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10 Myths about Cloud Computing in Alaska

Alaskans are keenly aware of their proximity to the rest of the world. For some, it is the bane to their existence, for others, it is the very reason Alaska is where they choose to live. But for all of them, the isolation is a factor in their dealings and needs to be considered in business decisions.

Technology has greatly lessened the impact of isolation but the perception of isolation remains. The world is
moving to cloud computing, but many Alaska businesses are burdened with incorrect perceptions and misinformation regarding the cloud. Here is a list of concerns routinely raised by statewide business leaders based on their unique perceptions:

 

1. Cloud computing is less secure than local servers.

Although Grandma may be adamant that her bingo stash and war bonds are safer stuffed under her mattress than trusting banks, any prudent comparison of the two obviously demonstrates the bank is safer. Why? Because the bank is in the business of security. It has spent disproportionately more money on safeguarding the property of its customers because the risk is disproportionately greater than that of a single corporation’s. A brief review of the security practices, budgets and safeguards in place at any reputable cloud facility adds perspective to this. Like the banks, cloud computing providers are in the business of security and invest far more than local servers to ensure that security. Tens of thousands of companies depend on this network of data centers to be up, operational and secure 100 percent of the time.

 

2. My employees and customers are in Alaska, so it will be faster to keep my servers in town.

This might come as a surprise, but Alaska phone companies are not necessarily “kindred spirits.” In fact, they rarely exchange data between each other, and instead depend on third-party providers in the Lower 48 to hand off the data. This means that when your customer tries to access your website, the data request is usually routed Outside where the handoff is made before being sent back up to Alaska. Then, the data response from your server heads back down on a second round trip before arriving at your customer’s computer. This double round trip is made a bajillion times every time you load a webpage. The irony: by placing your servers in the Lower 48, they could be twice as fast as having the servers in Alaska.

 

3. Internet connectivity between Alaska and the Lower 48 is unreliable.

This is one of the most common fears Alaska businesses express when considering cloud solutions. Many remember the days when a wayward boat anchor would seemingly aim for the single undersea lifeline that connected Alaskans to the outside world. Today, there are four distinct fiber pathways between Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. There is not a single point of failure, or a single stretch of conduit that, if damaged, would affect all four diverse paths. Fiber owners also maintain failover equipment to route traffic automatically—even to a competitor’s fiber—if the need arises. Although tightlipped as to present usage versus capacity, Alaska fiber owner companies unanimously agree that Alaskans can expect consistent, reliable connectivity for the foreseeable future.

 

4. I like to be able to reach out and touch my servers.

Really? When was the last time you walked the cool, drafty aisles of your data center? More likely, your company’s data center is a converted utility closet with sprinklers overhead and a Wal-Mart air conditioner installed directly above the servers. The truth is, proximity to the servers is now irrelevant in the Internet age. Here is a little secret that IT folks hold close: rarely, if ever, is physical interaction with a server necessary after installation. Nearly 100 percent of hardware and software support is accomplished remotely over the network. The IT personnel watching the server may be in the same building, across town, or thousands of miles away, because it makes no difference. Why? Because generally speaking, we IT people are a lazy bunch, and if we don’t have to walk downstairs or drive across town to work on a server, we won’t. We all use tools that allow us to remotely manage every aspect of a server from anywhere on the network, and often anywhere in the world.

 

5. There is more accountability with local servers than with the cloud.

It is nice to have a throat to choke when something goes wrong. I can’t tell you how many times my phone has rung in years past when a server crashed or an important file “just disappeared” and needed to be restored from backup. (Most often these calls come in between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m., or during the fourth quarter of the Superbowl.) Seemingly, there is someone to call when there is a problem, and someone to hold accountable for the downtime. But what is the true breadth of that accountability? Other than disciplining or firing the IT guy, is there any recourse or means to be compensated for what was lost? No.

Cloud computing companies, on the other hand, all have Service Level Agreements (SLAs) often times approaching 100 percent uptime. In the unlikely event of an outage, the cloud provider reimburses the company up to 10 times the monthly fees for the service disruption. Financially backed accountability is built into every facet of cloud computing. Ask your IT professional what it would cost to provide 100 percent uptime on your IT infrastructure, and then have him stake his job on it.

 

6. My Internet connection is fast enough so I’m ready to jump on the cloud.

Although bandwidth is a very important metric when considering cloud computing, there are other factors that must also be carefully considered:

  • Are you on a business grade or consumer grade Internet connection? A 100 percent uptime guarantee on your cloud servers doesn’t mean anything if your Internet connection is only up 95 percent of the time. All of the major telephone providers in Alaska provide managed Internet service with guaranteed uptime SLAs. Find out what service you have and what other options are available to you.
  • Are you on a capped data plan with expensive overages? Beware of the Internet plan that gives you X GB/month of data with exorbitant overage fees. Find a plan that makes sense with your anticipated traffic.
  • Are you on a shared Internet platform? Unbeknownst to you, an intern in the next building could be downloading all 20 seasons of the Simpsons complete with commentary. This would likely bring your cloud computing experience to a standstill because your neighbor has saturated your shared Internet connection. Be sure to ask your phone company for a dedicated Internet service.

7. Since I’m on the cloud, I don’t need my IT guy.

Not so fast. Although there are not local servers to install and support, there are still applications to support, networks to maintain, and printers to unjam. As businesses move to the cloud they are realizing a shift in how they are spending IT labor dollars. A company’s IT team often comprises some of the brightest and most capable people in the organization. Instead of installing and supporting physical infrastructure, IT personnel are developing and deploying applications and systems that drive increased revenue or cost savings.

 

8. My local servers and data room differentiate me from my competitors.

New technology is a differentiator, but as broad adoption occurs, the benefit erodes and the technology becomes an expectation rather than a differentiator. Twenty years ago a company’s investment in an email server provided a clear advantage in the marketplace. Today, email and other common business applications are marketplace expectations and utilities that should be purchased from any number of cloud providers. Do not burn overhead dollars on the procurement and maintenance of physical systems that do not differentiate your competition.

 

9. My data will end up in China or Russia.

Concern regarding the physical location of data is real and can be mitigated. Most cloud companies will be straightforward about the physical location of their servers and data storage. In fact, cloud providers often provide affidavits guaranteeing that data is not stored internationally to comply with export requirements and federal contracts. Remember: the largest proponent of cloud computing is the United States federal government.

 

10. My IT guy is watching out for my business interests first.

A company’s dependence on IT personnel is tremendous and technology professionals take that responsibility very seriously—along with preserving their livelihood. Cloud computing is new and may seem threatening to IT personnel or contractors. Having a third party review systems and servers independently of an IT team will present the risks and benefits without being clouded by personal reservations. Remember: the IT guy’s job isn’t going anywhere. He will need to adapt his skill sets just as the business must adapt to stay competitive

About the Author

Nathaniel Gates is president and founder of Cloud49, a cloud computing service provider headquartered in Anchorage. Gates has worked as an IT executive in multiple industries, including petroleum, oilfield services, government contracting and at Alaska Native corporations. Cloud49 has been in business since 2010 and has offices in Anchorage, Seattle and Los Angeles.

 

This article first appeared in the May 2012 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.

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