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Seven-Step Checklist for Evaluating a Cloud Provider

Beyond budget and capacity, there are several other factors that can impact your experience

A move to the cloud brings serious benefits, particularly for startups who often need to ramp up their IT capacity quickly without the burden of investing in new hardware or training staff. If your company is ready to offload its applications to the cloud, how do you decide which provider is right for you?

The standard questions about pricing and capacity are fairly obvious. For example, most people would probably think to ask things like: How much will this cost me (i.e. what is the cost per hour)? What hardware specs do we get for the price?

Yet beyond budget and capacity, there are several other factors that can impact your experience. Here are seven other questions every startup should ask a potential cloud provider:

1. How stable is the service?
You need to know if a service will be up and running when your business needs it. Of course, all cloud providers will promote their system's stability. You need to dig beyond the marketing materials to understand the provider's infrastructure and if it's backed up with a meaningful Service Level Agreement. Research their outage history: what were the average and maximum downtime lengths? How did the provider respond to past outages?

2. How scalable is the solution?
You'll want to find out how easy it is to add more servers from the vendor. In addition, ask about any supplemental services that could ease the distribution and scaling of your system.

3. How flexible is the service?
At Panorama9, we found that our usage rates drop to just 10% after 6 pm. This traffic pattern is quite typical with business services; users tend to sharply taper off outside of business hours.

It makes sense to our bottom line to be able to shut down servers during traditionally slow periods. If a cloud provider doesn't give you this flexibility, think about how else can you utilize the servers during the off-peak time.

4. What third party tools integrate with the cloud provider?
Are there any integrations or special services available that you can add to your product? For example, Amazon EC2 lets us add the ability to send a text within our application.

5. How do you feel about the people behind the company?
What's your gut feeling about any given provider? Can you reach them by phone? How transparent are they when talking about their technology, infrastructure, and downtime? If you have any reservations at all, trust you gut.

6. Where are the server locations?
If you have end users located around the world (or plan to someday), you may want to find out where a prospective vendor has server locations. Finding a vendor with a global presence can be important, as some clients prefer that their data doesn't leave their home country. In addition, certain countries stipulate that any data stored on servers within their borders is subject to local law. This can even mean that a local government could access your or your customers' data should they choose to do so.

When we were evaluating cloud services in 2010, we ultimately settled on Amazon EC2. It wasn't necessarily the most stable solution available, but it had servers based in areas that were important to us.

7. How do you work with my back-ups?
Don't make the mistake of thinking that once you move your data to the cloud, you won't have to worry about back-ups anymore. Whether you're storing data in the cloud or on your own servers, backing up your critical data falls on your shoulders.

After all, no matter what vendor you use, things happen. No environment is immune to human errors or major disasters. For example, when EC2 experienced a lightning strike in a major power relay, it spread throughout one of their hosting sites and suddenly shut down all data storage. Not all data could be rescued and clients who hadn't backed up their data outside permanently lost data.

In short, when choosing a cloud vendor, you should focus not only on a vendor's stability, but also how well they integrate with your preferred back-up solution.

Doing proper research upfront can help you avoid any costly mistakes. Once you've asked these seven questions, you can put together a short list of potential vendors. Then, start testing each potential platform to determine what's best for your applications. Moving to the cloud isn't difficult, but you'll want to get it right the first time around.

More Stories By Allan Thorvaldsen

Allan Thorvaldesen is CEO and co-founder of Panorama9. He is a serial entrepreneur who previously co-founded SoftScan which was sold to Symantec in 2009, and was behind Denmark’s first online auction service in 1998. Allan has deep experience with SaaS companies and has worked in business development and direct and channel sales throughout Northern Europe.

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