That's a great line from one of my favorite television shows, Scrubs.  Elliott, one of the main characters whines that in response to some request made of her.  Maybe you've heard that in your own organization?  The truth is that sometimes, bringing technology in-house doesn't make any sense.  But that doesn't stop you from wanting it, right? 

During my presentations, one of the things that I talk about quite a bit is "infrastructure optimization" or IO.  The ideas behind IO are quite simple, really -- reduction of redundancy, central management, and automation can drive the efficiency of your organization through the roof.  Imagine, for instance, that you have several people who perform manual tasks of some type on your servers -- they don't even have to be the same tasks.  Now, think about how much time they spend each month performing those tasks -- running that report, changing those settings, etc.  Using Powershell to script those tasks and turn them into scheduled tasks means that the time those people spend on those monthly tasks is now freed up for them to do something else... theoretically, something more in line with driving the business forward.

New technology is no different than these repetitive tasks.  You have to weigh the up-front cost of the hardware and software, but you also have to look at the back-end costs:  who is going to support it?  How much time will that chew up out of your already understaffed department?  Do you even have the expertise in-house to be able to support it?  This is where the decision of on-premise versus hosted needs to be made.  When you are looking at new technology, one of the first things to look at is, "Is there a hosted solution?"  It might not be right for your business, but it is certainly worth knowing.  Quite frankly, in many cases, a hosted solution is exactly what you need.

The benefits of a hosted solution are numerous:

  • someone else is supporting it, leaving your staff free to work on more important work
  • the software is always patched and up-to-date with no work on your part
  • the expense is a fixed monthly cost, which is predictable
  • no physical space is required (which can be important if you don't have a data center or are out of space)
  • solution is hosted somewhere else, which means in a disaster, your data is safe
  • hosting providers often provide much more secure environments than you could

How Do I now if a Hosted Solution is Right for Me?

This, really, is the easy part.  Look at the functionality of the on-premise solution.  What is it that you need it to do?  Now, look at the hosted solution -- does it provide all of that functionality?  If so, then it is a direct match-up, feature-wise.  Now, you just need to ask yourself a few other questions:

  • Is there a reason that I need to have this software hosted within my 4 walls?
    • This could be a number of reasons, such as privacy, regulatory compliance, dependence upon other systems, etc.
  • Where does the hardware/software cost balance out with the hosted cost?
    • Purchasing hardware and software is an up-front cost that is usually avoided when using a hosted solution.  There may be an initial set-up cost, but after that, it is a fixed monthly cost.  At what point do I break even on the comparison?  If it is a couple of months, this might not be a wise investment.  But if the break even point is a few years down the road, then the question becomes, "Would I be replacing my hardware/software by then?"
  • What is the TCO on this software? 
    • Is this a complicated package that is going to take a lot of effort to keep patched and up-to-date?
    • When something goes wrong, do we have the expertise to resolve the problem in a quick fashion?
  • How reliable is my Internet connection?  Since the hosted solution is "in the cloud," the Internet connection which allows us access to our hosted solution becomes quite important.
    • Do I have redundancy in my Internet connection so that if one goes down, my backup connection is still there?
    • How long will my business survive without access to this particular application?  (As an aside, it is worth considering here what this application would be able to do if it were on-premise and you lost your Internet connection.  If your Internet connection went down, Exchange, for instance, would be unable to receive/send mail if it were on-premise, but would continue to receive mail if it were hosted, even though you wouldn't be able to get to it until your Internet connection came back up.  Once it did, all that cached mail would be delivered.  If the product were SharePoint, on the other hand, you would still be able to access all of your files if it were on-premise, but would be stuck waiting for your connection to come back up if you were using hosted SharePoint.)
  • What is my disaster recovery plan in the event something happens to my physical location?  An off-premise backup is something every business should be creating on a regular basis for all of their important data (and it is ESSENTIAL for all of your business-critical data!) 
    • Do we have a plan in place to create off-site backups for the on-premise solution?  (By default, the hosted solution IS off-site.  A fire or flood in your physical location isn't going to affect the datacenter housing your data (unless your host happens to be across the street!)

Now That I've Decided on a Hosted Solution, How Do I Know Which Hosting Provider to Use?

Don't misunderstand now -- I am not suggesting that I just swayed you to throw all of your servers up on eBay and go 100% hosted.  This is merely the "what's next" section if you do decide, based on that set of questions above (and any others you come up with -- feel free to add a comment or send me a mail and let me know of questions I missed.  I'm sure there are some, but I'm crammed onto a plane right now with a flight attendant making goo-goo noises at the baby sitting across from me, so it's a little tougher to think than I would like) to go with a hosted solution for the particular product you are considering.  Obviously, a lot of companies exist who provide hosting services.  My advice would be:  do some research.  You wouldn't just run out and buy the first server that you saw for sale online to host the solution on-premise, so don't do that for a host, either.  Check out their credentials, as you would with any other partner/vendor.  Some things unique to a hosting partner that you may want to consider:

  • What is their disaster recovery plan?  If a flood hits their datacenter, are you covered?  What's the SLA to have you back up and running?
  • What if it isn't the whole place, but just the server hosting your data that goes *poof*? 
  • What is their physical security like?  Does it look like something out of a James Bond movie or are there signs up saying, "please return any servers you borrow"?
  • Is the company providing the hosting the same company that actually CREATED the software?

Ok, so that last one is a little biased in favor of us.  :)  I had to throw it in there, though.  You could have someone else host your Exchange environment, or your SharePoint environment, but quite frankly, why would you?  Now that Microsoft has entered the hosted services business, why go with a different host for one of the same products we offer?  This may be me being a shill, but listen to my reasoning before you decide -- we're hosting products that we wrote:  SharePoint, Exchange, Office Communication Server, LiveMeeting, etc.  Since we wrote them, we know how to support them.  And, we have a direct line to the actual engineers who wrote the code should we need it.  If you were running your own Exchange server, for instance, and ran into a serious problem, you might end up having to call Microsoft.  When you do, they might have to dispatch an engineer to your location to actually work on the problem on-site.  (Yeah -- that really happens.  Those people are called ROSS engineers, which stands for Rapid On Site Service, I think, and they're pretty amazing individuals.)  Essentially, this would be the level of service you'd be getting all the time.  Anything goes wrong and wham!  There are some engineers working on the problem.  Where else are you going to get that kind of support?

I had anticipated going into the Microsoft Online offering, called Business Productivity Online Suite, but I just realized how incredibly long this post has already gotten.  So, in the sake of brevity (if it isn't already too late for that), I'll save that for another post.  In the meantime, you can check out our offering here.