How is your comfort level with the ‘cloud’?

cloudprocessingAre cloud solutions mature enough to meet the needs of security and privacy, disaster recovery, operational transparency and zero-downtime tolerance?  Can cloud solutions enhance the office environment by meeting the needs of next generation workforce, enhance productivity, and provide better scalable value over current solutions?

From a business owner perspective, we migrated our own business 4 years ago to cloud email and documentation collaboration tools, in an attempt to find answers.   We documented our findings, from the planning stage through final cloud evaluation.   We wanted to better understand the impact based on practical experiences, over research generalities, and share these relevant discoveries.  

Having researched hundreds of documents on cloud computing, we concluded there was a serious lack of operational analysis – necessary for any decision making.  Most of the available research documentation is either too general for guidance, or is biased through corporate marketing.  We wanted unbiased specifics.  We wanted to examine a case-study on “our terms”, one that reflected the questions and concerns from a perspective, before seriously considering how changes to the way IT services are currently operated and delivered.

We focused our research on office productivity applications — email and document collaboration tools.   We had many questions, and few answers.  What exactly is involved with a migration of email from local data centers to cloud?  How do we ensure our email content is secure?  What controls do we have with cloud email servers to ensure we are not exposed to hackers and other vulnerabilities?  What options do we have to maintain our own backups for unpredictable emergencies?   How do we protect sensitive documents from being exposed?   Can a rogue employee (cloud provider or in house) damage our data? Can we take a migration in incremental steps?  Do the features of cloud based email and document collaboration tools match / expand the tools used in house?  Can cloud tools enhance productivity or lower costs?   And how exactly would that occur?  With the proliferation of mobile devices, what cloud services are available on iPad, Android phone?  And how secure are these applications when used on mobile devices?

A practical study of cloud 

While anyone can suggest interpretations to these questions, we wanted our answers to be based on our own (the day-to-day) migration.  Our experiences, from planning stages, testing, migration and full implementation, can offer a practical inside view – without bias or technical generalities.  The CIO of a small business technology firm (SBIF), partnered with us for this proof of concept study.  The sole purpose of the study is to gain knowledge based on practical experience – and then share that knowledge with other CIO’s in a useful, readable format.  The SBTF, agreed to document their findings, both positive and negative – and produce an unbiased expose on their experience – as they addressed issues common to any CIO or operation center.

Our next step was to select an email/document collaboration cloud vendor – to be used as the cloud platform.   We took the viewpoint that, all things equal, cloud vendors vying for your business, will offer similar functionality in their products.  Perhaps another study will evaluate the differences in migration experiences between competing cloud vendors.  Our objective is to select one vendor that currently offers solutions to the federal government.   We made our vendor selection based on three  criteria:  
(1)  FISMA certification  
(2)  compatibility with common MicroSoft file formats
(3)  tools that can be used on differing hardware platforms and mobile devices.

Based on our criteria, we selected Google Apps for Business as our cloud provider in this study.  Note that we are neither endorsing or discouraging the use of Google Apps — they are simply selected as the venue  – for our assessment of cloud.   Our focus in this study, is committed to better understanding not only the technical issues of security, privacy, disaster recovery but identifying the productivity and efficiency changes impacted by a transition to cloud – for email and document collaboration solutions. 

In early November, 2010 – at a price of $50 per user, we procured an account with Google that provided our SBTF with a domain-wide accessible cloud — stored somewhere in Google’s internet stratosphere.  A “domain-wide” cloud means that your organization can share resources with other members in the same domain – such as email, calendar, chat, video chat, documents, contacts (address books), and videos.  It also means that any emails you send or receive, take on your domain identity  (i.e. myname@mydomain.gov).  

Migration to cloud unfolds
 

The business and personal user accounts of Google are not one in the same.  Business Google accounts include technical administrator options that allow how your business can be unfolded, and secured via the cloud. 

Our first step was to test the migration of email from a Microsoft based in house platform — to being available on Google servers — once we were confident that our data would be secure.   While a variety of administrator settings assured us that we had infinite ways to protect domain-wide in and outbound emails, confidence builds slowly – and we wanted to test each setting before we “turned the switch” for email migration.  Thus, we traversed cloud with caution.   We migrated one email account at a time, in a parallel mode.  This means, that while emails were being routed to the user’s cloud email account — they were simultaneously flowing back to our in-house data servers.   Once we were assured that the basics were operational (i.e. we were not “losing” emails, and our inboxes were consistent), we proceeded to migrate more users – one at a time  (still, in parallel mode).

We expanded the use of our cloud’s whitelists and blacklists, and tested sending content that was deemed “secure” to identify the limitations.  The domain administrator can identify words, email addresses or phrases that constitute alerts.  If an email registers with one of these alerts, the email is placed in a quarantine queue (which can be reviewed for content by designated authority).  We also tested embedding these “alerts” into documents, and discovered that they too, would be quarantined if the individual attempted to email those documents outside of the domain.

During our initial migration, Google announced a new infrastructure for it’s email and collaborative tools – i.e. there would be changes in the GUI .   This provided us with an opportunity.   An opportunity to discover what happens when your cloud provider makes changes to their software.  How does this affect your data, and the learning curve for your end users.  We discovered that we had the option to:

  • review the changes before implementing them 
  • decide when to implement the new changes and/or 
  • setup our account to automatically incorporate upgrades to the software interface.  

While firmly in the driver’s seat on taking steps to move forward with a new GUI, there were no options to roll back once we “accepted” the new GUI.  We did have exposure to view GUI changes in advance, and to determine the impact, and agreed to implementing the GUI upgrade.  The upgrade experience was 99% positive.

There was no impact on our data.  The GUI retained it’s look and feel for the end users, with new options weaved into the old.  We discovered new domain-wide features, (such as free phone calls to US and Canada), seamless search among emails, documents and websites, and better integration between email-calendar-contacts-and sites.  We retested our whitelists and blacklists, and our security alerts were intact. There was also improvement in the log in process, eliminating prior confusion if you already owned a FREE google account.  The downside, were a few administrator options that were relocated to more obscure screens.  We survived this inconvenience.

Breaking the barriers of localized technology
 

Next, we evaluated cloud business features.  We wanted to know if cloud features improved or degraded day to day business productivity.  If the tool set meant a loss in productivity, then this constituted a show stopper.  We looked at each core product our cloud vendor provided from Email, Contact sharing, Calendar sharing, Document sharing, website and video sharing – and evaluated these products from a consistency, integration and feature-rich viewpoint – with an ever present eye on security and backups.

During our examination of the collaboration products, we made an important discovery.  Suddenly, we found ourselves rethinking how we conduct business, and realizing there are better options, other tools at our disposal, and hardware platforms no longer mattered.  We discovered that simple cloud document collaboration can change the way you work, once you understand the underlying concepts.  Underlying concepts such as:

  • The process of copying files for distribution (for editing, sharing or sending as attachments) – can be eliminated
  • Reducing or eliminating file “copying”, leads to a more global view that duplication of content in general (either from contact lists, or having to reformat content to make available on different mediums such as word to html and back) – can also be eliminated
  • By eliminating duplication of content, can reduce security concerns due to managing multiple instances of files
  • By storing content on cloud servers, eliminates the need for storage on laptops, or shared drives – allowing access from any hardware device (laptop, smart phones, iPADs and more)
  • Baseline documents, become the building blocks for websites.  These documents (word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, maps, images etc) form the baseline content – when designing websites for project team collaboration.  As a result, a “type it once” process mentality – translates to less file management and file storage.  

We had some misconceptions to dispel.  When we first explored the “Document” portion of cloud, we were under the mistaken impression that you could upload all of your document files from your data center and have them available to you at any time.  We were hoping for a large storage repository to drop all of our documents.  Not so.  You have a storage limit of 1GB per user.  With a few image-laden Microsoft Word document, your 1GB limit can quickly be reached.  While, our initial thoughts were that this is very limiting, we were wrong.

“Document sharing”, as the name implies, suggests you intend to share documents with someone — either for viewing, or editing.  In order to have simultaneous multi user editing capability, the document must stored in a “multi-user format” – similar to a good relational database.   Thus, when you upload a document from your local data center – if you choose the option to “convert for multi-user format” — then the document does not count against your 1GB storage limit.  Thus, you can have nearly limitless documents stored in your domain – as long as they are in multi-user-format.  And the definition of documents — include those converted from Word, Excel, PowerPoint, PDF and image formats. 

The process of managing projects and document sharing can be transformed with cloud tools – many of which are not yet available on local data centers.  For example:

  • robust geo-mapping, 
  • video streamed content,
  • the ability to share documents not tied to a specific software vendor formats,  
  • slideshow presentations that can be accessed on any hardware platform, 
  • and publishing options (as defined by your domain administrator), that allows team members to share content outside of the domain, 

enhance work flow by removing boundaries and increasing transparency.    Instead of posting a platform specific file to a Sharepoint folder, or sending files back and forth via email attachments, or requiring everyone to be on the same platform or version of Microsoft Office to view and edit files, or having to convert files to pdf to alleviate the platform issue – the cloud document sharing/editing makes all platform and version issues transparent.

With sophisticated cloud document sharing editors, you can monitor edits being made in real time, by many users.  Disaster recovery on a document level – is in the hands of the end user.  Documents can be restored to any prior version which is automatically saved every minute.  For project management, and team activities, there is no extra effort needed to pull together work tasks.  Everyone’s contribution is made on the same page, and anyone with access (view) to the document sees the latest updates.   No need to ask for a status report — as the dashboard of all activities is now at your fingertips.  If multi-hardware platform issues caused limitations to document access — then consider cloud a new way of doing business. The same documents, can be edited from Apple products (iPad) and smart phones, Intel devices – and any platform using an internet browser.

Evaluating the trade-offs of cloud solutions
 

But, all is not perfect in the realm of cloud email and collaboration tools.  There are trade-offs.  Highly formatted Word, Excel files or Powerpoint presentations laden with images – did not convert well to multi-user cloud formats.   Uploading files greater than 1MB in size, typically failed.  We found that documents 100 pages or less, not laden with images would convert successfully to cloud format, but image laden files would fail.  

Don’t expect all of your files to convert without effort.   There is a learning curve.  All GUI’s are not the same.  If your user base is familiar with one email system, they may require training to learn another.  We discovered minor inconsistencies — from searching words inside of documents, to words used to describe similar functionality, to realizing that help screens do not always match the GUI.  Customer support for paid accounts is via email contact – unless your services are “completely down”, in which you can make direct tele communication.  So, if you have an urgent question, which doesn’t qualify as a “complete emergency”, expect to wait up to 24 hours for an email response.

We also have lingering questions – that can only be alleviated by knowing that we have done everything possible to backup all content from cloud – to a local data center.  Just in case.  What if our cloud provider loses our data, or portions thereof?  What happens if our cloud provider raises annual rates?  What if our cloud content gets hacked into?  Can a rogue employee harm our data operations?   Can secure documents be disseminated to unauthorized individuals?    WikiLeaks reveals classified government documents, recent hacking attempts into prominent businesses and cloud providers, NIH employee storing sensitive data on laptops later stolen, demonstrate that security is a dominant issue for US government and business websites.   Threats by hackers continue, and it is safe to assume a continued security risk for BOTH cloud and local data centers. 

The primary difference with cloud, is that you share space with other content consumers, and this physical space is not under the network management control of your data center.   Your network team is no longer tasked with upgrading servers, software and implementing patches — as it relates to email and document tools.  Beyond that, your policies for safeguarding your data, monitoring unauthorized use, managing suspicious employees, maintaining tested backup copies of your data — still rests with you – and applies to either cloud or in-house.  

Business users, cost efficiencies drive push to cloud

In the end, we decided the benefits of transforming office productivity – with tools that:

  • place shared video, geo-mapping, calendars, presentations, documents and nearly limitless gadgets to collaborate more efficiently on projects, 
  • remove the barriers of access from multiple hardware platforms, 
  • allow 24/7 access to content 
  • offered a more than reasonable price per user for a world-class data center,
  • provide administrators with acceptable security controls and the ability to backup our content regularly to local storage 

— outweighed our concerns regarding unforeseen events due to sharing physical technology space with other cloud consumers.

We also recognize that as time and experiences evolve using cloud providers for email and document collaboration — our use of the technology, and considerations of risk factors may change as well.   Having used cloud email and collaboration products extensively since 2010, we found that cloud has eliminated many barriers to  office productivity.  The transparency of sharing content has been so well embraced by business end users,  it would be difficult to turn back to using the tools from our local data center.  In the meantime, we will stay focused on continuing an aggressive backup policy, and a watchful eye on security.

About PlainJane PlainTalk

Adventurer & Storyteller
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