Differentiate your cloud hosting services without causing lock-in

Read these four tips to learn how providers can differentiate their cloud hosting services while still curbing customers' fear of cloud lock-in.

As cloud computing adoption continues to accelerate, providers selling cloud hosting services are looking to find new and creative ways to differentiate their services and provide additional value to their customers. Unfortunately, many so-called value-added services and capabilities can be a double-edged sword for customers who are intent on avoiding cloud lock-in.

Providers have to address the needs of existing customers and prospective ones, and they must also be able to deliver the features and capabilities that meet enterprise requirements. The tricky part is achieving these goals without fueling customers' fears of being locked into one provider's cloud service environment.

Many so-called value-added services and capabilities can be a double-edged sword for customers who are intent on avoiding cloud lock-in.

Read these four tips to find out how cloud providers can differentiate their services without making them proprietary.

Become a trusted advisor. The first mistake that many cloud providers make is to overstate the need for and capabilities of their cloud hosting services. While it may be technically possible to move every workload and application to the cloud, providers should help customers identify and prioritize those workloads and applications that are best suited to cloud environments. The best initial candidates for cloud migration are commodity services -- email, storage, application development environments -- or applications that already interact with external applications or services. Additionally, providers should also ensure customers consider technical requirements around security, compliance, migration, performance and architecture. This should take place before a move to the cloud, not after. For example, providers may require certain certifications to accept workloads that need to meet Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS), Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) or Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) compliance requirements. Providers should advise customers if and when these sensitive workloads may be better suited for a private or hybrid cloud environment.

Embrace the de facto standards. VMware's proprietary vSphere and vCloud platforms have become the de facto standard for enterprises and are also common among providers. VMware boasts that more than 8,000 service providers currently support its platform. Most customers won't care what platform a provider uses at the hypervisor layer or even at the cloud management stack layer. A provider can use Microsoft HyperV, Citrix XenServer, open source Xen, Linux's KVM or whatever works best for a given environment. But, as VMware has become the de facto standard for enterprises, providers should consider having a VMware environment as well for those customers who do care about which platform a provider uses. It's also important to focus on common standards, such as the Open Virtualization Format (OVF), that provide portability across environments. Finally, customers will prefer to use virtualization vendor-provided consoles to manage their environments in a way that is familiar to them. Customers will favor those familiar tools over a provider's proprietary consoles.

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Look to the enterprise for identity. Embrace open, standards-based products that enable customers to still get mileage out of their existing directory infrastructure without the need for significant additional investments. Most organizations have deployed some version of Microsoft's Active Directory or an LDAP directory for secure access to email, file servers and enterprise applications. Not only do these directory services work, they also are already installed and organizations know how to manage them. As cloud services usage expands, organizations are finding that their on-premises access control and enforcement methods are not designed to work with many providers' existing cloud service offerings. The result is either an unwillingness to embrace cloud services or a reduced security posture for the customer. A service offering that works well with an on-premises directory is sure to be favored over one that isn't compatible.

Use a cloud-building platform. Cloud-building platforms or frameworks like OpenStack, CloudStack, vCloud Director and Eucalyptus all have promising benefits but still need to mature further. Enterprises simply haven't had enough time and experience with these tools. As a result, providers should carefully consider their own budget and requirements when evaluating these various cloud stacks. They need to consider their target customers' environments, their own infrastructure and the strengths and weaknesses of their developers and staff. All of these elements will be critical for providers trying to determine the best stack for their environments. An open platform provides the most flexibility and allows providers to find ways to differentiate their offerings from competitors' in a non-proprietary way.

About the author:
Henry Svenblad is principal research analyst for network communications and services at Nemertes Research.

This was first published in January 2013

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