Does a bigger cloud provider guarantee better service?

/ IT Consultancy
June 29th, 2014

Cloud - Is a bigger provider better?

When choosing cloud, is a big name always best? Over recent years, we’ve seen a number of significant outages at a good number of the larger cloud providers and platforms out there. Some have been just blips and some outages have lasted days. And to prove it’s not just small providers facing downtime issues here’s evidence even the big players sometimes stumble:

The above is, of course, a small snap-shot of the biggest names. But what I’m showing here is a simple demonstration that bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better – and you shouldn’t ignore that fact.

A big name doesn’t mean better service

I am forever frustrated by those who go out and buy a core business service from businesses who, in effect, sell their services primarily based on cost, backed up by their size. I’ve just lost count how many adverts I’ve seen and sales calls I’ve had (clearly not reading my website) telling me how great their cloud platform is, how big it is, how cheap it is, often how new it is‽ So, through experience – what have I learnt?

1. You are probably a drop in the ocean

Bigger providers simply mean that you are one of perhaps 10,000, 100,000, 1,000,000 – or more customers. If there are issues, which we’ve seen – your voice is lost, your cry means nothing. You get what you pay for when it comes to IT infrastructure and cloud services, well you certainly do if you are comparing providers in a sensible manner. If something is cheap you have to seriously understand where that saving has come from. To hear that it’s bigger, thus we get better pricing due to volumes is not usually a sensible answer – scratch beneath that.

2. Unless a cloud service provider has been providing the services you are buying for more than 3 years, be careful

It does take a number of years to bed in a new environment and to iron out issues… no matter what the size of the organisation. Also understand if it’s actually that business providing and managing that service, in essence, they have some control if something goes wrong. I was approached by a very large hosting company the other day who had moved into IaaS but it was built by a 3rd party – I then see that a month later they had a 6-hour outage on that new platform.

3. SLA’s mean nothing

Don’t think that an SLA on paper means anything. What’s your comeback on a Service Level Agreement? Very little if you really look into it. Will you speak to someone who really has the clout to make anything happen on your behalf, very unlikely. The bigger the organisation delivering you the service the less important you really are.

4. Resource demand

I was speaking to one of the largest cloud providers in the UK, who were advertising fast or slow storage. In effect, this meant that they were selling SAS storage and SATA storage. I obviously understand that this is irrelevant as the speed is also dictated by the RAID set and also the number of clients on a particular RAID set. If you don’t know what IOPs are then read my explanation on the QuoStar Blog. However, in short, the individual speed of a disk is generally irrelevant.

5. Understand the billing

When you take into account the resource demand many providers can deal with that – but they will bill you accordingly. Just make sure that you understand if you are better off on a fixed service, rather than an elastic one – often advisable for fairly static and loads, such as an Exchange server or a Citrix server. Also understand what they bill you for data going in and out of your environment, in terms of both disk I/O and network bandwidth. You’ll often sign up on a low basic package that starts to ramp as you use it.

The issues with smaller cloud providers

I’ve obviously learnt a lot more, but the five points above are particularly relevant when looking at a large provider. I should state that I’m not necessarily saying you should always go for a smaller provider, as I’ve seen a whole raft of issues with this side of the spectrum. Including problems like:

1. They often outsource

They may have no control over your systems as they just make a sales margin on stuffing your systems into a larger provider, often one of the large providers stated above.

2. They don’t have the migration skills

Sure the cloud is great for a large percentage of businesses, but the technical bit is the easy bit from that side. You have to have a significant amount of experience to really make cloud a success, not everything works without some real understanding of the issues and the relevant mitigation techniques. This can only really be gained through experience, no matter how good the technical skills.

3. Cloud’s not right for every environment and business

Many of the smaller, well in effect the larger providers, will just pump cloud as it’s all they know or it’s what they know how to sell and implement, or simply what the sales team is incentivised on.

4. Underspecification

Many smaller providers, and actually most of the larger organisations as well, will just specify what you ask for, or make a judgement call on what they deem you need. You may not really understand all the implications so you sign a contract based on that initial quote. You’ll often find that you are then contracted, you complain that the speed is slow so they’ll say okay you need to pay more to up the resources to address that issue.

5. A home-built system

The cloud is big so many smaller providers have built their own systems over the last few years. Many will have environments that are sound but many will not. You need to understand at the very least:

  • How old is the cloud platform (how long they have been using it to deliver business-class services)?
  • Who runs that system? Is it them or is it managed/supported by a 3rd party?
  • Who built the system? Did they build it, or did a 3rd party?
  • Do they have accreditation? They’ll tell you the data centre is ISO 27001 compliant (audited from a security systems standpoint), but are they as the company actually managing your systems accredited? If they aren’t then it doesn’t really mean anything.
  • Is the connectivity diverse (numerous carriers)? If it isn’t, then walk away. Also, make sure they have N+1 (one plus a spare) at least on every element of their cloud platform.
  • Know where your services are running from. I’ve actually seen some providers running ‘cloud services’ from their offices!

6. Going too local

If you are evaluating the cloud then chances are that a portion of that decision will be business continuity, either you’ll specify that or the smaller provider will state the benefits to you. As a rule, I’d generally advise a data centre out of your area, perhaps at least 25 miles away, you don’t want a serious and large-scale event such to affect you and the data centre simultaneously.

All the above are things I’ve seen time and time again. Of course, I’ve just given you a small snapshot of a few key areas, but you need to understand the detail. It all depends on your business, but just understand that the big names are not always the best option.

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