While it seems like everyone is trying to get in on the cloud computing craze, service providers and VARs are in a unique position to capitalize on the growing demand for cloud services. The focus to date has been on creating or emulating the "top" cloud computing platforms, such as Amazon EC2 and Windows Azure, from an infrastructure, self-service and pricing perspective. As cloud infrastructure becomes more commoditized, service providers need to set themselves apart from the competition. Giving their constituents something palpable to hang their prized IT assets on, that would otherwise become discernably opaque to them in the clouds, is one way to elevate themselves above the fray.
The next big wave of opportunity for service providers offering cloud services will be to provide the necessary visibility and control over these increasingly expansive, decentralized and fluid virtual environments. A “set it and forget it” approach will not do. Service providers and resellers that can provide best of breed monitoring, management and orchestration for the cloud will have a leg up on the competition in 2012 and beyond. That is because they will have a solid foundation from which to deliver higher quality services as well as create the confidence and speed to add differentiated, revenue-generating services.
Integrated IT management
Many providers rely on a patchwork of open source, commercial, and home-grown tools to support their multi-tenant environments, which inhibits their ability to deliver consistent services, add new services and onboard customers quickly. Their engineers spend too much time administering tools, coding integration scripts, creating reports, and troubleshooting. Cloud and virtualization technologies only complicate this process, and all too often the operations manager is left cobbling together inefficient point products never intended for this kind of multi-tenant environment.
Service providers need to centralize management as much as possible. That means consolidating critical IT operations and cloud management functions such as performance, fault, availability, ticketing, automation and event management. The key is to have one constantly updated view into performance and availability across physical, virtual and cloud infrastructures. And the worst way to do that is to buy into the “marketecture” of a vendor that will have the IT staff integrating multiple components together for months.
Centralized management is critical to delivering high-quality services across distributed resources. A consistent, correlated set of metrics across both on-premises and cloud infrastructures helps speed troubleshooting, simplify and optimize management workflows, and minimize integration work to increase efficiency and reduce costs. This also facilitates proactive service-level management to ensure SLAs are being met.
So when does this become fun? Contrary to popular belief, operations tools can help achieve commercial interest too. A multi-tenant, centralized management system helps with the creation and provisioning of new value-added services. Instead of being left wondering where to even start introducing a new service, product managers have confidence that they can move quickly to new business applications as the cloud intended them to do.
That includes the ability to provision service monitoring automatically. Successful cloud service providers are adding automation into their customer self-service portals, so that the setup of new management services can be done without requiring human intervention. That means automated discovery of assets, and the automated administration of policies driven by internal governance or other more imaginative administrators who can become far more creative in automating their workflows and operational tasks. The IT management solution should easily integrate not only with Web portals, but also with all the systems involved in service delivery and reporting, including third-party provisioning, billing, orchestration managers or other systems.
Transparency manifested in customer portals
A service provider can deliver excellent cloud management, but customers need transparency into how their cloud assets are performing or they may go elsewhere. Open communication, and more importantly, visibility into performance, is vital to any successful cloud strategy. Many cloud service providers are offering Web-based portals to their customers. In an age of IT commoditization and abstraction of the physical infrastructure layer, a well-designed, branded portal can sometimes be the only tangible manifestation of what the service provider or VAR is providing. And if done correctly, it can provide the opportunity to offer new services to the customer, triggered by the policies and analytics from the management system.
With multi-tenancy, service providers can give customers secure views into their own data and charge for access to each piece, including service levels and availability as well as health and even risk levels that are more predictive in nature. With different access levels, customers can open their own tickets, view problem resolution status and history, or even be motivated to spin up new services. For the more aggressive, service providers can even offer visibility into on-premise or public cloud environments used by their customers, providing key metrics that were previously concealed. All of this saves time and money, improves customer service, and enables new revenue generating services across virtual and cloud resources.
Delivering each customer personalized views into their cloud assets will allow lines of communication to remain open and foster a successful relationship. Additionally, with so many enterprises still looking for value beyond the financial elements, applying greater assurances than traditional IT environments provide, and greater agility, are proving to be the tipping point in favor of cloud services. To that end, ensuring service levels are agreed upon at the onset of the relationship is the only way to ensure that expectations are being exceeded.
Service providers and VARs looking to capitalize on cloud computing must first have an understanding of how to exhibit and exploit the cloud as a true improvement on their current IT competencies. Integrated management of increasingly disparate IT assets as well as transparent visibility and control over those assets to their customers (on an easily controlled basis) will promote a presumption of high-quality service delivery and, surprisingly to many, the ability to add new revenue-generating services to an otherwise fungible IT asset.