Let's Make a Deal: Basic Steps for Switching to Cloud Computing

When it comes to cloud-computing service , most companies are offered little guarantee other than a vendor's reputation and track record of reliability. That's because many players, including industry darling Salesforce.com Inc., don't offer official SLAs (Service Level Agreements). It's a nerve-wracking reality in light of a recent spate of outages, including the hours-long outages of market leaders Amazon.com Inc. and Google's Gmail.

Fortunately, there are steps businesses can take to reap the benefits of cloud computing while protecting their bottom line from unforeseen outages and shoddy service. Darin Stahl, an Info-Tech Research Group lead analyst, offered these tips:

1. Do your homework. Reading a glossy brochure about a vendor's top-notch services won't get you anywhere when an outage occurs. Instead, find out exactly how a particular vendor defines "good customer service" and what that includes, from redundancy processes to state-of-the-art equipment.

2. Pay a visit. Don't just let a vendor tell you that you can expect to receive tier-4 service. Rather, put that vendor's feet to the fire by checking out its physical facility. Said Stahl, "When you're doing your due diligence, look at that facility because that's essentially what you're buying. Pay attention to the processes around the maintenance of the building, as well as the vendor's equipment-maintenance schedule, road map for growth, the number of people working in the building and the number of subscribers signing on."

3. Discuss contingency plans. On occasion, a cloud-computing vendor will have to shut down a portion of its facility for events such as renovations — situations that will require unplugging and moving a client's equipment, as well as regression testing, which can slow down connection speeds. "That can pose a significant interruption so you need to ask yourself, ‘How agile are you as an organization? Can you make the necessary accommodations if a vendor provides you with 60 days notice? Or can you make arrangements with just 2 days notice?'" said Stahl. A vendor may slip a standard notification period within a contract — just be sure it's ample time to take precautions.

4. Assess vendor capabilities. The beauty of cloud computing is that a company can add and subtract computing and storage power as demand fluctuates. But make sure that a vendor is capable of servicing a broad range of needs. Said Stahl, "Ask yourself, ‘Is there an opportunity for me to increase my technology? Can I buy more rack space if I need it throughout the term of the contract?' Typically you can but make sure there isn't a penalty for upgrading your service."

Another thing to watch out for is automatic renewals of your service. "Scary stuff for sure," said Stahl. "It's going to happen so manage it properly so that you don't get caught."

5. Conduct a postmortem. Problems are expected and even the most detailed SLA can't prevent the occasional snafu, warned Stahl. The real test, however, is how a vendor handles a particular incident. Open channels of communications and rapid-fire troubleshooting can often count for more than a contract's fine print.