Anatomy of a Design: Moving applications to the cloud

In our last post about IT infrastructure design, we considered the layout of a local network based on the requirements of a small, hypothetical law firm. In this post, we’ll illustrate how cloud applications can support this firm’s needs.

Migration or SaaS? Pick one.

Remember, our law firm is using some of the most common applications for billing and invoicing, accounting, document management, case and client management, email and Internet, and general project management. Let’s examine how to fulfill these requirements by embracing the cloud.

Firms wishing to use applications in the cloud have two basic options. The first is simply migrating applications that were originally purchased for use on a local server into the cloud. This is usually done through one of the major cloud provider platforms, such as AWS or Microsoft Azure.

infrastructure design

 

While straightforward, it requires some effort to properly size the virtual servers needed to support the firm’s applications. Services like Cloudamize and RightScale analyze an organization’s current application workloads, evaluate the costs of migrating to various cloud providers, and properly size cloud resources to avoid overpaying. A well-designed move is critical to avoid potential downtime and lost revenue.

The second option is to use Software as a Service (SaaS) — applications that already exist in the cloud. This option relates more to how an application will be used within the firm, what process it will augment or even replace, and who will be responsible for administration. Some cloud applications are complete turnkey firm management applications, and offer modules that address all the functions outlined in our list above.

Imagine that our law firm falls into either of two buckets – an established firm or a startup. The options for either situation remain the same (SaaS, cloud-based, or on-premises), but the path to migration will differ. We should note, however, that the best option for the firm in each example may not be the easiest, depending on costs and other firm-specific requirements.

Let’s begin with the established firm, which has applications already on-premises; we’ll call this a brownfield deployment. In this use case, a SaaS solution may prove the most difficult migration because data must be exported, which may require additional support and troubleshooting. The difficulty of a migration diminishes when a cloud-based solution is adopted, and it continues to drop if on-premises hosting is chosen.

Next, let’s imagine the firm is new, and only recently began working with clients (a greenfield deployment). In this case, an on-premises solution is the most difficult because it would require managed services, dedicated staff, and local deployment of applications. In contrast, a monthly subscription to SaaS application would be the easiest, since there’d be little in-house management required and almost no work to stand up the environment.

Here’s a breakdown of each firm’s options:

Cloud-deployment-options-rev

No matter which deployment option the law firm selects, it will need to move its data from one application to another or move its applications from one place to another – either between clouds or from on-premises into another cloud. Before migrating, here are some questions to ask about the application provider or cloud service:

  1. How easy is it to move data/applications into and out of the cloud/SaaS application?
  2. Does the application or cloud provider offer any services to assist with the migration?
  3. What training is required/available for the cloud service and/or application?
  4. Does the application provider support standard data import and export formats?
  5. Is billing done monthly or yearly? Are there any discounts or savings for longer contracts? (Be careful not to sign up for too long a contract before trying the application or service.)

Prior to moving to the cloud, it’s extremely important to right-size the environment, or the cloud could be more expensive than an on-premises solution. Once all of these decisions have been made and the proper size for the new environment has been determined, develop a plan for the overall migration with milestones and a project manager (typically internal staff) assigned to follow up on all tasks. Even if the manager lacks experience, having one person that works in the firm manage this will insure a much higher chance of success.

Understanding the network

Whether hosted or SaaS, cloud applications don’t require much in terms of design. However, one aspect of the firm’s infrastructure does need to be addressed: the network.

Specifically, a strong resilient connection to the Internet is critical to ensure accessibility to the cloud applications.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Note in Figure 1 the WAN connections (marked by a callout for ISP [1] and [2]). We have replaced our initial network switches with two highly available next-generation firewalls that support WAN access, and provide a secure VPN connection to the SaaS applications to prevent intrusion.

Choose-ISP-ProviderWe still need a cloud service to manage the firm’s IP-based phones. The diagram above shows the two firewalls supporting high availability between them, with two redundant ISP connections and a secondary Power over Ethernet (POE) switch to power the phones and provide any additional connectivity needed at the law firm.

The firewalls must be properly sized for the law firm’s traffic to the cloud, and properly configured to support the internal wireless access points. Overall, this is a fairly simple and straightforward design for our new, secure cloud network.

Selecting a cloud-based phone provider

For organizations running all or most of their workloads in the cloud, a cloud-based phone system –or Voice over IP (VoIP) provider — might also make sense. With so many VoIP providers available, the most important step in selecting one is simple: research. Decide what features are most useful (do you really need that online remote fax service?) and understand the pricing structure from each provider.  There are at least several dozen providers to choose from, so here’s a breakdown of some of the most useful features and options to look for:

VoIP-Features-rev

Clearly there are many features to wade through. Most service providers offer almost all of the same features with only minor differences, and there are plenty of web resources to assist in refining the search. Remember that a cloud-based service still requires a local VoIP phone and POE switch in the office to support communications.

What else should be considered?

Understanding the technical options and specs of a cloud migration is clearly important, but there are a number of other considerations firms must take into account:

  1. Understand how your employees operate, including the workloads and applications utilized on a regular basis. It’s easy to be wooed by a service provider’s catalog of flashy features, but in many cases these capabilities are “nice to haves” that end up not being needed or utilized. Focus on the practical applications that will help your employees fulfill their daily responsibilities, and make sure the applications and infrastructure are easy to use and navigate.
  2. Don’t forget to train employees how to use your new cloud applications. Education should be ongoing; new hires will need to be introduced to the tools, as learning by osmosis works. And never mandate use of the applications, as this can lead to low adoption.
  3. Revisit how the applications are being used. Look for unused features that might improve productivity or solve chronic issues.

Ultimately, migrating workloads to the cloud should simplify the business, not complicate it. And a resilient and robust network is crucial to ensure business as usual.

Software-focused moves and certification changes: Meet the new Cisco

In the past, the tech conglomerate has presented itself as the bridge between your traditional on-premises networks and your newer cloud providers like Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud.

But we’re already headed down the road where hardware becomes a commodity and software becomes king. I went into Cisco Live 2019 hoping to get a glimpse into how Cisco planned to address this impending crossroads.

I got much more than that.

The theme of this year’s conference was “You make possible.” And I didn’t think it’d be possible, but it appears Cisco is surprisingly ready to embrace the software movement.

I’ll explain what I mean with these big takeaways from the event.

 

Complete overhaul to the Cisco certification program

Cisco hasn’t prioritized changes to its certification program in the last 30 years. That all changed at Cisco Live.

Cisco made sweeping changes across all disciplines. For example, the Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) Routing and Switching certification is now moving from three exams to two exams. There will be a core exam – equivalent to the router and switch exams combined – and a specialization exam.

This was a long time coming and indicates where Cisco is heading: the software movement.

With an emphasis on DevNet and scripting certifications, Cisco sent a clear message that it’s committed to being a software-centric company. As Cisco sinks its teeth into the software movement, traditional hardware engineers must take heed and start the shift to become software programmers. Organizations will now need a whole new set of trainings.

Changing the way we communicate on a regular basis

In her keynote, Amy Chang, SVP and GM, Collaboration Technology Group, showcased the power of cognitive collaboration. Cisco is applying automation and artificial intelligence to how we communicate on a daily basis. Chang presented the scenario of a customer meeting, and how beneficial it would be to have more information about the participants – a new WebEx feature called People Insights. It pulls publicly available data from the web – everything from Wikipedia to news articles to LinkedIn profiles – and even business analytics to add context to the conversation and to reference during the meeting.

Users might not see the changes of automation and machine learning on the day-to-day networking or data side of things, but they’ll experience the benefits in a number of ways. For example, if something like Microsoft Outlook isn’t working, users will be able to go to the help desk and the problem will be fixed much quicker through automation.

With automation and provisioning at the software layer, intent-based networking will make organizations significantly more strategic. As far as consistent presence and being able to tailor your daily work and collaborating with your peers on a regular basis, that’s going to be a game-changer.

The time for an internal re-evaluation is now

If Cisco Live 2019 taught us anything, it’s that Cisco is ready to embrace change. The software movement is the present and the future, and Cisco has no intention of being left behind.

Previously, you told the network what to do and hoped it complied. Now it’s about gaining insights into how your network is operating and how your users are functioning on the network, and tailoring that data traffic to the use case.

To that end, every organization should be looking at how its internal teams and operations support their business, and how business applications can perform more efficiently and effectively on their networks. A focus on automation and operational efficiencies is a good place to start.