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How three firms moved to Microsoft, Oracle and storage in the cloud

Carl Brooks, Senior Technology Writer

Three firms will move to cloud computing in different ways -- two based their decisions on trust and forward progress, the third on more visionary lines. All are bound, however, by the same basic consideration: do more with the same amount of cash.

For Springfield Medical Clinic, getting into a cloud service was easy. The company stuck with its existing application hosting provider, NaviSite, until it had a service that met all the common criteria for cloud: scalability, self-service, on-demand and multi-tenancy. It's a familiar justification: lowering cost and reducing management headaches.

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Our CIO is putting a lot of pressure [on IT] to see what we can move to cloud, just because of the savings.

Brad Wallace, application manager at Springfield Medical Clinic

"Cloud computing, just from the standpoint of how cost effective it is, has really been a draw for us," said Brad Wallace, application manager at Springfield Medical Clinic.

The clinic used hosting services at Surebridge (an MSP acquired by NaviSite) in 2004 when its license for PeopleSoft came up for renewal. At the time, PeopleSoft was being acquired by Oracle, so outsourcing the application while retaining a working environment looked like a decent bet.

"Updates, patches, there's a lot of overhead on that," Wallace said.

Aside from having to run PeopleSoft in-house, the clinic was looking at more than $90,000 in upgrades. It preferred to spend that money on a provider. Wallace said his team could manage an environment that would normally take anywhere from 10 to 30 people with just three people. The service has evolved over time from traditional application delivery.

Springfield, which Wallace says does a fair amount of application building and support around PeopleSoft, now has full control over a test and dev environment, including scaling up resources as needed and doing whatever it likes with the infrastructure. As the technology has progressed, Wallace said NaviSite's offering has become more cloud-like. Data center replication and automatic provisioning is now the norm, for example.

"The ability to increase CPU or RAM at basically the flick of a switch is highly beneficial," Wallace said.

Putting changes into production isn't quite as easy; application supervisor Brenda Wood said they submit changes for review and NaviSite puts them into play. She said there were some drawbacks to a multi-tenant hosted application but they were far outweighed by the benefits.

"If we want to put up firewalls or something, we've got to file paperwork and get approval; we're sharing that PeopleSoft with other people you know," she said.

Since Wallace and Wood trust their providers, that's not a hard equation to solve. What cinched the deal to put PeopleSoft in the cloud was their deep ties to the support teams at NaviSite, which, along with their expertise and experience, had survived numerous consolidations. Without that longstanding relationship, Wallace said it was harder to imagine trusting a critical application to a cloud service. But the pressure to move is undeniable. Springfield now runs about 200 servers (virtual and physical) and SAN appliances in the cloud.

And he foresees more and more infrastructure transitioning into the cloud in the coming years.

"Our CIO is putting a lot of pressure [on IT] to see what we can move to cloud just because of the savings," he said.

Making sweet music with cloud storage
For Guy Sanfilippo, a similar gradual transition marked his moved into cloud services. Sanfilippo is the CTO for the American Federation of Musicians and Employers' Pension Fund, which has some unique information needs. Sanfilippo said that while his organization is small, he has more than 80,000 subscribers that often need access to records that go back 40 years.

AFM&E Pension Fund has an inviolable trust with its members, Sanfilippo said. Professional musicians from around the country that retire after decades of practice for hundreds of employers have paystubs that contribute to the pension fund from every employer. They have to be recorded and kept available; those records are all housed in Sanfilippo's infrastructure.

"In the mid-nineties, there were the IBM z/38s. We began to move anyway from those [to x86] when I came on, I introduced imaging and workflow," Sanfilippo said.

Among the challenges facing AFM&E Pension Fund were decades of microfilm and microfiche, as well as a steady stream of new paperwork. All of this had to be digitized, stored and entered into database systems to run the Fund's operations.

Sanfilippo said designing and maintaining systems to do this was not the problem -- that was his job, after all. His shop was oppressed by the grunt work. He turned to Data Storage Corporation (DSC), a storage services vendor in New York, for supplementary backup and disaster recovery.

Sanfilippo said that disaster recovery (DR) scenarios had moved from x number of days of downtime to hours or less, and if he wanted to, he could replicate and run his entire operation on DSC's platform with minimal effort.

While Sanfilippo's data management needs are complex, the amount of storage he's using isn't daunting by today's standards. He said that while cloud computing services beyond data backup and DR definitely enticed him, it was going to be a while before the price points between his maintenance costs and fees for cloud services intersected favorably.

"I'm definitely going to keep an eye on how they market ‘the cloud,'" he said. "I'm still in a cycle to replace all my hardware, you know."

He said the overall economic concept was solid; despite a decade with the same provider, he was seeing ever more capability and flexibility emerge while his bottom line was stable.

"It's true that spending has gone up, but not at all in line with what we're able to deliver."

Email and communications to the cloud
For other organizations, that central budget calculus remains the catalyst for cloud services. The process, however, can be a little more dramatic.

Florida hospital complex Tampa Federal is switching its entire email infrastructure over to Microsoft Business Productivity Online Services (BPOS), now known as Office 365. It will move more than 7,000 users on site and thousands in affiliated practices. Shane Ochotny, technology architect at Tampa Federal, said the drive to radically overhaul messaging at the hospital is comprehensive.

"It was all around a large strategic idea," he said.

Tampa Federal had two primary problems: No funds for massive IT overhauls, and a collection of communication services that were either out of date or unable to provide Internet and iPad-friendly services doctors and administrators wanted. About two years ago, the hospital decided to flip the script on IT operations.

"We started talking about process and not technology," Ochotny said.

Cloud computing has really been a draw for us.

Brad Wallace

IT had been focused on maintenance and addressing specific needs as they came up; Ochotny said that had to go in favor of a comprehensive roadmap. He said they developed a unified communications strategy based around what they wanted to see and went looking for answers that didn't involve capital and traditional IT roles.

"We're a hospital; I don't think I should need an email administrator," he said.

Ochotny said the UCC strategy is largely based around Microsoft, including email, VOIP and message systems that are mostly hosted and delivered by Microsoft (which has a large data center presence in Florida). But a fundamental truth held, he said, even when picking from a smorgasbord of cloud providers: As long as the service is up to par, its headaches are something his organization doesn't have to deal with.

"The truth is [cloud computing] is just a data center sitting somewhere and you're not managing it," he said.

Ochotny added that communications was a good first bite, since it involved more mature, distributed and less sensitive technologies. Though some were nervous about security, Microsoft demonstrated perfectly acceptable security controls at its facilities. Ochotny said that the hospital will proceed more cautiously when it comes to other parts of its IT infrastructure, like imaging, storage and high tech applications. Public clouds might be a fit for them, but that will need a strategy all of their own.

Conclusions to draw from cloud adoption 
For all three IT shops, the common thread is a steep gradient in what they are expected to deliver versus the extra cash they have to spend. Cloud computing principles are trickling down to the internal IT organization, but slowly.

IT shops are looking for a trusted source that can deliver extra capabilities without the burden of more costs. One of them even wants to do a full-scale migration. These aren't software houses or Web operations; they've got thousands or users and clients to support while looking for new opportunities to move forward without compromising running a business.

If cloud providers can address those needs instead of preaching a revolution, it might be where they'll see the most success.

Carl Brooks is the Senior Technology Writer for SearchCloudComputing.com. Contact him at cbrooks@techtarget.com.