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December 5, 2013

Top 5 considerations when choosing a cloud provider

CBR examines the most important factors to take into consideration when selecting a cloud computing partner.

By Duncan Macrae

According to recent predictions by Gartner, the worldwide market for cloud computing will grow by 18.5% this year to $131 billion. This growth has been driven by companies’ desires to reduce costs and gain greater flexibility in how they run their businesses. However, in order to realise these benefits there are some key considerations they need to make when selecting a partner.

CBR met with Richard Davies, CEO of cloud server and VPS hosting provider, Elastichosts, who pinpointed the most important aspects to consider when choosing a cloud provider.

Performing to the best of your ability

Moving IT infrastructure to the cloud on an ‘as a service’ basis promises to give companies access to a wider pool of computing power through their cloud provider’s datacentre, enabling better performance and scalability at lower cost. However, businesses should be careful to ensure that this is really the case and that their cloud provider can offer the right standards of performance, by providing the right underlying hardware at the right price points.

For example, most cloud providers offer cloud servers that run on Hard Disk Drives. While these are adequate for most IT functions, for companies running large websites and complex applications higher levels of performance may be required. In these instances companies may look to run cloud servers on Solid State Disks (SSD) rather than Hard Disk Drives, to increase the speed of virtual servers and improve the performance of large I/O applications. Companies should therefore be careful to check whether their cloud provider can provide options in this area while also checking the small print; some providers only offer this option to customers on their largest and most expensive instance sizes, rather than making this available to all customers at all price points.

Flexing some muscle

Cloud can allow companies to scale up as little or as much as they want; rather than being limited to a fixed number of physical servers or a fixed list of instance sizes. This allows organisations to achieve much more than they could with their IT previously. One of our customers, team building business Sandstone, was able to launch an entirely new online team building event as a result of moving its infrastructure to the cloud. Previously it had only had capacity to run these events with 200 users, but the elasticity of the cloud allowed it to run events with 5,000 participants across the whole of the Americas.

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This flexibility is beneficial for any organisation that has fluctuating levels of demand for capacity, as it means that resource is available on an ad hoc basis, when needed. In a true cloud environment companies should be able to scale as needed on a self-service basis. Therefore when selecting a partner, be careful that they offer complete flexibility in choosing the CPU, RAM and disk sizes of your instances rather than a fixed list of instance sizes. Also be careful to ensure that you will be able to meet scale at will through a self-service control panel, without having to wait for support. If your provider discusses calling support or having a 24 hour wait period before being able to adjust capacity, then I would be very cautious.

Avoid unnecessary costs

Traditionally, before Infrastructure as a Service companies had one of two options: firstly, they could buy servers and datacentres to host their own IT infrastructure which would involve up front capital expenditure on servers and hardware, as well as on-going costs relating to maintenance and electricity and so on. Secondly, they could outsource IT infrastructure to a hosting company which often involved annual contracts where users are billed based on the upper limits of agreed server capacity; which they may not necessarily use fully over that time. Both of these options can cause real problems for companies that have varied levels of requirements, as in effect they were constantly paying for their highest capacity levels, even if it wasn’t being used.

Today, with the introduction of cloud companies can pay for their infrastructure on a pay-as-you-go basis, meaning they only pay for what they use. As such, customers can avoid buying servers in anticipation of growth, or entering contracts based on estimated requirements. Having this ability to pay as you go can have a big impact on margins and the profitability of other services; for example, online recruiting business,, managed to reduce its ITcosts by 90% through moving from hosting to cloud. The key thing to remember therefore is to check that your cloud provider is not a traditional hosting company in disguise; any mention of fixed annual contracts, then head for the door!

Think big

We are living in the age of globalisation, as such, ensuring all your staff and customers have the same experience no matter where they are is important. The effect of latency is minimal over short distances, but if a customer is accessing a company website that is hosted halfway around the world their user experience can be slow and less responsive. This is true for both cloud or on-premise, which means the location of your cloud provider’s datacentres should be taken into consideration when selecting a partner. If you have a global workforce and customer base, it is advisable to look for a provider that can provide local data centres in the right part of each continent to ensure latency is reduced.

Resilience is another factor that should be taken into account. Even the biggest cloud providers can be subject to outages and service disruptions, but if your eCommerce goes down as a result it could have very severe impact on sales; it is always advisable to have a plan B. By having your infrastructure running in more than one location or by using multiple providers, if one experiences an outage then your business can still operate effectively.

One last consideration to factor in is legislation, which can vary greatly from region to region. When selecting a partner it is worth checking where their datacentres are based and where your data will be hosted, as there may be local regulations that could impact your business. This was a top priority for North American legal forensics and IT services company, Ellwood, which chose to host its data from a datacentre in Canada to avoid the risks posed to its confidentiality by US jurisdiction.

Realising cloud’s potential

Cloud computing does help businesses to become more agile and cost-efficient, but organisations need to make sure that the cloud provider they choose is fully capable of delivering these benefits before making any commitment. Flexibility, scalability, pay-as-you-go billing and global data centre options are the hallmarks of a genuine cloud service, and are essential to freeing organisations from the limitations of fixed infrastructure and look to a brighter horizon.

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