are highly incentivized to protect your data—no one builds their business by getting hacked—but it’s ultimately your responsibility to ascertain whether your service provider is providing the security you need and to recognize that the security you need varies by application.

Things like HIPAA- or SOX-regulated data or your corporate piggy bank may require all the security money can buy, while the summer schedule for your softball team may be less critical. Cloud service providers will often have better, more up-to-date security than an individual corporate client can provide for the in-house data center, and you can mix-and-match cloud services to provide what you need where you need it. How you use the cloud depends on your needs. Strategic decisions regarding what applications and data to move to the cloud, which type or types of cloud implementation to use, and which services to use—Unified Communications, Wifi, Backup, Disaster Recovery, etc.—vary from company to company.

Take a Closer Look

We’ll discuss the details in future posts, but there are basically two kinds of things to look at when choosing a cloud provider. One is the everyday stuff, the levels of service, the security, the flexibility, and the cost. The other, less obvious issues to consider are the “what ifs.” These are the things that probably won’t happen—that you hope won’t happen—but that you should think about the same way you think about fire insurance for your home. These are questions like “What happens if I choose to take my data elsewhere?” Who owns the data and how easy is it, both legally and technically, to move? What happens if my provider goes out of business, is acquired, or faces a major disaster? And what will they do to protect my data if they are presented with a subpoena?”

Your Operations, Your Choices

If there were universal right answers, we’d publish them here, but there simply aren’t. Just as each of our cellphones is individualized to the owner’s needs, no two cloud implementations will look alike. Even two companies in the same business will have different applications, different budgets, and their own ways of interfacing with their customers. Your best bet is to take a close look at your needs and find a patient, trustworthy partner who can offer a variety of services, both on-premise and in the cloud, and can help you find what you need rather than what they have to sell.