This content is part of the Essential Guide: Guide to app portability and interoperability

Cloud portability primer: How and why a provider should offer it

Cloud portability may make it easier for a customer to leave, but it can also boost business. Find out how and why a cloud provider should offer cloud portability.

As critical applications increasingly migrate to cloud computing environments, customers are asking cloud providers to offer cloud portability. They want to mitigate risk and increase their flexibility through the ability to move applications and data among public cloud service providers as well as between public and private clouds. Some cloud service providers such as Rackspace are promoting open, flexible options to facilitate this, while other service providers are turning a blind eye. After all, why should a cloud provider care or be accommodating if customers want to jump ship and take their wallets with them?

Why cloud portability?

“The easier it is to port data anywhere, the more attractive the service provider,” said Jeff Kaplan, managing director of THINKstrategies Inc., a consultancy specializing in cloud services.  Cloud service providers can attract a wider partner and customer base by offering “the broadest and most open portfolio of cloud services that would support cloud portability. Given the nascent nature of the market, this could be the best way to expand a service provider’s market penetration.”

Cloud portability appeals to customers for a host of reasons. They may want the freedom to find a provider that offers better performance or lower costs. Cloud portability may also become a requirement due to geographical considerations, regulatory compliance, resilience and vendor risk management. Customers want resilience in order to continue business as usual in the face of a cloud service disruption, disaster or security breach.

 “[Enterprises] that have built their delivery vehicles around Amazon Web Services could get their butts kicked if Amazon has a bad day, ” said a former cloud services customer who was technical manager for a retail software vendor.  Such an experience, especially if repeated, could easily incite a customer to seek service elsewhere.

Technical issues with cloud portability

When an application is architected with portability in mind, a forklift move from one cloud service provider to another is not a big deal, according to cloud customers interviewed for this article. If a customer buys Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) with basic computing utilities such as storage and compute power, he or she is essentially buying outsourced hosting. Switching between IaaS providers involves few hooks into the customer’s application that necessitate rewriting or tweaking code when changing cloud providers.

Healthcare SaaS vendor AdhereTx hosts its applications on Amazon’s EC2 service, according to Anne Marie Biernacki, CTO and co-founder. AdhereTx recently performed a cloud portability test to assess how hard it would be to move the company’s KnowMyMeds application to another cloud environment should its customers require it. The test was successful -- but unlike many software companies, AdhereTx designed its application with cloud portability in mind.

“We designed with layers and ‘wrappered’ the layers so [our application] would be portable. We also leveraged fewer value-added services so we would have fewer hooks to unhook and rework when we might need to port the application,” Biernacki said.

When a provider offers support for cloud portability, customers are more open to buying other value-added services. Biernacki advises cloud service providers to offer a discovery mechanism in the form of a simple setup wizard or customer-centric, consultative support to guide prospective customers to procure the right set of cloud services for their needs -- including guidance about how to put the pieces in place to enable flexibility and cloud portability. If she had such guidance early on, she would have been more open to buying value-added services without concern about lock-in and portability limitations.

An enterprise that purchases additional cloud computing capabilities in the form of Platform as a Service (PaaS) will encounter more hooks than IaaS customers. PaaS offerings include development platforms, other application development features and databases, in addition to management, security and performance enhancement options. These capabilities often include proprietary APIs, templates, encryption solutions, load balancing and uptime monitoring, all of which complicate cloud portability. To reproduce these elements in another cloud environment, customers must significantly rework the application. Such service elements are often unique to -- and in the case of Microsoft’s Azure platform or’s -- proprietary to a cloud provider.

Third-party services for cloud portability

Several solution providers, including RightScale and Wipro, have sniffed out cloud portability-specific business opportunities. RightScale’s Cloud Management Platform helps enterprises design, deploy, manage and automate business-critical applications in the cloud. The company claims its platform provides enterprises the freedom to choose the best cloud environment for their requirements, and the freedom to change cloud providers if needed.

RightScale partners with cloud service providers such as RackSpace, system integrators such as Cap Gemini and ISVs such as Oracle’s MySQL, to build applications using a higher level of abstraction, said CEO Michael Crandell. This “makes the workload portable so customers can choose what cloud to run their resources on,” he said.

RightScale usually has a direct relationship with the cloud customer, as in the case of RackSpace, but cloud providers Datapipe and Hitachi bundle RightScale’s platform into managed cloud service offerings, and they own the customer relationships.

Wipro touts a pitch similar to RighScale’s with its w-SaaS platform, but it is tailored to SaaS vendors rather than enterprises. The w-SaaS platform includes a SOA-based services framework for SaaS enablement, a Cloud Provisioning Fabric that enables seamless portability between clouds, and a Unified Administration Console for platform services management. The RightScale and w-SaaS platforms and relationships move with customers when they switch cloud providers.

Rebecca Wetzel is a principal with NetForecast and is also president of the marketing consulting firm Wetzel Consulting LLC. She provides data communications industry insight and helps vendors and service providers craft successful marketing strategies.

This was last published in November 2011

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While the concept of portability is incredibly attractive to a customer/business, it tends to run counter to any existing Cloud Service Provider business model. For them, "interoperability" is a sellable feature, because it would allow customers to bridge between multiple interoperable clouds - where certain levels of differentiation are possible. This interoperability could be at the VM level, the PaaS level, the Container level or something else. 

The real opportunity is for companies that can help customers build applications and environments that allow them to have that portability as an option, if needed.