Outsourcing business IT operations to the cloud is a hot topic for companies at present. Many voices are extolling its virtues, with key benefits from cost reduction and increased business flexibility highlighted alongside the improved technological reliability associated with virtualised environments.

There is also, however, a current of concern coursing through IT departments, as questions are raised about the service levels, security and increased reliance on networks that an outsourced IT infrastructure will necessitate. So what practical steps should you take if you are considering outsourcing parts of your IT infrastructure from in-house physical servers to a remote, cloud environment?

There are five key steps that a business should consider when putting together a business plan for moving to an outsourced cloud.”

Step 1: Discover what your IT infrastructure consists of, and what it’s doing

The first step in determining if outsourcing your IT infrastructure is right for your business is to conduct a thorough assessment of your existing infrastructure and applications. As with all stages of this five-step process, this procedure is most effective when conducted with the help of a qualified service provider.

It is crucial that they have proven expertise in identifying what IT components and functions are suited to cloud provision and which are not, and that they can execute a successful migration strategy.

The fact is that some applications – such as network file sharing and phone switches – are not always ideally suited to a cloud or virtualised environment because they require either very high bandwidth or very low latency, or both. Compliance issues can also complicate, or negate the possibility, of moving some parts of a business’s IT infrastructure to an outsourced cloud environment.

For example, the customer database of a financial institution, or an online retailer’s credit card transaction processing, are subject to regulations from the FSA and the credit card industry’s PCI-DSS rules, and as such the method of outsourcing these types of applications or functions needs careful consideration.

Step 2: Weigh up current costs vs. future benefits

The next step is to compare the current state of your IT resources with what you would need to support the business’s plans, reduce maintenance costs, improve business process efficiency, and so on. I’ve found that, in almost all cases of outsourcing to the cloud, businesses that reduce their IT estate and centralise servers in a third-party data centre still have ample processing power and storage to realise these kinds of ambitions.

You then need to determine what your current spend on IT is. This is essential to building a business case for outsourcing your migration to the cloud. Unfortunately this is not always a straightforward process; it requires a comprehensive picture of your IT infrastructure, which takes into account costs for managing the entire IT estate.

This should include costs for power consumption by servers, time spent on maintenance, hardware upkeep and refreshes, hardware disposal in accordance with WEEE and multiple data protection regulations, plus the additional expenditure of licensing operating systems.

It often takes people by surprise when they learn that the total power cost for fifteen servers, for example, can be around £6,000-£7,000 per year – largely because this spend is usually hidden in the facilities budget. This means that your project team will need to work closely with finance and facilities, as well as other areas of the business, to get an accurate picture of current costs.

Step 3: Look beyond the numbers

It’s important to note here that the benefits of cloud are not limited to cost reduction alone. There may also be an opportunity to improve your business’s continuity strategy and disaster recovery plan. For instance, an added benefit of a managed cloud environment is that it can also make your IT services remotely accessible.

Additionally, internal servers may not be housed in areas with appropriate cooling and power redundancy. Such qualitative benefits should also be considered in the project’s business case for migration.

Step 4: Optimise your network for cloud

It goes without saying that without a network there is no cloud service, and yet the network is often an afterthought in outsourcing projects. If the network isn’t optimised for cloud services, then application performance will be marred and in some cases organisations may have to contend with disruptive downtime.

In general, network optimisation and moving to the cloud will almost always involve increasing bandwidth and introducing Quality of Service, which will necessitate an increase in a business’s spend on connectivity. This usually isn’t a deal-breaker thanks to huge reductions in the price of connectivity and improvement to service quality.

Overall, the importance of the network to the outsourced cloud means that a cloud service provider with equal expertise in networking can help keep costs down and can offer added value to a project.

Step 5: Know your provider

If after consideration of the above steps you are committed to outsourcing to a cloud service, you must choose your provider carefully. There are several methods of identifying the right partner. Firstly, check out their references: what calibre of clients do they service, and have these cloud deployments proved successful? Speak to their references and find out first-hand if the vendor is living up to its promises.

Secondly, check the certifications: Microsoft Partner – Gold Hosting and a VM Enterprise or Premier Status are key; these are the highest industry accolades and are indicative of theknowledge, skills and commitment levels a vendor offers to help you implement technology solutions.

It is also advisable to go in and see the vendor’s data centre in action. Not only will this enable you to assess the professionalism and security of the environment, but crucially it gives you a chance to talk to the engineers who would be running your platform, and establish whether you can foster a trusting relationship with the vendor who can, if suitable, assist your business’s move to the cloud.

Lastly, pay special attention to the provider’s service level agreement(s) (SLA). It should guarantee things that are meaningful to overall business objectives, not just technical requirements. The cloud has huge potential, but there are varying levels of service. Outsourcing to a managed cloud isn’t a panacea for all IT ills; it is simply a means to help businesses get more of what they need from their IT function.

Ultimately, by selecting an experienced vendor able to manage your IT infrastructure effectively, you will be able to focus clearly on your business whilst the service provider manages, supports and monitors your virtualised infrastructure to ensure system availability and efficiency. And, as stated, a cloud provider that has networking expertise as well, will help to ensure the network element of the cloud service is optimised.