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Hybrid vs Cloud Infrastructure: Are Your Servers Pets or Cattle?

Aug 24, 2015 Cloud Dennis Junk

Servers Pets or CattleSomething interesting happened when I sat down with a couple of Aptera’s Infrastructure and Cloud team members to discuss how complicated it is to manage hybrid environments. Many of the businesses the team works with have extensive on-prem environments they’ve built up and maintained over the years. Even as the cloud has become more solidly established as a reliable alternative, one with several advantages over traditional hosting, these companies are reluctant to abandon their server farms outright. Many of these businesses also have other concerns that militate against a wholesale migration to the cloud, issues like privacy, security, and the relative newness of the infrastructure as a service model.

Is going hybrid the solution?

Eric Rupp, Aptera’s Infrastructure and Cloud Services Practice Leader, had planned to talk about System Center and how easy it makes managing hybrid environments. He explained that businesses are often concerned early on in an engagement that it will be more complicated for admins to maintain and control access to apps hosted in hybrid setups. He wanted to emphasize that these businesses really needn’t worry, though, because System Center greatly simplifies administrative tasks by letting you monitor and manage apps across the range of devices they’re being used on, and across the various systems they’re hosted on, all under the much touted “single pane of glass.”

But the question Rupp kept coming back to with our Enterprise Architect Mark Gordon was, what business situations really call for a hybrid solution in the first place? Every time Rupp suggested a reason—bringing up something you couldn’t do in the cloud—Gordon would counter by pointing out that each particular limitation either no longer applied or would no longer apply in the near future. Some businesses have bandwidth issues, for instance, which make connecting to the cloud overly cumbersome. But the solution to insufficient bandwidth isn’t necessarily staying on-prem; the solution is probably getting more bandwidth.

“Really, one of the only things I think on-prem does especially well,” Gordon said, “is connecting to local printers. Print servers have a hard time connecting to the cloud. A lot of businesses also stay on-prem for local authentication in Active Directory—but you can do authentication in the cloud now too.” We all sat for a minute wondering, is it a good idea to forego moving to the cloud just to keep your printers working smoothly?

Why do businesses keep their servers?

“You have to understand that some of the businesses I work with have million-dollar investments in their local infrastructure,” Rupp explained. “So it’s not a conversation about, well, the cloud is better for this, while on-prem is better for this. They’re already running their applications on their own servers, so they may just be reluctant to make such a big change. But really it’s that they want to get the most out of such a huge investment in the servers they already have.”

Gordon agreed that this is what he runs into as well. “If you were starting your business from scratch today,” he said, “then there really aren’t many reasons I’d ever say, ‘You need to have on-prem servers for this.’ But, if you’re in healthcare, for instance, you can set your system up in Azure so it’s HIPAA-compliant, but it’s not a simple matter of flipping a switch. There’s a lot that goes into the migration. So you can see why some businesses are more comfortable sticking with what they have—they already know it’s compliant.”

Pets vs Cattle

At this point, we were ready to return to addressing businesses’ concerns about managing hybrid infrastructures. Apparently, we’d gone over the time allotted for the meeting, though, because just then Jamie Peebles, a Datacenter Specialist who works for Microsoft, stepped into the room. Peebles was scheduled to go with Rupp and Gordon to meet with one of Aptera’s clients, but they filled him in on what we were discussing and it turned out he had quite a bit to say.

Hybrid,” he scoffed, rolling his eyes. “I was just having this argument with someone. If you’re going to move into the cloud, what, at this point, do you still need servers for? What it boils down to is that system admins think of their servers as pets—they’ve spent years feeding and watering them, and now they don’t want to let them go. When it comes down to it, though, why do people still have servers? Because they needed them for email like 20 years ago. That’s basically it. The only real purpose for servers is to host applications, plain and simple. Servers aren’t pets—they’re cattle.”

Peebles is a Microsoft guy, so it’s not exactly a surprise that he’d be so enthusiastic about Azure. I figured either Rupp or Gordon would step in at this point and tell him about how the situation looks a little different on the ground, where real businesses operate, businesses like the one they were all three about to visit. Instead, they both ended up agreeing that all the reasons they could think of for keeping some on-prem servers after moving to the cloud were variations of the sunk cost fallacy.

In most scenarios, you can save money hosting your apps in the cloud. You may have to put some work into planning and executing the migration, but the sooner you do it the more money you’ll ultimately save. If you do the math comparing hybrid to a pure cloud option, you’ll almost always find that the cloud comes out on top. “Hybrid exists,” Peebles insisted, “because people are afraid of change.”

The Trust Issue

Peebles kept asking throughout our conversation, “So why doesn’t everybody move to the cloud right now?” His answer: “Trust.” Businesses may hear Microsoft people talking about how much money they’ll save if they switch to Azure, but if they move their entire infrastructure to the cloud and something goes wrong—well, they’ve lost their entire infrastructure. “Servers crash all the time, though," Peebles pointed out, "and businesses spend tons of money maintaining backups so the system can fail over in a disaster.” Azure Site Recovery, in fact, allows virtual servers to fail over to cloud instances. “Okay, so you’re system failed over to Azure,” Peebles said. “You could potentially spend a bunch more getting your servers back online—but why?”

In addition to the urge to squeeze as much as possible out of old investments, there’s also a natural—but irrational—reluctance on the part of business leaders to hand over possession of critical systems to third-parties. “I need to keep it close to me because it’s important,” is how Gordon characterized the instinct. But all those big security breaches we’ve been hearing about in the news—Target, Home Depot, the Office of Personnel Management—have involved on-prem systems. The sense of security you get from having your servers close is a false one.

Neither Rupp nor Gordon could really poke any substantial holes in Peebles’ case. So we were all left wondering, is it really true that if business leaders were making perfectly rational decisions there would be no such thing as hybrid infrastructure? For that matter, would every business be racing to migrate its entire infrastructure into the cloud? Or are businesses being prudent when they gradually test the water, protect their old infrastructure investments, and wait to see how this cloud thing works out over longer time periods?

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Topics: Cloud Azure Infrastructure