Cloud hosting: Five questions you should ask your provider

Advice Nick Booth Nov 13, 2012
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When it comes to questioning potential cloud hosting providers, you should leave no stone unturned

The tendering process for any IT business is one of the least accurate gauges of competence know to man, according to experts. Questioning a potential host is even trickier. The most common mistake, when choosing a host for your cloud computing service, is to be impressed by stats on speed and feeds and then to choose on price. But what other criteria can you measure your hosting supplier against?

How do you know what questions to ask when you don't always know what the potential underlying problems are in the first place? Often your questions are like dropping depth charges without any idea where the threat is. You dump them into the inky depths, desperately hoping that if they don't hit anything that means there are no hidden dangers.

Sadly, the lack of any flotsam and jetsam floating to the surface doesn't mean there are no death traps lurking below the surface. To help better navigate your way around such dangers, we've asked a series of industry veterans - who've been around the cloud world a few times - to arm you with questions to ask.

Here are five incendiary questions that will have any U (for useless) Boat commander rapidly coming up to the surface and waving their hands in surrender.

1. Are you anal about cable?

When visiting the datacentre interested in hosting your services, pick a random cable and ask them to identify when it was installed, who installed it and whether it was tested. Ask to see their maintenance records.

Some hosting companies market themselves on the strength of the governance they offer. It probably shouldn't come as shock to you that these same companies are often fantastic at winning clients and brilliant at showing them around their premises. But they're often hopeless at doing the day-to-day admin.

It's not unusual for datacentres hosting your services to be a mass of uncharted equipment that nobody will touch as they aren't sure what or who it belongs to.

Ask if you can make a random inspection. If you check one cable in a rack the hosting company should be able to answer all the questions posed above. If they can't, they don't fully check the box for asset management.

When choosing a manager of your assets, look for someone who is anal, advises Dominic Monkhouse, UK MD of hosting company Peer 1. You don't have to check whether they tuck their shirt into their underpants, but, he says, there is a simple test. “If every cable is labelled neatly, at the front and back of a server chassis, that's a good sign,” he says.

The cables have to be bound by velcro (which shows they are frequently checked) rather than a cable tie and they must be straight. “If someone has the labels straight, the chances are they will have the insides of the machine well ordered too,” says Monkhouse. This means, he believes, they are likely to be on top of all the memory and other component upgrades.

When he ran Pipex, Monkhouse gave a barracking to an IT manager over the state of his cabling. He believes it’s incredibly important, as it tells you if someone runs a good datacentre. Tangled cables, needless to say, are a window into a troubled soul, according to Monkhouse.

2. Are you state of the ARK?

    There are companies, believe it or not, who skimp on investing in equipment until they have won new clients. They typically boast about this shrewdness with the words that they operate a 'just in time' model. This might be music to the ears of shareholders and board members, but it's a potential nightmare for a service provider. One Tier 3 hosting company that operated on such a model didn't actually have a back-up generator when it won its clients and, through a combination of laxity and good fortune, didn't bother to invest in one for months. Luckily, with the British weather being less extreme than in the US, the service provider got away with having no cover for months. They were lucky (as indeed were their clients) but such firms won't always be so fortunate.

    Hosting providers should have a State of the Ark datacentre, according to Jim Darragh of Abiquo. “They should have two of everything. Power supplies, back-up generators, cooling systems,” he says. “When your generator fails it always fails at the worst possible time. So be prepared for the worst.”

    3. Do you have three customers beginning with the letter R?

      Any company can and should provide three good references. If you were running a start-up hosting company from your garage, it's likely that you could provide plausible sounding references from your old employer, a friend and a relative, without actually lying.

      Don't take your service providers at their own word. Be awkward and difficult if needs be. Ask for three reference sites all with the same initial. Or in the same district.  

      Better still, ask how many customers they actually have, advises Monkhouse. “If they've got a growth rate of 100 percent year-on-year, they must be doing something right as they'll have to be well organised to manage that expansion successfully,” he says. “It means they will have the right systems in place.”

      Not everyone agrees with this. We’ve heard tell of one company that kept winning business because it had a great reputation for designing and building datacentres, but that the actual running of the datacentres was a nightmare as this was not their core competence.

      “You're better off asking to see their testing schedules, or their certificates,” says Monkhouse. SAS70 or SSAE16 or ISO 20001 are all a good indicator of quality processes, he suggests. Better still, ask to see the auditors’ annual report. 

      4. Can I see your personnel records?

        If a company’s best assets are its people, then it's odd that so little is done to evaluate the culture within a company. The tendering process is completely skewed, according to Monkhouse, because it tends to be all about speeds and feeds and who can provide the cheapest service. But, surely, the most important quality of a service provider is whether they can come through a severely testing set of circumstances, like adverse weather or a terror attack?

        5. Can I see how you fit in?

          The relationships between all your suppliers can get really complicated. The datacentre might be run by one company, the managed service run by another, the maintenance of the supporting infrastructure (like the heating, cooling, back-up generators and power supplies) coming from somewhere else.

          “It can get really complicated working out who does what and who takes responsibility,” says Darragh. Everything upstream can go to hell in a handcart, he adds. “The problem is, you only find out if the disaster recovery plan isn't practical when you've had the disaster and you find that you can't recover. By then it's too late.”

          The penalty clause that allows you not to pay your IaaS provider won't be much compensation when your business has been wiped out by downtime.

          Before you get involved with them, ask you service provider where they fit in with the network of suppliers. Just as you'd ask what happens if Cable A is pulled or Comms Channel b goes down, you need to know how each company in the supply chain affects the others. And, ultimately, how you’ll recover if they go down.