Cloud is one of the most common buzz-words going these days and it tends to mean different things to different people. For some, cloud means outsourced e-mail such as with Office365, for others it means SaaS (Software as a Service) offerings such as SalesForce for CRM. Some other examples of cloud solutions include:
- Online file storage and backup (OneDrive, DropBox, GoogleDrive, etc.)
- SharePoint Online (part of Office365)
- Cloud based Windows or Unix server virtual machines
- Hybrid cloud services like Microsoft Azure which can provide SQL Server instances in the cloud (Azure is a topic unto itself)
Cloud is constantly evolving and improving and no matter what cloud means to you, or what your understanding of cloud is, there are some key elements to all cloud offerings that are universal and will be important considerations when (I say when because it is not a matter of if) your firm looks to adopt cloud technologies:
- Availability/Reliability/Redundancy – Deciding whether or not to entrust your data and applications to a cloud provider is a simple question – Who is better at providing the highest availability, reliability and redundancy – your firm or Microsoft, Google, Amazon, etc.? For most SMBs it’s pretty obvious that the big players win hands down. It’s what they do and they do it well. Why not focus on your business instead of worrying about hardware failures? Do you have appropriate redundancies in place? How quickly can you recover from a serious hardware failure? What about disasters such as fires, floods and earthquakes?
- Scalability – Again, ask yourself how easily you can scale your own infrastructure. Most cloud based virtual hardware, storage and SaaS can be scaled in seconds with a few clicks.
- Security – Often firms feel warm and fuzzy because their sensitive data is housed in their building. But does that mean its safe? How safe are your firewalls? Who is watching for intrusions? Do you have professionals ethically attempt to gain entry to test them? Do you even have a security professional on staff? Again, the big players have you on this one as well.
- Costs – Cost is always a concern, especially for smaller firms. But sometimes it isn’t simply a matter of comparing apples to apples. Having predictable monthly costs for your infrastructure and applications makes it much easier to budget your expenses and makes planning growth easier as well.
Vision in the Cloud:
So what about Deltek Vision in the cloud? Suppose you have a limited IT budget or you’re thinking about an upgrade to your current Vision server(s) and think this might be a good time to move Vision into the cloud? Deltek now offers Deltek First Vision, which is an SaaS version of Vision that runs on the Amazon Web Services platform. I have not worked with a client using Deltek First Vision, so I have a limited knowledge of the performance and flexibility of this offering and as such I am neither for or against this service. However, I do know of a few key factors that may cause some existing Vision users to be hesitant to make the switch:
- Deltek First Vision is a subscription licensing model. This means you pay monthly (or annually) for your license count for the modules you own. This also includes your maintenance and support which is a good thing. However, this also means that you give up the existing licenses you own in perpetuity and there can be some upfront costs to change. In contrast, even if you stopped paying your maintenance and support, you could continue to use your Vision software for as long as you wanted provided the hardware and operating systems remained compatible. The costs involved in switching would vary from client to client so be sure to discuss this with Deltek or your reseller to make sure you fully understand it.
- Deltek First Vision is hosted on the Amazon Web Services platform. Deltek works with Amazon to provide the infrastructure to run as many Vision end-users as required. Amazon is highly scalable and performance will likely never been an issue. However, you will not have direct access to a server in the traditional sense. Things like custom reports, integrated applications, etc. that you may have now in-house may not be compatible or may require changes to make them work in a cloud environment.
- Once you move to the cloud with Deltek, it is very unlikely you will be able to move away from it. I’m a huge proponent of moving business critical applications and services into the cloud, but if you are required to give up your stand-alone licenses and move to a subscription model with Deltek, the path back is unknown and likely not going to be cheap.
If you are not on Deltek Vision now and are considering it, I think the Deltek First offering is what you should be looking at, however if you’re an existing customer you will want to consider the above points carefully before making the switch.
Your Own Vision Cloud:
So what are your options then to get the benefits of the cloud without sacrificing some of the pitfalls mentioned above? You have two other options:
- A self hosted cloud environment – Without going into a completely new topic, this would involve your own virtual server infrastructure in-house. Many larger organizations already do this and it means they can provide the traditional server infrastructure for Vision to run but on virtual servers. This allows for better up-time and reliability and scalability. Security is still on you as is the cost and the expertise to build and maintain everything.
- An outsourced Vision cloud – By working with a hosting provider such as Microsoft, RackSpace or Canadian Web Hosting (to keep your data in Canada), you can build your Vision environment on virtual servers in the providers data center. In doing so you have control of the servers and can scale them to suit your needs. The providers manage security and ensure redundancy and can also provide server snap shot backups and even file level backup.
Vision Cloud Case Study:
I recently helped one of my clients move their Vision system into the cloud on their own private virtual server. The company once had an internal IT resource who took care of all of their hardware and software however since he moved on a couple of years ago, and with no real IT oversight, their hardware infrastructure had begun to fail. Fearing a catastrophic failure with Vision, they began to look at their options.
Four main factors made the Deltek First option unappealing to them:
1.) Cost – As mentioned above my client would have had an additional outlay cost to transition to the Deltek First platform.
2.) Add-on Software – The client owned and was a dedicated user of the CCG Electronic Invoicing application. This tool allows Vision users to edit draft invoice PDF files inside the application to reduce printing. It’s a great tool but it has to be able to interact with the local file system to store the PDF files and markups. It was unclear at the time if Electronic Invoicing could be adapted to work with Deltek First. Vision 7.2+ now provides an electronic approval system for invoicing however, considering the initial investment in the CCG product and their users familiarity with it, they were very reluctant to give it up.
3.) In-House Application – The client had also made a considerable time investment developing an in-house application that was heavily integrated with Vision. This application also required direct access to the local file system. Losing access to this application was simply not an option their user base would be happy with.
4.) Custom SSRS Reports – The client also had several customized invoice and check reports. My understanding is that Deltek First does allow for custom reports, but the ability of the end user to manage and develop those reports directly on the live server is limited.
My client needed to realize the benefits of cloud hosted Vision while maintaining the flexibility to integrate custom reports, and in-house applications. We also had to strike a balance between monthly costs with the full replacement costs of new server hardware. To a lesser degree the client was also keen to ensure their data resided in Canada. In order to achieve their objective I provisioned a virtual cloud server with a Canadian based cloud hosting provider which has redundant data centers in Vancouver and Toronto.
The new virtual cloud server has considerably more horsepower than the physical server it replaced but with the added benefit of quick scalability. Need more processor power, RAM Memory or disk space? A few clicks and you have it. The operating system is included with the monthly costs and you can choose from various operating system templates when you first provision the server.
Most cloud hosting providers offer SQL licensing as a bundled option which is simply added to the monthly costs. In this case the client owned their own SQL license and chose instead to upgrade that license to SQL 2012 and move it to the new cloud server.
In order to facilitate the CCG Electronic Invoicing application and their own in-house application we established a permanent VPN link between the cloud server and their head office which already has VPN links to their branch offices. Establishing a VPN link between a cloud based server and a physical location will vary depending on the existing VPN tools in place. If you are interested in learning more about the VPN leave a comment or send an e-mail. Sufficed to say all integrations that were required work reliably and efficiently.
Every hosting provider will have different SLA (Service Level Agreements) or SLO (Service Level Objectives) which you will need to discuss in detail with them. Most will offer at the minimum, an SLO which basically states that they will make their best efforts to maintain for example, 99.8% up time. My experience has been that because this is their specialty and where they make their money, they take this very seriously. Having worked in IT for 20+ years I can also say that most internal IT departments don’t come close to matching the reliability of a hosting provider.
Most hosting providers will offer at the very least a form of snapshot backups on a regular basis. What this means is they take a snapshot image of your entire server which can be restored in the event of a failure or corrupted operating system. Many also offer supplemental file-level backup options as well which further protects your interests. I always recommend to my clients that they backup up their SQL database nightly and keep a rolling month of those backups. However, if they are stored on the server itself and it crashes or becomes corrupt, its very difficult to restore your system elsewhere if needed. This is why I also suggest a secondary file level backup of those SQL backups to an alternate location. Another option for disaster recovery is to take a snapshot backup and store it long term. You can than restore from it quickly and then update the database to the last backup.
Doing a cost comparison between a cloud based server and replacing an existing physical server is difficult as you are comparing apples to oranges. However, when you look at the upsides, its very difficult to argue against it. With most hosting providers you pay for a server based on the resources you provision and only for the time it is used. In other words you can save an image of your server and store it and only pay for the storage if its not up and running. Most providers offer an a la carte based pricing system whereby you choose your:
- No. of Processors or Cores
- Operating system
- Disk size
- No. of External IPs
- SQL Licenses (if desired)
- SSL Certificates (for Internet facing applications like Vision)
- Backup space or file level backup
Using this type of pricing is very flexible and economical because you can start small and add resources only as needed.
I believe that Deltek has made the right move with Deltek First and I think the value and flexibility of it will only improve over time. That said, it may not be the right choice for all Deltek Vision users or it may not be right for you right now. But as you can see from the example, there are still options available to you so you can still benefit from the cloud without sacrificing flexibility and without a large capital outlay.
If you have any questions or would like to discuss moving your Vision system to your own private cloud leave a comment or send me an e-mail: [email protected]