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Unclouding projects: Service providers weigh in on reverse migrations

The rise of cloud computing adoption has given way to a countertrend: reverse cloud migrations. Service providers discuss the factors driving their customers' unclouding projects.

That adage, "What goes around, comes around," is proving true in the cloud as service providers witness clients migrating data in reverse, back on premises in a move known as "unclouding."

An IDG survey, commissioned by Datalink, noted that about 40% of the respondents with public cloud experience had moved workloads back on premises due to cost or security concerns. Kent Christensen, practice manager, data center and cloud, at Datalink, an Insight company, said the number of organizations looking to uncloud was among the most interesting results of the survey.

"We heard about this [unclouding trend] but never had it quantified like that," Christensen said.

Yet reliance on cloud computing remains strong. The survey found that companies struggle with dividing workloads between on-premises and off-premises platforms. In two years, workloads in corporate data centers are expected to decline from 59% to 47%, with much of the difference shifting to public cloud.

Unclouding: Workloads that exit the cloud

According to service providers, both mission-critical and non-mission-critical systems are being pulled back from the cloud. Other drivers prompting this developing unclouding trend are cost savings, the need for cloud-related skill sets and the changing data center economics of hyper-convergence.

Kent Christensen, virtualization practice manager, DatalinkKent Christensen

"If you just say cloud is going to solve all these problems and don't look at your workloads, you're bound to put things in that don't make sense for a number of reasons like hidden costs or unexpected service levels," Christensen noted.

For example, it may not make sense to keep an app in the cloud that runs all the time, he said. "If you have something that might be bursty or opportunistic, it's something I might turn up for a while and do analytics and turn it down. That's a no-brainer for cloud," he said.

On the flip side, Christensen said, it might behoove an organization to architect an internal solution for something that runs all the time and is somewhat predictable, like a system containing customer information.

"The ones being brought back are what I call steady state apps: predictable in resources, they consume no variance in traffic requests and resource patterns, and [do] not [require] a big geography to serve on multiple devices all over the globe," agreed Aaron Brooks, director of innovation at Softchoice.

Aaron Brooks, director of innovation, SoftchoiceAaron Brooks

Brooks said Softchoice had a client with a financial app that experienced no peaks and had a steady traffic pattern, so they bought inexpensive equipment to bring it back in-house, he said, which "made a lot of sense."

"I would say the No. 1 reason people are looking to bring something back on premises is absolutely cost, and their apps don't need that elasticity so they feel they're overpaying,'' Brooks noted. A lot of apps end up in the public cloud in a very feature-rich environment, he added. Companies find they haven't taken advantage of all those features, so they bring those apps back.

"They feel they can get more for less," he said. "The second biggest reason is not understanding how to get the most out of public cloud and [not] having the right tools and experience to manage cloud properly."

You can go home again ... but it may not be easy

Gaining access to your data in a usable form, it turns out, can be problematic in the cloud.

Alvaka Networks worked with a customer to pull back "well over 100 servers" out of a public cloud's shared hosting environment back on premises "due to a myriad of access challenges," said Kevin McDonald, executive vice president and CISO. The client shared equipment and networking with other cloud customers, but not the application, he added.

"I've had a half-dozen conversations in the past six months with people who want out," he said, "but they don't know how to get out because of the way their data or system was integrated. So they don't know how to get their data back intact, in a way that's usable."

Kevin McDonald, executive vice president and CISO, Alvaka NetworksKevin McDonald

One cloud provider that Alvaka works with for monitoring presents data using its own interface. While the provider will give a customer a download of raw data, the data won't have the presentation layer, McDonald explained. As a result, the client company needs to build its own user interface.

"If there is a proprietary presentation layer, you can literally be hostage to that provider until you find an alternative, and, in some cases, [companies] haven't been able to."

Graphing information, for example, such as chart and diagrams, may be returned in a proprietary way if the client has a software as a service type of contract, he said. The cloud provider will present data in a graphical format that is both current and historical, but "that graphical engine becomes unavailable if you leave them, and they'll give it to you in raw form -- [and] it's basically useless."

In most cases, he said, companies are unable to create their own user interface to the data. "It's a big challenge," he said.  

Alvaka's client was also told it had to do the reverse migration during the cloud provider's maintenance window so it wouldn't strain the cloud system's resources.

I would say the No. 1 reason people are looking to bring something back on premises is absolutely cost, and their apps don't need that elasticity so they feel they're overpaying.
Aaron Brooksdirector of innovation, Softchoice

"Everything is about timing in IT. ... You're at the mercy of a public cloud provider,'' McDonald said, unless a company has direct access to its data.

The caveat that Brooks gives to most clients is if they haven't utilized platform services, it's not that complicated to do the unclouding process. Softchoice uses the information for a system running in the public cloud to architect it back to the client's data center. The service provider builds a new environment, migrates the apps and data over to the on-premises data center, and redirects the traffic to the new environment, he said.

Once all the testing is done, which includes ensuring the end-user experience is good and security adhered to, "we can decommission or turn off the cloud environment. Typically, there are dependencies between apps, so we want to make sure the one coming back integrates with the others," he said.

Softchoice sees a lot of users break apps because they don't understand that the application coming back in-house doesn't always "play nice" with others, Brooks said.

Disaster recovery and backup can also be a dicey proposition in the public cloud, McDonald said, because a company must rely on its cloud provider to get its data back. "We've had situations where a company paid for backup and then went to get it and it wasn't there,'' he said. In cases where companies are required to stay highly compliant, he added, "I would argue cloud isn't the panacea they think it is."

State of cloud computing for CIOs
In TechTarget's 2016 IT priorities survey, respondents reported the top benefits realized from using cloud computing.

Understand the implications of unclouding

Before deciding what to pull back or keep in a public cloud, know what you have, Christensen advised. Forty-three percent of the Datalink survey respondents said they had conducted an app inventory. Only 31% had done an assessment to determine whether an app is a good candidate for cloud.

Companies also need to figure out ahead of time if apps depend on others and need to stay together. "In order to understand the impact of running an app in the cloud, you should understand your inventory, your workload requirements and interdependencies," he said. "Otherwise, you're guessing."

Companies should also bear in mind that it typically costs "significantly more" to bring an app back than putting it in the cloud -- as much as eight to 10 times more, Christensen said. Companies should make sure they understand their service-level agreements (SLAs), he cautioned.

"In most cloud [scenarios], you don't have unlimited transactions. That could surprise [some customers]. One of most common reasons people are pulling out of the cloud is they didn't understand their SLA,'' or the cloud provider didn't have a service the company expected, like backup, disaster recovery or high availability, he said.

Lastly, unclouding requires an unclouding migration strategy. "It's not just pushing a button," Christensen said. "If you moved it into an environment and you're moving it back to another environment ... it may not be straightforward; it could be complex." 

Next Steps

Learn more about the unclouding trend

Read about customers struggling with cloud governance

Get tips for managing your relationships with cloud vendors

This was last published in February 2017

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