QuoStar’s Rob Rutherford shares a few helpful hints and tips.
Certain issues can arise around cloud adoption. However the risks can be mitigated when you know what to look out for.
The increasing popularity of cloud services and software.
There’s been a huge move onto the cloud recently, particularly around providers such as Microsoft’s Azure and the Modern Workplace stack. Microsoft Azure has, for example, reported growth of 51% in Q4 of 2021. This is a huge leap as businesses look to the cloud to improve their hybrid working environments and security.
Many organisations already on the cloud have been transitioning into a public-private hybrid model, or between two public providers to get the right workloads onto the platform to balance performance, security, and cost.
Inter-cloud high-availability and Disaster Recovery environments are areas where we’ve also seen a lot of interest, in order to protect cloud platforms from the failure of one provider or environment. In the longer term – considering state-sponsored attacks and skirmishes will likely become more prevalent in the future – we can expect to see businesses relying more and more on those types of inter-related environments to ensure a greater level of protection.
Cloud adoption: the challenges and barriers.
IT used to be solely seen as a supporting element of the business. One of the main challenges to cloud adoption now lies in the fact that many organisations have built up a technical debt over the last five years. They are trying to transform their businesses rapidly to catch up with the digitalisation of their sector.
Without a true grasp on how to deliver transformation strategies, many businesses have not been undertaking business focused requirements, analysis or mapping projects into a clear roadmap. Instead, they’ve tried working things out themselves. Often this can hold organisations back as they struggle with interoperability and performance issues.
A significant challenge in the actual process of migrating to the cloud is finding a reputable and experienced partner to assist in the cloud transition journey. Unfortunately, on the one side, a lot of cloud providers simply focus on getting the deal signed, and not necessarily on delivery. On the other side, many buyers are too focused on flat costs. Buyers may end up choosing those providers who appear to be the cheapest on paper. As a consultancy, we’re then often brought in to unpick a situation that has been created by rushing through deals.
Balance between cost efficiency and performance.
Preparation is key to any migration. It’s essential that an organisation doesn’t simply take the word of a salesperson on how long a migration is going to take, how much it’s going to cost in the first instance, and then on an ongoing basis.
All too often migration projects need to be pulled back on track. Performance issues might need to be addressed in an environment (ideally without a price increase from a customer’s point of view). Which can be hard – if not impossible. Quite frequently the ROI stated in a cloud provider’s proposal falls away as the realities of a complex workload bloom. This is where an organisation has signed an order and gone through significant (and often horrendous) migration, only to be left with a screaming user base and/or customers. The pain they’ve incurred often means they make drastic decisions. Such as wiping out ROIs, increasing the security risk profile or getting into further contractual obligations.
Most cloud providers will give an organisation some form of free trial on a workload. The larger the workload the more complex this gets; however commercial deals can be made.
It’s critical that organisations do their due diligence and build in contractual obligations. This will help to ensure the supplier delivers the desired outcome they expect. It may even be advisable to bring in external consultants, and/or lawyers to take some accountability for the project delivery. Especially when looking at large scale migrations.
Avoiding performance issues during cloud migration.
It’s always a good idea to over-resource when undertaking initial migrations. A large percentage of environments take up more resource, especially in the early stages of a heavy migration.
One of the biggest areas people typically under-resource is disk speed, in terms of IOPS (Input/Output operations Per Second). Too many organisations throw memory (RAM) and processor power at an underperforming environment. While it’s the disk speed that is the bottle neck. This isn’t a new cloud-related issue. However, too many IT teams spend time chasing their tales when the speed issues are in fact related to disk IO. Often many cloud provider support teams don’t seem to understand this in the lower support tiers, so be aware.
It’s worth being careful if you are paying for disk IO and/or network ingress or egress traffic. This is often where cloud costs start to spiral away from the original quotes first agreed upon. The public cloud often appears cheaper than private platforms when you go light on these costs. It’s worth checking these beforehand. It’s important testing your environment under load or having the cloud supplier make some guarantees around costs.
Many organisations have seen their cloud computing bills rise and rise – when many costs have gone down over the last 12 months, in both public and private platforms.
So, how should organisations be reviewing their cloud computing to ensure that they are paying the right price for the right cloud infrastructure?
Review licensing of your cloud computing regularly
It’s worth regularly reviewing licensing, particularly around the Microsoft stack. Microsoft makes regular changes to licensing, particularly around cloud-based services; some small adjustments can deliver significant savings within an estate. It’s worth noting that many organisations are doubling-up on licensing, particularly when using Azure and Microsoft licensing, i.e. Not using the Azure Hybrid Benefit program. If you bundle this program with reserved instances, then savings of up to 80% can be made.
Ensure that you are using reserved instances where appropriate. Many organisations are still using pay as you go billing and ultimately losing out versus locking in pricing for a year or more. In some scenarios you can save more than 70% with reserved instances.
Price matchingbetween cloud computing providers
Most public and private cloud providers will match their direct competitors on price. If you are up for renewal on your cloud platform or not in contract it’s important to take this into account. Also, even if you are in contract it may be worth speaking to your provider about extending your contract term for a reduced monthly fee.
Look at containers
Cloud containers are lighter weight than virtual machines and thus cost less. Look at your applications. See which you can repackage into containers to reduce the VM footprint and also costs.
Many organisations are paying to host their development and testing environments. This is typically unnecessary, and most cloud providers will allow you to run these workloads and licenses at a significantly reduced cost.
Move from database virtual machines
Often, due to technical and operational familiarity, a lot of databases sit on VMs when they could sit in an elastic database. You can gain significant cost-savings, resiliency and often security, without a huge amount of work.
Look for redundant disks
So many cloud estates have idle disks lurking around with them. It’s important to identify where these are as they will be costing you every month. Most cloud providers, particularly within the public cloud arena make this easy, i.e. Look at the disk owner (or lack of) within the Azure portal’s disk screen.
Look at storage tiering
It’s easy overtime for data usage on disks to change. It’s important to ensure that the right data is stored on the right type of disk. That will ensure you are paying the right amount to store or process that data. Storage tiering, particularly automatic storage tiering, if not in use already should be evaluated to get the right balance for spend vs performance.
If you’d like an audit of your cloud platforms to validate that you have the right cloud infrastructure at the right price get in touch now.
The COVID-19 has had a huge impact on the way businesses deliver IT services to end-users. The lockdown and subsequent restrictions left businesses scrambling to deal with an unprecedented situation where their entire workforce needed to work from home. Most simply weren’t set up for permanent, widescale remote working but had no option but to embrace it to remain operational.
Technology like online meeting and collaboration tools, hosted telephony, VPNs and virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI)saw a surge in adoption as businesses looked for ways to keep their employees connected, productive and secure. Of course, VDI solutions are nothing new. Businesses have been using it for over a decade to deliver desktops and applications to end-users. However, it is seeing a resurgence, both due to current challenges arising from COVID-19 and the maturation of Windows Virtual Desktop. This was highlighted in the recent Spiceworks Ziff Davies 2021 State of IT Report which found 46% of businesses were using or planning to use VDI by mid-2022. Furthermore, 26% of businesses planned to increase VDI deployment specifically because of the new challenges that have surfaced due to the pandemic.
How can VDI solutions help internal IT Teams?
1. Reduced Costs
Delivering desktops through VDI helps reduce the time it takes to provision new desktops. Easy and quick to set up, VDI not only reduces the time required by the IT team and the support costs, but it also provides more immediate value to the business.
VDI can also help IT Managers optimise and reduce their IT spend. Purchasing and upgrading hardware for remote employees is a significant cost, but as a virtual desktop can be accessed from almost any device it can really help slash spend in this area.
2. Simplified Licencing
Software licencing is one of the most common issues for IT managers with remote employees. If an end-user uses a personal device for remote working and needs a particular app to do their job, it’s ITs responsibility to licence this. Not only do multiple licences increase IT costs, but it also complicates licence tracking and compliance. The IT team needs to be able to prove that apps on personal devices are properly licenced and differentiate between corporate-owned software and personally owned software. VDI solutions eliminate this challenge for IT teams by keeping the licenced software within the business’s own data centre and removes the need to track remotely installed apps.
3. Improved Security
Security is a constant concern, even more so with the new threats emerging as a result of the pandemic. It’s a particular issue for IT teams where end users are using personal devices to access company data or systems. There are no guarantees that the device adheres to the company security policy, it may be infected, compromised or running an outdated operating system. However, with VDI, device-level security becomes less important as the user remotely connects a corporate desktop which IT configures to exact security requirements. The personal PC essentially becomes a thin client as all activity takes place in the data centre, with all of the corporate security systems and controls in place.
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4. Reduced Technical Support Time
IT Managers’ workloads are higher than ever now they need to manage a fully remote workforce on top of their existing responsibilities. VDI solutions make it easier for IT teams to support remote end-users because it puts them in a standardised environment, with the device itself less significant. It also reduces major technical issues and speeds up resolution time because IT teams already have all the information about the user’s virtual desktop systems to hand. Of course, technical issues can still occur with virtual desktop users, but these are usually related to connectivity and performance and are simpler to identify and resolve.
5. Centralised Management
With everything centrally stored, managed and secured, desktop virtualisation streamlines the management of software assets. This makes it easier for the IT team to set up and provide end-users with desktops and applications, no matter where they are located. Administrators can also deploy, patch, upgrade and troubleshoot from a central, singular location, rather than updating end-users’ environments individually.
Are VDI solutions the right choice for every business?
Desktop virtualisation has continually developed over the last decade, but today the main two categories are VDI and DaaS (Desktop as a Service). VDI is suited to businesses who want to host and manage the virtual desktops themselves, on their own servers. DaaS is very similar but removes the need for infrastructure management by delivering it as a cloud service.
Both VDI and DaaS are well placed to deal with the most common challenges of traditional desktop and laptop systems, such as software licencing inventory, ensuring compliance and expensive procurement. Outside of these legacy challenges, both solutions also help businesses deal with IT process concerns, such as keeping up with the rapid pace of change and the time IT staff have to dedicate to routine tasks (e.g. troubleshooting, helpdesk requests).
DaaS has a slight potential edge on VDI due to the shared responsibility of a cloud model. It largely removes the need to manage the physical infrastructure, enabling IT teams to focus on the entire digital workspace and user experience.
The prominent solution that overlaps both categories is Windows Virtual Desktop (WVD).Previous virtualisation options gave businesses limited options over the type of virtual machines they could use to deliver desktops. They had to either compromise on user experience and deploy Windows Server Desktop experiences to achieve the cost benefits of a multi-session. Or, they had to sacrifice on cost and deploy single sessions in Windows 10.
This dilemma, plus the opportunities presented by Azure as a platform, ultimately led to the development of Windows Virtual Desktop (WDS). It’s the only virtual desktop infrastructure that offers simplified management, multi-session Windows 10, optimisations for Office 365 Pro Plus and support for RDS environments. An additional plus, just for IT teams, is the relatively short time to go live. A 100 person business with 4-5 servers could be looking at less than a week to set up from scratch.
Are there any issues with VDI solutions?
However, like any technology option, VDI is not a one–size–fits–all solution. Businesses still need to fully evaluate its suitability for their employees and their ways of operating. For example, while VDI is a good option for remote workers and contractors who need to securely access Office applications, it’s not the best for employees who travel frequently due to latency and VPN issues.
Certain applications also still don’t perform as well in VDI style solutions. Microsoft Teams and Zoom are two of the most widely used conferencing platforms,yet they both have performance issues and limitations in VDI environments. For example, with Microsoft Teams some advanced features may not be available in a virtualised environment, and video resolution can differ. Call and meeting functionality is also only supported on a limited number of platforms. As there are multiple market providers, it’s recommended that you seek consultancy advice or speak to your virtualisation solution provider to confirm you meet the minimum requirements.
VDI is just one element of the technology stack. Don’t forget you’ll need other complementary technologies to address gaps and round out the experience for the end-user if you’re looking to build a fully functioning digital workplace.
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While issues may start as minor irritations, over time, they can have a significant effect on your business operations, and this can end up reflected in your bottom line.
An efficient, effective phone system is a necessity for any mid-market business, and one that can’t keep up will place a stranglehold on growth. If you’re experiencing some frustration and wondering if it’s time to upgrade, then here are seven critical signs that your current phone system is harming your business.
Seven signs it’s time to change your business phone system
1. Your telephony costs are skyrocketing
A phone system may be a necessity, but that doesn’t mean you have to pay through the nose for it. Businesses often accept their bill, regardless of how much it costs or if it keeps creeping up, when it’s actually possible to reduce this spend drastically, by merely embracing newer technology. Switching from a traditional on-premise PBX to a cloud-based or hosted one using VoIP can save you as much as 80% on your phone bill.
2. Your telephone systems provide a poor client experience
While your phone system should offer a good user experience for your employees, you shouldn’t neglect your clients either. If clients find it difficult, time-consuming or confusing to try and reach the company via phone, then it reflects poorly on the business.
Consider what experience you would like your customer to have when they contact your business and compare this to what happens. Do you need an individual to monitor and manually transfer all incoming calls, and what happens if they’re busy with something else? Is it easy to transfer calls between staff or are they frequently dropped, requiring the client to call again? If you use call routing, does the call end up going to the right department or person?
Again, individually these might be minor frustrations, but if they happen every time a client tries to call it’s going to harm the business relationship in the long run.
3. You have issues with routing calls
A phone system with limited call routing and be difficult and time-consuming for clients to navigate. If a client has an urgent matter and wants to speak to their Account Manager, the last thing they need is to have to trawl through an endless maze of menus, entering long strings of digits and waiting on hold for extended periods.
If your current phone system doesn’t allow you to customise the call routing features, then it may be time to consider one that does. Even something as simple as being able to route calls based on the business’s operating hours, so out of hours callers have the option to leave a voicemail, can significantly enhance the calling experience for clients and prospects.
4. Your phone systems offer no geographical flexibility
5. It’s challenging to add new users to your phone system
A mid-market, growth business can quickly outgrow its telephone infrastructure, leaving it struggling to cope with call volume and extra extensions. Traditional phone systems rely on SIP trunks and ISDN lines, and it can be difficult – not to mention expensive – to add new lines to cope with additional capacity. If you add a new office location, then you also need to buy new equipment and add that to the hardware refresh cycle.
6. Your phone system has limited call functionality
Call functionality is valuable for both your clients and your employees. For an optimal client experience, you need to be able to offer more than just the basic functions like mute and hold. If you’re using an auto-attendant program to route calls, do clients have the functionality to rehear the options? Can they easily return to a prior menu if they make a mistake, or do they have to hang up and start again?
Consider, also, the experience for the client once they’re on a call. Do you leave clients waiting in silence while on hold, or are they met with hold music? Do you automatically update them on their queue position and estimate wait time? Little touches like these can notably improve the call experience for the client by setting expectations from the start.
For employees, limited call functionality can seriously hamper their productivity. Limited numbers for conference calls, a lack of voicemail and landline limitations are just some of the things which can make it difficult for teams to work effectively together.
7. You don’t get any data and insights
Data and information are an asset within a business. If you can’t analyse your call statistics quickly and easily you are probably missing out on key data and information that can improve your business operations, sales and customer service.
Do you know key pieces of information, such as how many calls come into the business and each department? How many calls go unanswered? Who never answers the phone and who could be more productive if they weren’t fielding so many calls? Simple metrics like these can give you real insight and vision into your operations and many phone systems don’t have the capability to provide the data or it’s very costly.
What are my options for a new phone system?
If you can relate to one, or more, of these issues, then it’s a key indicator that it’s time to change your business phone system. It could be standing in the way of your business delivering an excellent experience for clients and even hampering your ability to win new business.
One popular solution is to consider switching to a VoIP telephone system, which leverages your existing internet connection, allowing you to make calls over the internet. It’s not only typically more cost-effective, but also offers greater flexibility, scalability and functionality when compared to a traditional on-premise telephone system.
If you want to find out more about VoIP and what’s involved in migrating your business to a new telephone system, then download our free guide for a comprehensive overview.
Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities for recovering spend quickly and effectively – largely around better cloud management and resource allocation. Of course, any cost-cutting measures need to be performed in a controlled way to ensure the integrity, performance and security of the cloud platform is not compromised.
1. Reserved instances
Ensure that you are using reserved instances where appropriate. Many organisations are still using pay as you go billing and ultimately losing out versus locking in pricing for a year or more. In some scenarios, you can save more than 70% with reserved instances.
2. Review licensing
It’s worth regularly reviewing licensing, particularly around the Microsoft stack. Microsoft makes regular changes to licensing, particularly around cloud-based services; some small adjustments can deliver significant savings within an estate. It’s worth noting that many organisations are doubling-up on licensing, particularly when using Azure and Microsoft licensing, i.e. Not using the Azure Hybrid Benefit program. If you bundle this program with reserved instances then savings of up to 80% can be made.
3. Price matching
Most public and private cloud providers will match their direct competitors on price. If you are up for renewal on your cloud platform or are not in a contract it’s important to take this into account. Also, even if you are in a contract it may be worth speaking to your provider about extending your contract term for a reduced monthly fee.
4. Look at containers
Containers are lighter weight than virtual machines and thus cost less. It’s worth looking at your applications to see which could be repackaged into containers to reduce the VM footprint and also costs.
5. Testing environments
Many organisations are paying to host their dev and testing environments. This is typically unnecessary and most cloud providers will allow you to run these workloads and licenses at a significantly reduced cost.
6. Move databases from virtual machines
Often, due to technical and operational familiarity, a lot of databases sit on VMs when they could sit in an elastic database. There are significant cost-savings, resiliency and often security benefits to be gained here, often without a huge amount of work.
7. Look for redundant disks
So many cloud estates have idle disks lurking around with them. It’s important to identify where these are, as they will be costing you every month. Most cloud providers, particularly within the public cloud arena make this easy, i.e. Look at the disk owner (or lack of) within the Azure portal’s disk screen.
8. Look at storage tiering
It’s easy overtime for data usage on disks to change. It’s important to ensure that the right data is stored on the right type of disk to ensure you are paying the right amount to store or process that data. Storage tiering, particularly automatic storage tiering, if not in use already should be evaluated to get the right balance between demand and price.
9. Look at uptime requirements
Many services within an organisation don’t need to be on in the evenings or at the weekend. In many cloud environments, you are going to be paying for those resources, if you are using them or not. If a server is only used between 8am to 8pm then why pay for those additional hours it’s not being used? You won’t save 50% of costs as it’s probably idling, but you could save 20% or 30%. When you extrapolate that over a number of servers and a number of days the savings do ramp. Most cloud providers have automated tools to help you automatically deallocate resources and shut idle systems down.
10. Break down virtual machines
Consider a larger number of smaller VMs compared to 1 large VM. This splits the workload and can help availability, whilst importantly making it easier to power down more resource when not in use.
11. Consider PaaS rather an IaaS
For example, Remote Desktop Services (RDS) require multiple gateway servers to build/run/maintain on top of session hosts, Windows Virtual Desktop (WVD) removes the need and ultimately the costs operate and manage these servers.
12. Look at your egress bandwidth
Always consider your egress requirements and what connectivity would be most suitable for your setup, such as using Microsoft ExpressRoute may be more cost-effective than running complex site-to-site VPNs.
Preventing future wastage
Whether you’re planning to migrate for the first time, planning to invest further in cloud, or you’re evaluating the suitability of your current platform, it’s essential that controlling waste remains a priority.
Optimising cloud computing spend is an ongoing challenge due to the cloud’s highly dynamic nature. Every time a new application is launched in the cloud or more cloud resources are allocated, cloud usage, and therefore spend, increases too. However, with automated policies and regular reviews you can ensure costs remain under control and prevent unanticipated bills.
It’s too soon to tell what the long-term financial impact of the pandemic will be, but in times of financial difficultly, IT spend can often be the first one on the chopping block – even with the best of intentions to maintain or increase that spend. Therefore, it’s more important than ever for IT Managers and teams to dig deep and assess what it truly being spent. Controlling cloud spend will not only make forecasting easier, but it’ll also free up budget for further digital transformation projects.
Need help optimising your cloud computing spend further?
With over 15 years’ experience in analysing, designing, deploying and managing all types of cloud platform, QuoStar is ideally placed to help you get more from your cloud computing budget.
We can help identify measurable costs savings, without negatively impacting the performance, reliability or security of your cloud platform, with a Value Enhancement Audit.
Get started today by booking a free online review with one of our cloud consultants. We’re here to help and can offer no-obligation advice about cloud computing, specific to your business requirements.
What are the most common problems with phone systems?
The specific problems with phone systems can vary, but they all impact the efficiency of operations and, ultimately, the bottom line. From overspending on hardware and system usage, through to providing a poor call experience to employees and clients alike, here are six of the most common problems mid-market businesses experience with their phone systems.
1. Outdated hardware
Unfortunately, this will happen at some point. No piece of hardware is for ‘life’ and will require an upgrade. The average lifespan of a business phone system is around 6-8 years, at which point the system is either out of maintenance or is lagging in functionality.
Ideally, you should aim to stay ahead of the curve and update your phone systems when you can, rather than pushing them to the absolute brink. While running your hardware for as long as possible may seem like a good idea, so you get the most value from your spend, this doesn’t result in the greatest return. As hardware ages, performance often suffers, and it can be more expensive to repair and update
Alternatively, with software-based and hosted communication solutions you don’t need to have dedicated hardware in the server room because everything can run in the cloud. Even desk phones are not essential with cloud telephony systems, instead, an application (also known as a softphone or client) can allow end-users to transform their laptop, mobile or other smart devices into a business phone which they can take with them anywhere.
Modern phone solutions no longer offer just ‘voice’. They’ve transformed into full unified communication (UC) solutions, which offer a whole raft of productivity-enhancing features. Mobile apps, multi-site integrations, auto-attendants, call recording, click-to-dial, wallboards and call management are just some of the features which might improve your employees’ day-to-day activity – but they might not be available with your current phone system. It’s typically these additional features that provide data for KPIs, which give businesses real insight into their operations, thus helping to drive transformation.
3. Maxed out phone lines
Business is going great and you’ve decided to employ another sales executive to keep up with demand. But there’s a problem, you’ve maxed out the number of phone lines your system can take in.
As businesses change and undertake digital transformation, it makes sense to invest in a phone system which can give you value right away but can easily scale with you too without an expensive upgrade path. VoIP can resolve these issues with its built-in flexibility and scalability, plus you’re not limited by physical location or installations.
Mid-market businesses understand the necessity of a phone system and as a result, often don’t question the cost – even where it’s eye-wateringly expensive. Some might not even be aware of what their phone system truly costs, especially when you start to incorporate some of the soft costs.
If your business needs to forward international calls or transfer calls to mobiles, then monthly costs can soon rack up.
5. Downtime takes you out completely
There’s no 100%, guaranteed protection against all downtime, but your business should prepare so you can still operate when it happens. If an outage occurs which takes down your phone system and you have no way to route those calls, then this not only impacts your clients but also means you could miss out on potential new business.
6. It’s overly complex
A phone system is essential for day-to-day activity, so you don’t want a set-up which is so complex that employees can’t use it without consulting a manual. For a system which is used day-in, day-out by essentially every person in the business, you want something which is intuitive and easy to use. While you may need to provide some initial training on a new system, you should feel confident that afterwards employees will be able to use it effectively.
What is the outcome for businesses?
Even just experiencing one of two of these issues with your phone can have a significant impact on operations. Missed or dropped calls, poor client experience and limited functionality are all reflected in the bottom line, so it makes sense to invest in a phone system which can keep up with your business.
VoIP is often a good alternative for mid-market firms. It offers the built-in flexibility and scalability which will address many of the issues which occur with traditional on-premise telephony. Any initial financial outlay will likely be recouped quickly by removing the soft costs poor experience incurs, plus your ongoing costs are likely to be significantly lower.
With multiple countries still inlockdown and traditional office environments swapped for home offices, the pandemic has bought the need for a flexible, robust cloud deployment into sharp clarity.
Cloud adoption was already becoming mainstream, with 90% of companies on the cloud and an estimated 60% of workloads running on a hosted cloud device in 2019. However, the sudden and drastic increase in remote working has placed a strain on infrastructure, highlighting stresses and fractures in many environments. As a result, manybusinesses may be asking themselves if they’ve adopted the right type of cloud or if they will need to change in order to ensure long-term profitability and sustainability in a post-pandemic world. It seems unlikely that we will revert to the traditional office-based 9-5, therefore businesses will need to be virtually agile and able to adapt to the new ways of working and doing business.
In order to operate and compete effectively in the new commercial environment that awaits, as well as deliver an enhancing employee and customer experience, businesses will need to be strategic when it comes to choosing a cloud solution and vendor. However, we’ve noticedthere is still a lot of confusion when it comes to the cloud marketplace and the types of solutions that are available. So, we’ve put together a quick-start, high-level guide designed to give busy business leaders a clearer understanding of the different types of cloud.
Which type of cloud deployment is best?
The three core types of cloud offer broadly similar benefits, but the one you choose will be dependent on the business requirements you have identified.
A public cloud consists of cloud computing resources which are owned and operated by a third-party provider and delivered over the internet to the general public. Microsoft and Amazon are two of the most well-known public cloud players, holding 50% of the marketplace as of February 2020, but IBM and Google are also key providers.It’s typically used to deploy web-based email, online office applications, storage, and testing and development environments.
With public cloud, all hardware, software and supporting infrastructure is owned and managed by the cloud service provider. Not only does this result in a lower initial financial outlay, but it also removes the need to budget and plan for infrastructure upgrades. Maintenance is usually factored into the contract cost, but businesses should double-check what’s included or they could risk being stung with an inflated bill.
One of the key benefits of public cloud is its easy scalability. Businesses only pay for the resource they use, but this resource can be ramped up or down to meet fluctuating user demands. It can offer increased reliability due to the vast number of servers involved. If one data centre were to fail, the load would be redistributed among the remaining centres making total failure unlikely. However, this is not to say thatdowntime is no longer a risk. Microsoft, Google and AWS have all experienced prolonged outages in the past 12-18 months, so it’s important to review outage reports.
Also known as a corporate or internal cloud, a private cloud consists of cloud computing resources which are used solely by one group, rather than the general public. It can be delivered by physical on-premise servers, located either at your business or in your datacentre, or it can be hosted by a third-party provider. In either case, though, the services and infrastructure are always maintained on a private network and the hardware and software are dedicated solely to your business.
Private cloud is typically adopted by those in highly regulated industries or those who deal with highly sensitive information such as financial services, government services, medicine or pharmaceuticals. It’s also a good option for mid- to large-sized organisations who are wanting to retain greater control over their environment.
Businesses are increasingly shifting their focus to a hybrid cloud approach. Often referred to as ‘the best of both worlds’, a hybrid deployment involves combining on-premise infrastructure or private cloud with public cloud. This approach offers high levels of flexibility, whilst maintaining some degree of control on-premise for sensitive data and applications. Public cloud can be used to deliver high-volume, lower-security needs such as webmail, whilst the private cloud is used for business-critical, sensitive operations like finance. Public cloud can also be used to extend the capacity of a private cloud when there are huge spikes in demand, for example, the deadline for online tax submissions. The application runs in a private cloud until demand spikes, at which point the business can tap into the public cloud for additional computing resources.
Choosing a vendor
Once you’ve decided which model best suits your requirements, the final step in to select a provider.
Regardless of whether you’re opting for public or private cloud, security must always be a top consideration. With all businesses handling confidential and sensitive data at some level, they must be confident that their chosen cloud provider has robust security systems and controls in place.
In the public cloud space, there are plenty of big names to choose from. Many offer broadly similar benefits so the decision often comes down to cost and the ease of migration/integration. For example, Amazon Web Services (AWS) is often more cost-efficient but if your business has already invested largely in Microsoft then Azure can offer a simpler integration.
The decision process surrounding private cloud providers may be more complex. You will need to evaluate resiliency, service level agreements (SLAs) and whether additional services, such as patching, maintenance and upgrades, are included and balance this against the cost.
Why should you consider investing now?
The pandemic has changed the way we work for the long-term, if not permanently in some cases. Now businesses have seen the success of remote working first-hand, they may question whether large offices are necessary or even if all employees need to be in the same geographical location – or time zone. If they want to continue working in this way, at least in some capacity, that the cloud will be necessary to achieve this.
Internal systems can have capacity restrictions, be more open to security compromises and require costly upgrades. In comparison, the cloud can offer huge scalability, flexibility and, in some cases, greater security. For those companies whose operations have remained largely the same and have the budget, then investing can not only enhance your operations but could save your money in the long run.In order to achieve the full benefits though, businesses must have a clear understanding of their business requirements so they can select a vendor and solution which will support this.
Our Client Infrastructure Manager and Azure specialist reviews Microsoft’s Windows Virtual Desktop.
Windows Virtual Desktop (WVD) is Microsoft’s newest Platform as a Service offering. It supports multi-session Windows 10 virtual machines and boasts significant improvements to the user experience and capabilities of certain Office 365 apps in a virtual desktop environment.
WVD became globally available as of September 30th, 2019 and is exclusively delivered on Azure. There’s a lot of good press around WVD, but it’s questionable how much of that is just buzz and how much is solid analysis. This article provides a more nuanced breakdown of how applicable WVD is in a business IT environment, what benefits it brings over other virtual desktop solutions, and whether Azure exclusivity is an issue?
How does Windows Virtual Desktop meet key business requirements?
Cost per user
Unlike VMWare and Citrix virtual desktop solutions, WVD does not require additional per-user licensing (such as RDS CALS or Windows Server) to run, making it very appealing to the price-conscious. This is also particularly beneficial for very large organisations as it limits ballooning costs for big user-bases.
WVD is not completely free though. Each user requires a Microsoft 365 or Windows 10 E3 license and you need to pay for the compute to run the virtual machines within Azure, but’s that’s to be expected.
What is the cost of Windows Virtual Desktop?
The precise cost will vary based on your number of users, the quality of the virtual machines and whether you’re using multi or single sessions, but you’ll be looking at around £8.25 per user per month in compute costs in an optimised environment.
WVD being restricted to Azure makes latency a hot issue since hosting the virtual machines on in-house infrastructure simply isn’t an option.
The (un)fortunate truth here though is that any latency problems are likely to come from your end, rather than from Microsoft’s. Azure is a global platform and Microsoft has enough money to pour into infrastructure that any latency issues are likely to come from your end rather than theirs.
Whilst this doesn’t solve the problem of latency, it does mean that if you already have the Internet connectivity to support cloud-based virtual desktops on a public cloud platform, Azure will not be a bottleneck.
What will my latency be with Windows Virtual Desktop?
There are a few tools to estimate your latency with Azure. This tool calculates the round-trip time with all eligible WVD regions and this tool lets you compare regions more easily.
In WVD’s documentation, Microsoft recommends a latency of below 150ms for a smooth experience, but VMWare documentation suggests below 250ms is still acceptable for running virtual desktops. Depending on your users and the work being done, you’ll likely have an acceptable experience if you can hit below either of those values.
Since WVD runs on Azure, scalability is almost limitless – regardless of the size of the business. The only restriction you may face is how much compute you can afford.
However, since a per-user license isn’t required, the price curve of WVD is much shallower compared to Citrix or VMWare. This frees up budget which can then be funnelled into even more Azure capacity or used to create value elsewhere in your business. So, chances are, WVD will meet your scalability requirements easily.
WVD holds native support for Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android and HTML5 environments – the latter allowing for access through a browser window. This lets a WVD virtual machine run on any mainstream device and opens a host of remote working opportunities.
Being a Microsoft product, WVD also integrates tightly with the other Microsoft products which make up the backbone of your operations such as Office 365, Outlook or Windows Server. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the tidiness gives WVD a notable sense of refinement compared to the layers of integration and configuration needed for VMWare or Citrix.
A final point regarding application performance and interoperability is that Microsoft acquired FSLogix during WVD’s development which enables seamless use of stateful applications such as Outlook, Teams and OneNote in a virtual environment.
A practical example of this new functionality is that it now only takes a second or two for a user’s Outlook inbox to populate instead of the minute it would usually take on a virtualised system.
This is achieved by containerising users’ profile data (e.g. emails, notebooks or chat messages) into a separate virtual disk which attaches to the session when needed. When you consider the number of times employees check their emails, this already presents considerable time savings.
Benefits of Windows Virtual Desktop
Free extended security updates for Windows 7 virtual environments
In a move that recognises some companies need to stick with Windows 7 to support specialist software (and perhaps as an enticement to coax Windows 7 users to Windows 10 in the long run), Microsoft will provide free extended security updates through to January 2023 if those Windows 7 desktops are virtualised in WVD.
For companies who haven’t yet migrated from Windows 7, or can’t, this is a lucrative offer since it eliminates the costly security updates (£25 per machine in the first year, £50 per machine in the second and £100 per machine in the third) whilst offering a potentially improved desktop environment with the same updates for free.
Offered as a fully managed Azure service
Managing a virtualised environment has traditionally been an enormous headache for IT teams. Not to mention the upfront slog there is to even get the environment set up correctly in the first place. Microsoft has eliminated much of this pain in WVD by making it a fully managed Azure service.
This takes all the infrastructure management, optimisation and fine-tuning off your plate and tasks like load balancing, diagnostics, gateways and connection brokering are fully managed whilst still being configurable to your requirements.
Configurability also extends to other areas of the virtual environment such as the size of the virtual machines, specific resource allocation to specific user groups, whether users are assigned using a breadth or depth technique and more. These options are managed through the Azure interface rather than requiring configuration on the back-end which keeps things simple for you as well.
In-built security and compliance
Whilst users may think access to files from anywhere on any device is a flexible working dream, for IT teams it sounds a lot more like a security nightmare. Fortunately, Microsoft has provided several security options which can let you sleep easier at night.
Probably the biggest security concern is that data stored on too many devices means an instant GDPR breach if any of those devices are lost or compromised. To alleviate this concern, configurable information protection controls are easily accessible and allow IT Managers to ensure data stays on the virtual machine and never resides on the connecting device.
WVD running on Azure also means you get to have your data and systems hosted in some of the most secure data centres in the world. Security is provided at all layers from software and hardware through to physical defences – which can take another weight off your mind.
Windows Virtual Desktop is Azure exclusive – is this a problem?
Microsoft obviously hopes to increase their cloud market share by making WVD exclusive to Azure, but this decision risks deterring some businesses.
Chances are, if you’re already dedicated to a non-Microsoft cloud (Amazon, Google, IBM) for compliance reasons or because you have a strategy built around it, you won’t be willing to pick up Azure just for the sake of virtual desktops.
Since those are solid justifications, we’re not going to try to convince you to change your path. However, if you’re on the fence regarding Azure or cloud in general, here are some reasons WVD being exclusive isn’t as much of a problem as it seems.
A specific objection to Azure compared to other big cloud providers is that Azure’s pricing has traditionally been prohibitive to smaller businesses without cash reserves. Azure’s pricing previously required upfront payment for the one-year or three-year reserved plans – forcing smaller businesses into the overall more expensive pay-as-you-go plan.
But Microsoft changed this in September 2019 to allow for reservations to be paid with monthly instalments rather than a single fee. For businesses without big cash reserves, this lets them set out a budget whilst also getting access to the savings a reservation provides (which can be as much as 46% for one-year reservations or 72% for three-year reservations).
Data out of your hands
The idea of your most valuable assets and corporate secrets being held in a third party’s hands is honestly frightening for a business. However, in the case of Azure, it’s mostly an unfounded fear.
Your data is likely to be safer in Azure’s data centres than your own due to how Microsoft rigorously adheres to global security standards including ISO 27001 and constantly pours an enormous amount of money into data security.
Whilst you do still need to deploy the solution in Azure correctly for true security (e.g. multi-factor authentication and proper user permissions configuration), these are the sort of things a competent Azure specialist will have in place from day one anyway.
The truth is that this problem comes down to psychology and fear of loss of control. If you’re adhering to best practices during deployment, Azure’s security is more than enough to protect your critical assets.
Azure datacentre downtime
Another common concern with running virtual desktops in the cloud is that if the platform goes down, employees won’t be able to do any work. Azure’s downtime tracker showing a list of several recent downtime events doesn’t help alleviate fears either.
However, you should bear in mind that Azure has at least three million servers. And when operating at that scale, even with 99.99% uptime, there would be 300 servers constantly in a down state. Since there aren’t 300 servers constantly in a down state, Microsoft is doing a pretty good job of service availability.
The concern of downtime is certainly genuine, but to address it you should acknowledge that Microsoft and their army of engineers are probably more capable of managing the hardware side of a data centre with less downtime and shorter downtime windows than you can.
Having the hardware managed by Azure also takes a load off your shoulders and allows you to focus efforts towards activities which are of actual benefit rather than day-to-day maintenance.
Should you get Windows Virtual Desktop for your business?
As of now, the short answer is no. You might be surprised by that answer, but things are much more nuanced if you dig deeper.
If you’re already operating a virtual desktop environment or are an expert in Azure and VDI then yes, WVD is certainly worth reviewing. However, if you plan on using WVD as your first foray into using virtual desktops, it would be best to let it undergo a few months of fixes first.
WVD is on the bleeding edge of virtual desktop solutions right now. Whilst it shows a lot of promise and represents a lot of improvements, it needs refining before it can be considered a best-in-class solution.
Microsoft’s development cycle means it shouldn’t take too long to work out the bugs. And during that time WVD will likely gain some new and improved features – so you’ll even get some additional value for waiting.
In the meantime, upskilling your existing IT team in Azure will provide you with some decent in-house expertise. Additionally, moving to Office 365 now, if you haven’t already, gives your users plenty of time to grow accustomed to the extra features and productivity tools which are included.
With the evolution of cloud platforms in recent years, I find that companies are now more seriously considering relocating their on-premises IT infrastructure into public or private cloud in order to realise operational efficiency and cost benefits. A key part of such an infrastructure is likely to be the company file system. On the face of it, this may seem like a very simple infrastructure component to migrate but there are some key areas that should be considered and planned prior to undertaking the migration.
1. Choose your cloud carefully
Essentially, you have the choice of public or private cloud. You would likely want to consider ongoing running costs and security features of each cloud-based solution. Beware of some cloud-based solutions that will charge for not only storing data but its transfer as well – they could lead to very high ongoing costs. Consider enhancing access security with multi-factor authentication – after all, your company files are likely to contain confidential/sensitive information. Also, be mindful of the limitations of the cloud solution – for example, file permissions from the source system may not be maintained or files stored in a long nested path/with long file names could be problematic during a migration process.
2. Consider your file characteristics
If you are predominantly working with large files then you may find that only moving your files into a cloud-based solution could cause operational difficulties due to the slow opening of remote files. This would in part be down to your available internet bandwidth. Typically, standard office files work well when accessed from remote cloud storage environments but larger files (videos etc) may require additional cloud service features such as streaming, to make access to them efficient.
3. Evaluate your business systems and processes
Since file systems are core to most businesses, it is likely that there will be other internal (and possibly external) business systems and processes that interact with the current file system. These should be assessed to determine how the file storage system could be migrated into a cloud-based solution without negative impact on other internal systems and processes.
4. Assess how company staff need to access the files
A cloud-based storage solution probably makes file access more flexible in terms of not being tied to specific locations when accessing the files but it also may change the way that staff have to access the files. For example, staff may be used to accessing files via a mapped drive and a cloud-based solution may be web browser-based. Carefully consider how this could affect operational efficiency as staff learn a new way of working.
5. Plan DR and Business Continuity
Most businesses have an operational reliance on their file system. If you migrate these services into the cloud, then it’s important to consider things like office Internet connectivity resiliency and how the cloud-based file system can be backed up / recovered in the event of a disaster along with what inbuilt resilience the cloud solution offering may have. This will help to ensure minimum business disruption.
With careful solution selection, planning and preparation before implementation – a migration of file storage systems to a cloud-based solution should provide optimum cost and operational efficiency benefits with minimum business impact.
Sway is a presentation tool included within Office 365 which fulfills the role of a “digital storytelling application”. Sway is ideal for creating business reports, presentations or updates. Allowing users to make visually compelling, content-rich presentations without needing any serious design skills.
Sway and PowerPoint are often compared with one another. But whilst they’re both presentation tools, they both fill very different niches. PowerPoint is the ideal tool for presenting content to an audience. Whereas Sway is best used for presenting content onscreen to an individual.
What are the benefits of Sway for businesses?
Optimised for mobile:
With an increasingly mobile workforce, users need applications that can be used on whatever device they’re using. Sway is optimised for mobile devices to accommodate this. It even has a range of features which allow created sways to look just as good on a phone or tablet as they do on a desktop.
In-built mobile previews, touch-screen friendly interactions and an image focus-point customiser all contribute towards making Sway a superior presentation tool. And one which is ideal for the modern, mobile age.
This makes Sway great for sending a report to a travelling executive. Or for ensuring an important company announcement is accessible by anyone at any time. Regardless of the device they’re using.
Sway’s mobile preview is just one of the features it includes to ensure optimal performance on mobile as well as desktops or tablets.
Ensuring a consistent visual approach is integral to having a solid brand style. So, Sway’s in-built ability to save a created sway as a template to use for future documents is invaluable. This is also useful for semi-automating the creation of recurring documents such as sales reports or newsletters.
Sway has a massive range of pre-set layouts. Plus the ability to tweak these or create a new one from scratch. This lets you create a plethora of unique styles. Or find the perfect one to align with your brand’s identity.
Accessible to everyone:
Something easy to overlook but valuable nonetheless is accessibility. Sway has its own accessibility mode which lets created sways be usable by everyone.
Features like adding in alternative text for images to assist with screen readers. Or restructuring pages to a simplified layout for people with dyslexia both go a long way. And an in-built accessibility checker ensures created sways aren’t difficult to use.
Sway also has a set of free guidelines available for ensuring created sways are accessible to those with dyslexia or visual impairments. You can also use the accessibility checker to analyse the document and find issues like insufficient colour contrast. Something which can cause problems for those who are colour-blind or have low vision.
An example of the suggestions the accessibility checker provides for ensuring an optimal Sway experience for everyone.
As well as being able to write content natively, it’s also possible to import a pre-existing document into Sway. This can be a something like a Word file or a topic outline from Wikipedia.
From there, Sway breaks the document down into its main components. A headline, titles, body text, images and tables for example. And displays it in your sway.
Sway can then takes this a step further, adding in a few extra touches. These additions are only cosmetic such as text extracts. But they vastly improve the visuals of the document.
Once you import the document, it can still be edited to get it to your liking. But from experimentations, Sway tends to do an already good job of presenting imported content.
Accessible anywhere and shareable with anyone:
Sway stores created sways in the cloud. Meaning that you can view any sway you want as long as you’re connected to the Internet and have access permission. This does have the downside of meaning that whilst offline, you won’t be able to access any sways. But for the increased flexibility offered by a cloud approach, it’s a worthwhile trade-off.
Being stored online also has the advantage of simplified sharing. The types of documents you make in Sway are meant to be shared. Whether that’s with only a few as with a report or many people as with a newsletter.
Having no need to upload or download any files and fiddle with versions is great. Considering that sways are often packed with rich media or images. You also get to avoid long transfer times due to a large file size because your sways are stored centrally.
Sway allows users to insert content from a variety of sources to enrich their presentation. Flickr, Bing Images and Pickit all offer a variety of images under the Creative Commons licence. Letting you use them freely as backgrounds or features within the sway.
Additionally, you can embed YouTube videos, tweets and Facebook posts into sways. Allowing for easy viewing and no need to link out of the presentation for content which is on another platform.
Of course, you can also embed any images or videos you already have into the sway. Either via OneDrive or by inserting the file into your presentation.
In addition to images, Sway allows users to easily import videos, social media snippets and other rich media.
A major issue with PowerPoint presentations is that they can seem unprofessional or lack finesse. Which in turn reflects poorly on your business. Likewise, Word documents are difficult to organise and are often visually sparse. Sway on the other hand is built with elegant design and impressive visual performance in mind.
Through using the pre-made templates and styles – or creating your own – it’s simple to create a presentation which looks good and impresses your client or manager.