Saturday, November 27, 2010

Empty Clouds

I have written a number of articles and white papers on cloud computing.   I always emphasize security as job #1.  While there are many, many advantages to cloud computing, there is one area that some SaaS providers are taking the easy way out - Service Level Agreements (SLAs)   I have stated in every one of my articles and presentations that SLAs in a written agreement are critical before you place a cloud bet.  I can not over emphasize how important it is to have a viable and written SLA.    Look at the big dog in the IaaS room, Amazon's EC2, and you will see a company that has seriously thought about this and provides a reasonable degree of assurance and protection when you are placing a business bet on the cloud.  A number of software companies still do not get it that you simply can not expect a business to place a huge bet on your SaaS when there is no recourse if that service is down.  We hear stories all the time from software sales reps that state, "you can get an SLA if you really push it and are a big customer."  You should not have to be a big company to get an SLA.

Prior to SaaS, I did a great deal of work with High Availability (HA) servers at Sun Microsystems with Sun's partners (in the early 1990s) and Sun's software.  The challenge with HA servers was multiple from asymmetric to symmetric HA servers, to round robin load balancing, to eliminating Single Points Of Failures (SPOFs), to HA aware software, to upgrades, to patches, to version control, to sysadmin, to a thousand other issues.   Running your own HA servers was a non-trivial task to take on.  SaaS, in theory, should eliminate most of these concerns as the SaaS provider takes on the hard computer science challenges.  This does not mean that you don't question your SaaS provider regarding how they take care of these issues behind the scenes.  If you do, you will be treating your SaaS provider just like the Wizard behind the curtain in the movie - The Wizard Of Oz.  Remember the old phrase, "if you assume, you make an a$$ out of you and me."

It is simply a matter of time before we start hearing of customers openly demanding that SaaS companies step up to the plate as Amazon and others have to provide meaningful SLAs. The SLAs are now becoming more of a standard for IaaS and will be for PaaS.

What is an empty cloud?  A SaaS with no SLA or a completely vague SLA that provides ZERO recourse.  The industry is going through a learning phase right now.  Companies are going to realize that you simply must have an SLA.   There is another option if the SaaS company refused to have an SLA and that is a disaster recovery (DR) option that can be either hot or cold started in the event the service is down.   If you can get a copy of your data and get a perpetual license that you can run either locally or in another cloud instantiation, then get a DR as an option.  Clearly, this option may not be possible for many, put it is available for some.  

Lenny Rachitsky at Transparent Uptime has a GREAT post on the importance of SaaS Dashboards that is a must read.  Below are five areas he brings out in his post:
 "Lets first define what makes an online health dashboard "successful", and in the process explain why you (as a SaaS provider) should have one:
  1. Your support costs go down as your users are able to self-identify system wide problems without calling or emailing your support department. Users will no longer have to guess whether their issues are local or global, and can more quickly get to the root of the problem before complaining to you.
  2. You are better able to communicate with your users during downtime events, taking advantage of the broadcast nature of the Internet versus the one-to-one nature of email and the phone. You spend less time communicating the same thing over and over and more time resolving the issue.
  3. You create a single and obvious place for your users to come to when they are experiencing downtime. You save your users' time currently spent searching forums, Twitter, or your blog.
  4. Trust is the cornerstone of successful SaaS adoption. Your customers are betting their business and their livelihoods on your service or platform. Both current and prospective customers require confidence in your service. Both need to know they won't be left in the dark, alone and uninformed, when you run into trouble. Real time insight into unexpected events is the best way to build this trust. Keeping them in the dark and alone is no longer an option.
  5. It's only a matter of time before every serious SaaS provider will be offering a public health dashboard. Your users will demand it."
Bottom line: Do NOT go for a a SaaS with zero SLA or at least a Disaster Recovery Cold/Hot Start Server or you will be sorry.

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