Nov 25 2019

A Successful Cloud Migration Starts with Understanding Business Needs

A decision-making rubric will help businesses evaluate applications individually.

Trevor Farnum had a problem.

As vice president of IT for Data Recognition Corp., a Maple Grove, Minn.-based company that provides educational assessment services, Farnum had a tough decision to make about how to handle the massive amounts of data DRC needed to collect and analyze at testing time.

“We have a fairly large spike in compute and data transfers,” says Farnum. “At the end of the school year, there’s a substantial amount of testing, which causes a burst of simultaneous demand.”

Managing that burst traditionally would have meant investing in huge computing and storage capacity that would remain dormant for 10 or 11 months at a time, -making the cloud a tempting option. But Farnum knew DRC needed more than the cloud alone could provide.

“Paper is still a large part of our business. We maintain very large production scanners that are capable of scanning more than 300 pages per minute; the amount of data generated by these systems is not efficiently stored and received in the cloud during the processing of these documents,” says Farnum. Because the processing engine is local, on-premises solutions are more cost-effective in this case.

With a strong business case for cloud and an equally strong need for high-speed, low-cost access to scanned images on-premises, Farnum knew he needed to take a hybrid approach to find the right solution for DRC and its customers.

How to Choose What to Migrate to Cloud First

While each company’s cloud needs may be unique, the journey to finding the right blend of resources shares many commonalities across industries.

Deepak Mohan, research director for cloud infrastructure services at IDC, says companies should take a “small and fast” approach with their cloud transitions, starting with projects that are narrow in scope and that can be done relatively quickly.

When it comes to evaluating which workloads are suitable for moving off-premises, Mohan recommends using three key criteria: speed, sensitivity and scale.

Speed refers to the rate at which an application is evolving. “The more rapidly you feel an application needs to change in the next one or two years, the more benefits you can derive from putting it in cloud,” he explains. “Cloud is ideally suited for this kind of volatility.”

For those early transformations, choosing low-sensitivity workloads is a good strategy, as there will be a learning curve. “Give yourself the flexibility to move quickly with your first set of workloads as you move to cloud,” he advises.

Finally, start with small-scale applications that will eventually need to grow rapidly, he says. This allows for shorter lead time than on-premises development and presents an opportunity to build momentum during a period of cloud transformation.

Workloads that may not be a great fit for cloud include those that require extremely low latency and those built with legacy code and with deep dependencies. But cloud is rapidly evolving.

“If you look at the momentum and speed with which cloud environments have been expanding, now you have bare metal at most cloud providers,” says Mohan, referring to the way in which cloud providers are able to replicate the capabilities of an on-premises physical server. Increasingly, there’s little that the cloud can’t do.

Trevor Farnum
The No. 1 question is, ‘How do I continue to provide a cost-effective solution, so that we can continue to lower our price and provide the technical benefits that our clients are looking for?’"

Trevor Farnum Vice President of Information Technology, Data Recognition Corp.

Which Applications Should Be Kept On-Premises? 

Farnum’s deep understanding of his needs and workloads allowed him to make thoughtful decisions on how DRC could best employ the cloud. He began by defining what he calls his “hierarchy of needs” — those things that are most important to the business and produce the most value for DRC’s customers.

“The No. 1 question is, ‘How do I continue to provide a cost-effective solution, so that we can continue to lower our price and provide the technical benefits that our clients are looking for?’” says Farnum.

He looked at legacy applications that were due for an upgrade and planned ahead to make sure that their replacements were cloud-native. “Applications originally built using monolithic design patterns or any relatively current microserviced applications that required feature updates were possible targets for cloud modernization,” says Farnum.

He also looked for solutions that could manage the periodic annual resource burst at testing time, using the cloud to eliminate having to build and maintain excess on-premises capacity needed for only a short period of time each year.

“That’s where serverless comes in,” says Farnum. “It’s called FaaS: Function as a Service.”

FaaS is a step beyond Infrastructure as a Service, allowing DRC to write code inside a serverless framework without incurring costs for a hypervisor or an operating system. “All our latest cloud-native applications are targeted for serverless with the goal of being cloud-agnostic and portable,” he adds.

Farnum looked to containerize as a microservice all elements that weren’t suitable for serverless. Finally, at the legacy layer, hypervised systems and single machines for discrete applications remain in place.

On-premises, DRC operates two data centers that run Dell EMC VxBlocks, allowing for storage of and access to scanned image data onsite.

“That’s our traditional on-premises infrastructure; that’s where the vast majority of our compute and our engine runs,” says Farnum. With that, the company uses VMware NSX for replication of virtual machines between the two data centers.

DRC is also experimenting with a small onsite Nutanix cluster, which includes the App Mobility Fabric and Container Services tools.

“Nutanix is exciting in that they are releasing features that focus on how to deliver business value through simplification of infrastructure and software development, improving the speed at which I can build the next application by eliminating overly complex traditional infrastructure,” says Farnum. “They are working to bring cloudlike capabilities on-premises.”

MORE FROM BIZTECH: Read why businesses should deploy consider a virtual private cloud.

A Cloud-First Strategy Helped Engineers Do Their Jobs

Woodard & Curran, a national engineering, science and operations firm, ended up in a different place than DRC. But
the questions the company asked along the way to find the right solution, rooted in business needs and a solid cloud-adoption strategy, are similar.

In the early 2010s, the Portland, Maine-based company was running a multiple-network storage solution that was bogging down engineers and scientists as they tried to access files from offices across the country via WAN.

When Ken Danila, the company’s director of information systems, joined the firm, the leadership had already decided that the current solution was untenable, and a project was underway to consolidate its physical infrastructure in a colocation facility.

“There was already the infrastructure and administration in place to operate an IT infrastructure that was outside of our physical offices,” says Danila. “So, for us, it was a matter of getting into the mindset of moving from a location where we could visit and see our rack and touch our servers to a fully virtualized environment in the Microsoft Azure cloud.”

Ultimately, Woodard & Curran kept only a minimal footprint of on-premises computing resources in its 25 offices. For its particular needs, a cloud-first strategy makes the most sense; it saves around $350,000 a year and can completely onboard a new office in as little as 10 days.

Today, Danila says, nearly everyone appreciates how the cloud has changed the way they work.

“When we started this five years ago, change management was huge. There was a lot of angst and fear,” he says. “But now, I often hear, ‘I can’t believe we ever ran our business any other way.’ ”


Percentage of workloads that will be processed in the cloud in 2021

Source: Cisco, “Cisco Global Cloud Index: Forecast and Methodology, 2016-2021 White Paper,” Nov. 19, 2018

Moving Forward With The Cloud

For DRC, the cloud will certainly be a major element of the company’s IT strategy for the foreseeable future. And the process of fine-tuning a hybrid solution that meets DRC’s specific needs and provides good value to clients has been a satisfying one for Farnum.

“Where we’re at technologywise is both exciting and very challenging,” says Farnum.

“If you don’t have someone at the helm of your IT organization who has a solid understanding of where the technology is going — and a clear vision — you could all of a sudden find yourself spending tons and tons of money and not adding any business value.”

Farnum is seizing the opportunity that a hybrid solution provides and encourages others to do the same.

“Take a look at new technology,” he says, “things that are really going to propel your business forward.” 


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