Stop arguing and love the Cloud

Karl Palachuk

We have all come to sell some cloud services based on the basic “service” they provide. We also need to look a little more deeply at the benefits we receive from cloud services beyond the basic service.

I was in a meeting recently with a security company presenting to a room full of MSPs. Every question that came up had one thing in common: The MSP wouldn’t have HAD that problem if they employed a few key cloud services and some basic best practices.

Hosted Spam Filtering

SpamThe biggest example was an email issue. One user kept clicking on attachments without thinking. Those attachments had macros or executables attached (LikeThis.docx.exe). As a result, the user’s machine was turned into an email spambot – sending out thousands of email spam messages and getting the client’s email server blacklisted by the RBL (Real-time Blackhole List or DNS blacklist).

There are many ways to avoid this problem. The security vendor was happy to tell the story of how to avoid this at the firewall or desktop with software. Obviously, user education goes a long ways. But what really struck me was the fact that this client was not filtering email before it touched their server!

When it comes to spam filtering, there are three basic options. The least common is to manage it all yourself by constantly tweaking and updating Exchange Server. I don’t think I know anyone who actually does this. The second option is to use a device or spam firewall that lives on your network and filters all the email. One variation of this is to filter packets at the firewall.

Both of those options have two major disadvantages. First, the spam traffic all hits your network. Let’s say that legitimate email is now outnumbered 10,000 to one by spam. That means you have a huge traffic hit. Second, some device on your network then has to spend lots of resources opening and filtering email. That’s a lot of computer power dedicated to something that’s easy and cheap to outsource.

The third alternative is to employ a cloud-based solution. My favorite cloud-based spam solution is simply hosted spam filtering. There are many vendors offering hosted spam filtering. At low volume you’ll pay between one and two dollars per mailbox per month. It doesn’t take much to get that price closer to one dollar.

Let’s look at the scenario above with hosted spam filtering in place. All email for the client is delivered to a server at the spam filtering company. From there, either the email is vaporized or the attachment is removed. At a minimum, the email is quarantined at the spam filtering server and is never delivered to the client’s Exchange server.

And if the user somehow managed to get ahold of the malware and infest their machine? Well out-bound filtering does the same thing for the email being sent. And therefore the domain is never blocked and the whole question of RBLs becomes a nightmare from the past.

In general, hosted spam filtering has saved us thousands of hours of frustrating work simply because we took one function and moved it to the cloud. I don’t actually remember the last time we spent time working to get a client’s email domain removed from an RBL.

Storage and Backup

cloud-backupMost of the other questions were about data management, backup, and recovery. One gentleman had stumbled onto a disc-based backup system that was out of date. The client needed to restore a database. Unfortunately, that database was not being successfully backed up.

Obviously, testing backups would have avoided this issue. But so would a well-designed cloud based backup system. It’s critical that you completely understand the retention policies of your cloud provider. But once you do, you can create a storage or backup system that is absolutely rock solid.

Again, the use of cloud services gives us some important benefits beyond what is advertised by the vendor. Lots of little issues simply cease to exist.

And on a much larger scale, cloud-based backups and disaster recovery services have changed small business forever. In October of 2012, Hurricane Sandy became “Superstorm Sandy” and left millions without electricity for weeks. Companies with cloud-based services survived.

As a result of incidences like this, cloud-based backups are a permanent part of our industry from now on. Anyone new to this business had better find a good service to resell.

Office 365 and the Future

The-FutureI recently had a conversation with someone working closely with Microsoft to get the message out about adopting their new technologies. It appears that everywhere they try to address “old” technologies like Windows XP, SBS, or the 2003 generation of servers, no one wants to listen. Consultants across the U.S. and the world have already moved on.

Many of us have grown up making money with Office licenses and server licenses and on-site servers. It’s hard to give that up. It’s hard to admit that it’s already part of the past. But the world of servers, services, and office products has moved to the next generation of evolution.

I’ve said it a thousand times: If you sell servers, you will be in trouble in the years to come. If you sell technology solutions, then you will have all the work you want. Remember, your clients only bought a server in the first place because it was a step UP and solved one or more problems in their business. It brought them greater flexibility and security.

Today we need some technology on-site. Maybe storage. Maybe even a small server for active directory or an old line of business application. But web services are in the cloud, email’s in the cloud, and backup’s in the cloud. The “right” solution is no longer an all-in-one server. The right solution is going to involve cloud management.

Those services need to be fully integrated into the client’s business, along with phones and iPads and all kinds of gadgets. Making all that technology work well together while controlling costs and maintaining security takes some special skills.

Your job security lies in the fact that you stay on the cutting edge. Nothing has changed from the client’s perspective: They rely on you to design and implement technologies that work. Every gadget had better make money or save money for the client. Every device and service must play its role and work well every day.

When the client can stop worrying about technology and pay attention to what they do every day, then you’ve done your job well. And the client really doesn’t care whether that’s done with Apple or PC, or with Google or Microsoft.

In many ways, it’s harder to make money with Office 365 and hosted services. But the question of whether it’s harder is irrelevant. Office 365 and hosted services are what needs to be sold today and delivered today. So whether you like it or not, this is your reality. If you don’t create a business plan to make money in the new reality, your competition will.

I’ve recently started collecting information about the kinds of technologies supported in the SMB space. One interesting finding so far is that many MSP have already eliminated Microsoft Small Business Servers from their client offices. Rather than waiting to see whether Microsoft (or someone else) comes up with an alternative, they have simply moved key services into the cloud and have a very simple server at the client office.

In other words, while some people were arguing and wondering what’s next, others simply moved on. “What’s next” is already here. And it’s a cloud-based service.

Do you love the Cloud? Tell us why with a comment below!