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February 18, 2019
Focus: Workplace technology

More businesses migrate to the cloud, but is it the right approach for everyone?

Photo / Tim Greenway
Photo / Tim Greenway
Matt McGrath, president of Systems Engineering, says “almost everybody is in the cloud, whether they think about it that way or not.

Passamaquoddys plan data center

The Passamaquoddy tribe at Indian Township is planning to build a state-of-the-art data center designed to provide the benefits of cloud computing, create well-paying jobs and diversify the regional economy. The plan calls for using "green" hydrogen-powered fuel cells in order to eliminate carbon emissions. Darrin Coffin, the tribe's finance director, said the tribe is awaiting word on its application to the U.S. Department of Treasury's New Market Tax Credit program, to launch the venture. The project leverages the reservation's location on Maine's 3-Ring Binder, designed to bring high-speed broadband connectivity to rural parts of the state.

When a client asked for video conferencing, project management and accounting, Pegas Technology Solutions helped the client migrate his company's operations to the cloud.

Pegas, owned by William Oakes, is an IT services and solutions company in Fairfield. The client, David DiPerri, is a business broker and accountant who owns Prosper CI in Exeter, N.H. With Pegas's help, DiPerri migrated to the cloud for the applications listed above but also basics like file storage and remote desktop access. Now, says DiPerri, he works with clients and colleagues on projects in multiple locations, sharing data and achieving efficiency.

Oakes says advantages like remote access and great data security are attracting the attention of his customers, most of whom, previously using on-site servers, have migrated to the cloud.

"I've always found, at least for Maine, the technology lags five or 10 years. But that gap has gone away substantially in the last two years or so," Oakes says. "People seem more comfortable with it now. A lot of it has to do with faster internet speeds. It also has something to do with younger people coming in and starting businesses, so it's more native to them."

"Almost everybody is in the cloud, whether they think about it that way or not," says Matt McGrath, president of Portland-based Systems Engineering, a managed IT services and support firm. "Many lines of business applications are delivered through the cloud. Many people have email or document storage that's in the cloud. Some industries are slower to migrate to the cloud. But overall, we're seeing consistent movement, either all at once or piece by piece. A very high percentage of our customers have some or all of their business functions operating in the cloud."

What is the cloud and how does it work?

IT service provides say cloud computing has numerous advantages, with little downside – although there is some. Loss of internet accessibility to hosting data centers, for example, can stop work at hosted companies. There's a human component. Some businesses want to know their data is on company premises. They want to see their server's blinking lights, and they don't exactly know where their data is when it's in "the cloud."

So what is the cloud? Evan Desjardins, president of Roundtable Technology in Lewiston, compares it to a condominium.

"A lot of businesses are used to having micro data centers at their office," Desjardins says. "You'd have your own infrastructure that you'd manage and keep up and replace periodically. The cloud changes that model. Instead of owning and building your own micro data center, you're essentially leasing space in a much larger, more advanced center that you wouldn't be able to afford otherwise. You get a slice of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of infrastructure. It's like living in a high-rise condo with all the amenities. You don't necessarily own the entire infrastructure, but you get all the benefits of it without having to maintain it."

Local service providers like his partner with data centers like Google, Microsoft and FirstLight.

"We don't provide the infrastructure ourselves," Desjardins says. "This is where it gets confusing, talking about the cloud. People say, 'We don't know where our data is hosted.' Our biggest local partner is FirstLight, which has a fabulous data center in Brunswick. A lot of our Maine customers, in particular those who might be newer to the cloud, want to know exactly where their stuff is. We can take them to that FirstLight facility and show them."

Benefits

McGrath says advantages include:

  • Mobility: flexibility to work remotely, across multiple devices as long as there's internet connectivity;
  • Productivity: many cloud-based tools deliver collaboration and productivity-enhancing functionality;
  • Freedom from maintaining onsite technology, heating, cooling, etc.

McGrath uses the term "elasticity."

"Growing data storage needs are more easily accommodated in the cloud. In the old days, you might have had to make significant hardware investments to accommodate business growth," he says.

In many cases, the cloud improves data security over traditional networks.

"Look at major players like Microsoft, Amazon, Google," he says. "They're putting huge investments into security and are able to respond to the changing threat landscape quickly. You're getting the latest and greatest from the security perspective in many of their cloud offerings."

Desjardins agrees.

"I have a client from years ago. When we first started talking about the cloud, we were sitting in his office, glass windows everywhere," Desjardins recalls. "The question was about security: 'Okay, if I put my stuff in the cloud, is it going to be secure?' I said, 'What's going to be easier to break into, this room, where you're surrounded by glass windows and your server is just sitting, or a tier 4 to 5 data center?' The risk is smaller to be in the cloud, because they have so much more security and money and teams of people monitoring this 24 hours a day. Even if a disaster happens, the ability to recover data is much higher."

Scott MacDonald, founder and CEO of Maine Technology Group in Winslow, says the cloud is more reliable than on-site infrastructure.

"If an on-site server crashes, you could potentially lose everything, or you pay a lot of money to be able to access it," MacDonald says. "If you have an on-premise server and 14 locations, every location has to have the right kind of software. That all goes away in the cloud. It's streamlined, and most times it's more cost-effective."

The downside to cloud computing

But there are downsides. Those major players? "They're much bigger targets," says Desjardins. "If you're a plumbing company, you're probably not going to get hacked. But if you're Microsoft, people are coming after you every day."

Even if they simply have an outage, "You're dead in the water," he adds. "If Microsoft, for example, is having an outage, you're not getting email. You have to ride it out."

As a result, says McGrath, "Finding good carriers who have strong service records and good coverage is critical. One of the things we see is many companies now have much more active business continuity plans. If something happens – say there's a fire in the physical office building – you're removing the risk that goes along with having all of your IT equipment there."

Migration decision

There are key times when a business might want to assess whether to migrate, says McGrath, whose company offers a formal cloud assessment of business drivers, applications, data, security and network needs. One scenario is when a business is considering a sizeable investment in its existing network to get it up to date. Another is if a business uses systems that offer better functionality in a cloud offering than in a traditional on-premises version.

These days, he says, migration is pretty easy.

"The transition for end users is far less impactful than many people think," he says. "We focus a great deal on making cloud transitions seamless to the users."

Ultimately, he says, the decision to migrate is about end-user productivity, security and the ability to scale the business, and should be weighed along with traditional on-premises networks and hybrid solutions. "Your business needs should be driving the solutions," he says.

Lag time

While Maine might lag in picking up on new technologies, things are changing, providers say. Says MacDonald, "Most of the time it goes along generation lines: 'I want to be able to see the lights blinking in the black box.' But once anyone knows the inner workings of the cloud and the security behind it, most times the scariness is over. It's like online banking. Ten years ago, a lot of people said, 'No way, not going to do it.' Today, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone not using online banking."

Desjardins says it's important just to have the conversation.

"One of my customers is a CPA audit firm," he says. "They had a server in their Buxton office. Their auditors are on the road all the time, but the only way they could access their data was in the office. We put together file-sharing solutions with an off-site host. Their Buxton server became irrelevant. That eliminated a lot of overhead on the technology side and redirected that time and investment into solutions that could be accessed anywhere in the world. It's transformative for their organization. It just required a rethinking of the paradigm."

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