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Editor's note: All you need to know about cloud computing is right here.

Over the past year, cloud computing has dominated IT discussions around the country, and rightly so. It offers significant advantages to businesses, especially as resources become more constrained and IT departments struggle to add business value while maintaining all their existing infrastructures. However, care must be taken as not all cloud-based services are created equal. Service delivery models vary greatly from hosted providers that replicate fragmented on-site technologies to sophisticated architectures; and benefits vary greatly too.

So if the devil is in the detail, as always seems to be the case, some practical tips for selecting the right partner may prove useful.

Is the basic design right?

Tight integration of services at the provider level is critical. In the case of email this means security, archiving, continuity and policy management. The ability to provide a unified service eliminates the need for multiple interfaces, reporting and policy management. They reduce management workload and are 'aware' of each other in a way that allows users visibility and access to their email as well as evidential quality to be maintained.

Can they lower IT costs long term?

Partnering with a cloud provider must, at all times, be a low commitment relationship. Able to control licence fees by paying for access to applications on a per user basis with a transparent pricing model, IT should at all times maintain complete control of user accounts. They should be able to centrally enforce company-wide policies with real-time implementation without having to rely on the service provider's help desk.

With cloud services IT staff are abstracted from administering patches and general infrastructure maintenance and can have more time to work on strategic parts of the business. In fact, Butterfield Bank, with offices around the globe, has saved £750,000 per year by opting for unified email management -- a reduction of 75% compared with in-house email management.

Can they offer business continuity?

A cloud provider must be architected to offer constant availability and have rigid service level agreements that back up their assertions. They must be set in stone, well-documented and protect against all possible risks to downtime. Demand references of existing customers to compare your situation and ask questions if none are made immediately available. On-demand email must also be completely transparent and fully interoperable with existing in-house email systems and processes.
For users, the experience with an application, such as Microsoft Outlook, shouldn't just be seamless but more sophisticated and intuitive than fragmented in-house systems. It should provide more rapid access to archived emails, flawless security, and keep employees working even during outages.


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