Partly Cloudy

Cloud-based ECM and SharePoint was quite the buzz at AIIM Expo 2010. During a panel discussion, I had a brief opportunity to explain why I won’t be recommending this solution. I thought I would elaborate on those thoughts today.

Access – A key benefit to cloud-based solutions is accessibility. Always on, no VPN required, got Internet – got ECM! Well, I have that now. The content we want to access or share with employees or partners anytime, anywhere, is on an Internet facing SharePoint server. The stuff we have behind a firewall is the stuff we want behind a firewall. But, even the content behind the firewall can be retrieved without VPN, via Microsoft Exchange’s Outlook Web Access client. In addition, I keep remembering two numbers: 6 and 1,000. Those are the nominal relative speeds of the Internet (from our office) and our internal LAN. I recently had to move several thousand documents to our Internet facing farm, I shudder to think how long that would have taken over the web.

Security – One of the marketing ploys used by cloud vendors is to contrast our ability to keep things secure vs. theirs. I’m not sure anything available over the Internet is truly secure, but given the recent news about Google and China, I am not convinced that bigger necessarily means better. I think the real issue here is cost – security is expensive – but I’ll talk about cost in a minute.

Scalability – Clearly a benefit of cloud solutions is the fact that they can scale from nothing to everything and back to nothing again. That sounds great, but my experience is that contracts actually end up containing minimum fees, price breaks and block pricing terms. These make what sounds like a line, gently sloping up from the origin; look more like a stair-step graph starting somewhere north of the x-Axis. If I were a start-up, or a company experiencing rapid growth, maybe this would be attractive. But, I can project that I’m unlikely to outgrow a 4 TB storage array during its useful life, and that isn’t a very expensive option. Oh, there’s that cost thing again.

Cost – Ultimately, cloud-based solutions are supposed to be cheaper when considering total cost of ownership / operation. The only cloud based solution that we looked at that is really lower cost, is the cloud-based email and Web filtering service we use. Even there, I had to work hard to dump personnel cost for signature upgrades and service agreements on the servers into the equation to make it work. We also augment tape and disk-to-disk backup with cloud-based backup – easier, yes, cheaper, not so much. If you are considering cloud-based ECM options, make sure you are honest about your content. For example, last year, we uploaded the proceedings from a technical conference for our engineers to read. We do not plan to keep it forever, but it is there, taking up space today.

Agita – Truth be told, I can twist and manipulate all the above to look good or bad; the things that keep me up at night have nothing to do with those topics. We’re pretty small, too small in fact to exert any real leverage with cloud vendors. That means, that I get standard terms, unless we fight hard. Our cloud-based server backup vendor’s standard terms called for a refund of monthly fees in the unlikely event of lost files. Great, you lose my files and I get $162 – that won’t pay for the pizza while we try to rebuild over the weekend. Also, who are my cloud vendors? I know that the backup service we use is being resold by my VAR. AT&T Secure Email Gateway is based on Microsoft Hosted Exchange technology. I think the Connected Backup for PC on my laptop is actually an Iron Mountain service, but who really knows? These may seem like petty questions, but what happens when we get an eDiscovery request, a subpoena or some other legal entanglement? Is my cloud vendor (or their cloud vendor) going to respond like I would? Are they going to comply on time? Are they going to allow us to control the process? Are they even going to tell us what happened? Also, what about those non-disclosure agreements we get from content providers? I once had to answer 15 detailed questions about our storage, backup and security to get a set of documents; how do I answer those questions with a cloud-based service?

I am not saying cloud-based services are bad, but they are not proving to be a panacea for me. Next week, I’ll follow-up on this with my thoughts on SaaS. If you have thoughts on this, please let me know, I’d be happy to post a counterpoint view.