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How to choose between cloud and on-prem servers

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Down to Earth or up in the cloud? David Friend, CEO and co-founder at Wasabi Technologies highlights what to consider.

When your server reaches the end of its life, your IT department is going to be confronted with the choice of whether to replace it or migrate to the cloud.

The first thing you should think about is the ramifications of your choice five or ten years down the line. The equipment you buy now will likely stick with you for that period, so don’t rush and make a hasty decision. 

There are some common considerations that consistently come up: namely the questions of cost, flexibility, maintenance and security.

Expense type

Traditionally, servers were a capital expense (or CapEx) – something a business bought once. This is because to install or replace an on-prem server, you need to make an up front investment in hardware, software, space, and often technicians.

Cloud servers upended this model, by turning servers into an operational expense (or OpEx) – something a business pays for over a period of time.

The fact that cloud storage is an OpEx rather than a CapEx is at the core of its appeal for many businesses.

Reasons for this include the fact OpEx spends are fully tax deductible, and there are less accounting headaches when dealing with OpEx rather than CapEx spends.

Most importantly, it doesn’t tie up your organisation’s cash in IT infrastructure, but allows you to invest in things that matter most to the business. 

Related to this is the issue of periodic upgrades. Many companies don’t anticipate that five years from now, the on-prem infrastructure will need to be replaced, which can take a huge amount of effort and additional investment, particularly if you’re adding capacity year on year. 

Providing flexible access

Since many offices have had to make a sudden, en masse migration to remote working, there has been a great deal of concern around access to workplace servers this year.

On-prem servers are more difficult to set up for flexible access, due to networking issues and security concerns. This often means that complex VPN solutions are necessary. 

In contrast the networks, security, and hardware for cloud providers are designed with remote access in mind.

Cloud service providers invest a lot to ensure their servers can be accessed everywhere, benefiting from economies of scale that most individual companies do not have.

Heading to the edge

It’s a good rule of thumb to process and store data locally, since storing data further away means higher latency and more difficulty in contacting the team looking after it.

This is a particular problem for larger organisations, which operate internationally, as it’s often not affordable for them to open lots of on-premise data centres around the world.

This can result in data being stored and processed in a central location far away from where it’s operationally needed, which isn’t a good long-term solution.

The cloud solves this problem, as its scale allows it to run many data centres around the world – closer to the “edge” and the end user.

This allows organisations to keep their data close to hand, but equally benefit from the interconnected nature of cloud providers so data can also be shared with the other side of the world.

In the era of IoT, when technologies can increasingly be distributed and interconnected simultaneously, moving computing and data storage to the edge is inevitable for many organisations, and their IT infrastructure needs to reflect this.

The question of maintenance

The fundamental point of difference between cloud and on-prem is where they reside. An on-prem server resides in your office or place of work, meaning you have to bring people in-house to maintain, operate and upgrade your server when necessary.

Regardless of whether this is in the form of employees or contractors, it represents an additional cost on top of the up front CapEx investment you make in an on-prem server, and places the burden of maintaining the architecture on you. 

This is both liberating and risky. If you have a well-resourced and skilled team, then going on-prem can allow you to promptly troubleshoot and fix problems that arise with your server.

However, if your resourcing is inconsistent or your team doesn’t have the experience and tools they need, then maintenance can become debilitating for your business.

Indeed, this is compounded by the fact that the job pool for IT specialists is small, with many of the best potential employees now snapped up by public cloud providers.

In contrast, while you may feel you lose some control when moving to the cloud, the burden falls on the data centre to provide the resources and teams to deal with maintenance issues, taking many of the logistical stresses away from your team, as well as the burden of hiring the right talent.

Safeguarding security

A common consideration when choosing between a cloud and on-prem server is security. As both cloud and on-prem environments can be configured in a wide variety of ways, one is not necessarily more secure than the other.

A well-protected on-prem server will be more secure than a sub-optimally configured cloud server, and vice versa.

However, this doesn’t mean that the choice is meaningless, as the operational differences between cloud and on-prem also have ramifications for the resources assigned to the security of your server.

When it comes to on-prem servers, your security is as good as your budget and your team.

If you are very well-resourced and have large teams that are conversant with current best practices in security, then the security of your on-prem server may be as good as that afforded at a data centre. 

However, that is a high bar to clear, as all trustworthy cloud providers tend to benefit strongly from economies of scale in their security: their data centres are subject to 24/7 surveillance, staffed at all hours by operations teams and security professionals, and benefit from regular upgrades in state-of-the-art cybersecurity technology.

That means, when properly configured, cloud environments tend to provide security for businesses that surpasses the on-premise solution at an equivalent budget. 

How cloud and on-prem stack up

We’re likely to see a considerable increase in companies choosing to outsource their infrastructure to the cloud in the coming years.

The reality is, outside of niche use-cases where an organisation also has a large capital investment behind it, it’s difficult to justify a departure from the increasingly ubiquitous cloud model.

The benefits of an operational expense model, the flexibility afforded by cloud provisions, and the scale of the data centre makes the cloud hard to beat.

Organisations no longer need to worry about upgrading and maintaining their on-pre hardware, and as the cloud market continues to fragment, they can turn their attention to choosing the best combination of providers for their specific business needs.

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