Moving to the cloud - the users' perspective

Ulrika Hedquist talks to local end-users

According to recent research commissioned by Microsoft, New Zealand organisations here are among the most knowledgeable in the Asia-Pacific region when it comes to cloud computing.

The research found that 81 percent of New Zealand organisations view cloud computing as a priority for IT and have funding in place to implement cloud-based systems. That number gets even higher – 94 percent – in larger organisations, says the research. When asked about their understanding of cloud computing solutions, 43 percent of those surveyed responded with positive knowledge.

“New Zealand is an innovative and cost-conscious country so we tend to embrace new technology, especially if it offers a financial benefit,” says Andrew Kirker, New Zealand country manager of infrastructure provider APC.

While cloud-based services are close to becoming mainstream in the small to medium business range, bigger organisations are also showing an increasing interest in it, says Kirker.

But more than anything, the company is seeing growth in integrators building cloud offerings.

“The traditional IT integrators are getting into this space, developing a platform and building datacentres to support it.”

Cloud computing in combination with virtualisation is improving efficiency. Some cloud providers are now investing in redundancy at the software and application layer, he says, and that may change the future of datacentres.

“My prediction is that we will see organisations build lower-availability but high-density driven datacentres,” says Kirker. “And there will be less of a drive to build super-available Tier 3 and 4 facilities.”

What he hears from customers is that the perceived risks of cloud computing are still around security and compliance, says Kirker.

“There is an element of fear in putting someone else in charge of your data,” he says. “Under a true cloud model you may not necessarily know [where your data is held].”

One of APC’s local customers is hosting and managed services company Maxnet.

Southern Cross Travel Insurance

Southern Cross Travel Insurance (SCTI) wanted to get out of the business of owning servers and decided to move to a cloud-based system provided by Maxnet.

“The theory is that experts who offer cloud computing will be best in practise, because their business depends on it,” says SCTI chief executive Craig Morrison.

By adopting a cloud solution, the organisation was able to get rid of the risk of IT obsolescence – the world of technology is moving “too fast” to be able to keep up with the latest developments, he says.

“My core business is travel insurance, not IT infrastructure,” he adds.

It was central for SCTI to be an important client to its supplier, says Morrison, so the organisation searched for a similar-sized provider where it would be a valued client. With a larger supplier, a smaller company like SCTI might not even be noticed, he says. After searching the local market, SCTI chose Maxnet partly because it met that criterion, but also because of the company’s stand-by datacentre in Christchurch.

“Our primary [datacentre] is in Albany [in Auckland] but the hot standby is in Christchurch,” says Morrison. Maxnet also takes care of SCTI’s backup and disaster recovery, he says.

SCTI shifted to the cloud in November last year and so far, the move has been a positive experience, he says.

“We don’t own any servers anymore. It’s up to Maxnet to keep the virtual servers upgraded and secure,” says Morrison. “It just takes all those problems off our hands. We focus on our business and they focus on theirs.”

The cloud solution means that SCTI doesn’t have to invest resources on implementing upgrades and patches, while also maintaining security. “It is letting us focus that energy and resources elsewhere.”

Bar a few legacy systems that are shared with other businesses within the Southern Cross Group, SCTI has moved all proprietary applications to Maxnet.

If you are thinking of moving to the cloud “do it quickly and don’t delay”, says Morrison.

“If you don’t do it you are wasting money and time. I would recommend any business in the $10-$50 million total revenue size to not own your servers anymore. You’ll save money in the long run and you won’t have any headaches.”

Most of the top providers will be OK, he says, but when selecting your provider, make sure they tick most of your boxes – then you’ve got to trust that “gut-feel”.

“Because there is no way of knowing what they are really like until you move [to their servers].”

Wild Bamboo

Software startup Wild Bamboo in Hamilton decided to use the software-as-a-service (SaaS) delivery model for its application, Recordbase. The application is aimed at non-government organisations in the mental health and disability sector, helping NGOs keep track of client demographics, medical notes, medication, test results, referrals, admittances, transfers and discharges, among other things, says Wild Bamboo CEO Stuart Prendergast.

There is also an elite version of the software that gives access to a reporting and business intelligence engine, in order for NGOs to comply with government and contractual reporting requirements. This is helpful now as the Ministry of Health is implementing the Programme for the Integration of Mental Health Data, which will create a single national mental health information data collection, says Prendergast.

After a search on the market, Wild Bamboo chose to go with a Gen-i solution – the ReadyCloud Server infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) in 2009.

Being a health information software provider means the company is “pretty paranoid” about keeping the information secured and accessible only to authorised users, he says.

“Having a well-respected provider like Gen-i hosting the data gave a level of comfort,” says Prendergast.

The ecological sustainability aspect is important to the Hamilton-based charitable organisation, and this was a strong reason for choosing the cloud model, says Prendergast.

“We have deliberately developed a web-based solution that doesn’t have discs, packaging or excessive promotional material.”

But the flexibility and security benefits of the cloud model are equally important, he says.

“We had the software and a way to take it to the market, but we did not have a platform to run it on. To build one ourselves would have meant a significant upfront investment and with anticipated growth this would require ongoing capital.”

Wild Bamboo’s servers are now located within Gen-i’s Mayoral Drive datacentre in central Auckland. The company pays a monthly fee based on the services it utilises.

Wild Bamboo has around 1500 users across New Zealand, the UK and Australia.

The cloud-based model allows the company to provide support rapidly to customers all over the world, without having to roll out new infrastructure, he says.

The model works well in a natural disaster, such as during the earthquakes in Christchurch, he says

“Health services organisations there were able to grab a laptop and a data card and be back up and running, without having to worry about any servers being down.”

However, the decision to deliver from the cloud created some concern. Security was considered critical, along with Wild Bamboo’s concerns about high enough levels of uptime being provided to customers.

“With health information [users] need access to the clients’ data anytime, anywhere,” says Prendergast.

To date, the experience has been really good, he says.

“We have had zero downtime since we have been up and running, which has been brilliant for our customers.”

Data sovereignty was another reason for choosing a private cloud provider, says Prendergast. Wild Bamboo’s clients take comfort in knowing that their health data is held on the same shores, he says.

The company has also signed up with a local cloud provider in the UK for its customers there.

Wild Bamboo is part of the charitable organisation WISE Group.

Digital Mobile

Mobile, fixed line and broadband services provider Digital Mobile is a geographically dispersed business, with its head office in Auckland and retail stores and corporate locations throughout the country. About a year ago, the company implemented a Microsoft cloud solution – the Business Productivity Online Standard Suite, which includes Exchange, Office Communicator and SharePoint, says Brent Topine, Digital Mobile account manager.

The system enables staff to work wherever they are located and gives the 300-plus users web access across multiple mobile platforms – Android, Microsoft, Apple and Blackberry, he says.

“The biggest advantage for us is the management of the entire Exchange infrastructure, whereas before we were actually running an onsite Exchange-server, which required hardware and technical knowledge,” says Topine. “We no longer require that hardware.”

Digital Mobile is now able to just add and remove users as needed, he says.

Reliability was an initial concern as the servers are based offshore, he says. Microsoft’s cloud offering is hosted in Singapore. There were concerns over not having access to the servers and what would happen in the event of a disaster of some sort.

“[But] we haven’t found that to be an issue,” says Topine. “Microsoft runs its own datacentres with a redundancy that we would never be able to have internally.”

The Google cloud

In partnership with Google, Wellington-based IT services company Fronde is offering Google Security, Compliance and eDiscovery products as well as Google Apps. Among its cloud customers are New Zealand Post, Mercury Energy and BP Oil.

In September 2009, Fronde completed a roll out of Google Apps at NZ Post.

It brought costs savings and created a more collaborative and efficient working environment for the company, says Fronde marketing manager Helen Mills.

Tracy Voice, who was NZ Post’s general manager of business enabling at the time, says that implementing Google Apps didn’t result in overheads.

Voice has since left NZ Post and Paul Reid has taken up the position as group general manager of innovation and technology.

Clients are choosing the Google offering mainly because of the organisational transformation the cloud-based tools can help bring, in terms of reducing the total cost of ownership of IT, increasing productivity and creating a culture of collaboration, says Mills.

The company’s own research shows that the two main areas of concern before embarking on a cloud journey are around the integration aspects of cloud and existing systems; and security best practices and policies, she says.

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