Understanding the Difference Between Cloud-First and Cloud-Only Strategies

In 2010, the US government announced its “cloud-first” policy. This policy dictated that “going forward, when evaluating options for new IT deployments, the government will require that agencies default to cloud-based solutions whenever a secure, reliable, cost-effective option exists”. Since then, cloud-first has become the de facto term for the strategy where businesses emphasize transitioning to the cloud where it makes sense.

But the cloud has since then exploded, and its market has expanded to over $230 billion since 2019. As a result, some businesses are looking to go all-in on the cloud. It isn’t about switching to the cloud if it’s a better value and it makes sense, but rather switching over all infrastructure to the cloud. This strategy is called cloud-only.

The challenge for IT staff is that there is confusion between cloud-first and cloud-only. Both emphasize making the switch to the cloud, but different organizations have different attitudes as to what each approach means. Because of this, IT (despite perhaps feeling differently) might feel like they would be punished or be going against the business’s wishes if they choose any non-cloud service where a cloud alternative existed, even if it doesn’t fit the needs of the business. This has defaulted many cloud-first approaches to become cloud-only by nature.

Because the two strategies are different, it’s important to establish the differences between cloud-first and cloud-only approaches, what the outcomes are for businesses that choose one of these strategies is, and what goals should define a business choosing between these two strategies.

Cloud First

Cloud-first has several definitions, and its meaning is only truly decided by the business and its particular goals. But cloud-first has a couple of common definitions. The first is that the business will emphasize switching to cloud services when they make sense. This is closest to the US government’s own definition of cloud-first and implies that if a cloud service that replaces a traditional service is cost-effective and serves the organization’s needs, the business should switch to it. This particular definition also can be used to either encompass just the computing hardware itself like servers or can also include other tools like collaboration suites, or possibly services like remote desktop and active directory. The other way that cloud-first can be defined is that IT is under no obligation to switch to a cloud service, even if it’s cost-effective and it serves the organization’s needs, but rather IT simply has to research and seriously consider cloud services along with traditional on-premises infrastructure. This could mean that if IT needs to replace servers, they should also look into something like AWS as an alternative and choose based on merit and fit in regard to the organization’s workflow.

There are several advantages to a cloud-first approach. The first is that switching to the cloud will reduce unnecessary IT labor. If IT no longer needs to spend as many hours maintaining hardware like servers, firewalls, and networking solutions, their time is freed to help employees with other tasks and the business will most likely rely on less IT staff or hours.

The second main advantage is that the business becomes more agile and mobile. A business that has most data stored in the cloud will be able to better incorporate a remote workforce, open or move offices, and use a smaller footprint on-premises.

The third main advantage is that businesses that adopt a cloud-first approach position themselves to scale. The cloud in essence means someone else purchases, controls, and modifies hardware so that it maintains high availability and can be scaled on a moment’s notice. When using a provider like ZebraHost for example, you know that if you need more storage, compute power, or entire servers, these are always available because the provider makes sure there are always available resources to assign to clients. This means that when company ABC needs another server because they want to expand their web application, all they have to do is call ZebraHost and let them know. ZebraHost will then provision it within the day. If company ABC were adopting an on-premises first or private cloud approach, they would have to purchase hardware well in advance, wait potentially months for the hardware to be delivered, and set up all the networking, compute resources, virtual machines, hypervisor, etc. Themselves. Depending on how quickly the business works and the size of their IT staff, it could potentially take months to scale.

The previously mentioned advantages are also shared with the cloud-only approach. But where cloud-first differentiates itself is in two main advantages. The first is that cost can be precisely controlled and calibrated. The second is that a cloud-first approach also allows businesses to have more control over their resources and services.

When considering cost, many businesses believe that switching to the cloud will lead to considerable savings because they will no longer require as many labor hours from IT, will no longer need to purchase as much hardware, and do not need to spend money or go offline to fix issues that arise in their on-premises infrastructure. For the most part, this is all true. The cloud has arisen because businesses find it more efficient, scalable, and reasonably priced. However, when any business relies on a provider for almost all their technology, or a variety of services, the chance of prices skyrocketing as usage continues and being locked in as a result of lacking an on-premises alternative drastically increases. Many businesses that find they switch to all-in-one platforms like AWS see prices skyrocket because the price for cloud services from big-name brands increases exponentially with usage. It might be inexpensive to start, but many businesses eventually see their cost increasing overtime in AWS, Azure, Google Cloud, etc. Cloud-first has a major advantage in that IT can choose to maintain some infrastructure on-premises so that if the business needs to pivot away from a provider, they experience minimal migration and downtime. Because of this ability to easily pivot to and from services, IT can take advantage of the cloud where it decreases business costs, and set up on-premises infrastructure where a public cloud would increase the cost.

The ability to pick and choose services not only saves IT money and allows flexibility in case they want to switch but allows IT to always choose the ideal solution. And generally, when using a cloud-first approach, even on-premises infrastructure will incorporate the cloud in some way. For example, perhaps the business has a database with ZebraHost, stores some data in AWS S3, and syncs backups to a private on-premises cloud. IT can find a way to make all these sync with each other so that they minimize cost and take advantage of the best features of all services.

Cloud-First Disadvantage

The biggest disadvantage to cloud-first is that it is confusing. As touched upon earlier, IT doesn’t always know what the intentions of the business are and whether or not they are expected to just choose a cloud service or have permission to set up on-premises infrastructure. There will likely also be headaches when it comes to maintenance and synchronization between various services because some cloud providers prefer to be an all-in-one platform as a service provider where-as others work well in a hybrid setup. For example, AWS positions itself as an all-in-one platform as a service and while it’s possible to set up a hybrid approach, it might have mixed results. On the other hand, a provider like ZebraHost doesn’t use proprietary technology and could be a more flexible option for syncing with your on-premises infrastructure. To mitigate these issues, a business should first increase communication between IT and senior management so that that businesses’ “cloud-first” definition is clearly defined (they may find they are actually cloud-only). IT should also make sure they are comfortable potentially maintaining a hybrid-cloud setup where services are synced between on-premises and the cloud.

Cloud-Only

Some consider this the more radical approach, but with businesses’ infatuation over the power of the cloud, some businesses have directed their IT staff to completely switch to the cloud when possible. The idea is that a complete switch to the cloud will completely eliminate unnecessary hardware expense, lower IT labor, and maximize the scalability and mobility of the business.

The first 3 advantages mentioned for the cloud-first approach still stand for cloud-only, and they become supercharged.

Like with cloud-first, cloud-only can reduce unnecessary IT labor. But cloud-only takes it a step further because in this approach the business has hardly any on-premises infrastructure to maintain (if any at all). IT will instead be directed at tasks like helping employees with troubleshooting their devices, setting up and maintaining cloud-based email, making sure all services are syncing properly, etc. Overall, it’s a lot less work than even a cloud-first approach where IT will likely be maintaining some hardware. Instead, cloud-only has IT making sure the cloud services are working properly and access is managed and maintained (much of this is automated by the cloud service itself). All this leads to a drastic reduction in IT labor expense.

The second supercharged advantage of increasing mobility is where cloud-first really shines, and this is the main advantage for businesses switching to cloud-only. Businesses that rely on virtually no on-premises infrastructure have unprecedented mobility to build, destroy, move, and outsource office space. Instead of purchasing an expensive lease in a business park or large city, a business can instead rent out space at co-working spaces like WeWork or Industrious. In today’s age with remote working being at an all-time high and businesses looking to make their remote workforce permanent, the flexibility to completely shed office space is huge. And leads to significant cost savings for the business.

The third supercharged advantage is that a cloud-only business can scale whenever it wants, with no decision making between on-premises or cloud in the way. This means that when business ABC decides it needs a server for a new application, it will default to its cloud provider whether that be ZebraHost, AWS, Azure, etc. There is no real “decision making”, rather costs are evaluated, agreed upon, and then development commences. In some cases, the business may shop around for cloud providers but businesses that primarily use one provider will likely find it more efficient to simply continue scaling with that provider.

What sets cloud-only apart from cloud-first is that the strategy is far less confusing to IT and arguably more integrated depending on the services chosen. For example, if the business decides they want to put their website, application, active directory, etc in a cloud provider like ZebraHost, there is much less for management and IT to think about. If there are ever any issues, they simply call the cloud provider. In a cloud-first approach by contrast, the business needs to figure out what services are in the cloud, what services are on-premises, and communicate with the cloud provider and IT to resolve issues, sync services, and build a scalable strategy. It is essentially putting all of the eggs in one-basket for better integration.

Cloud-Only Disadvantage

The greatest disadvantage to a cloud-only approach is that the business has little to no recourse should their cloud strategy fail. Whether that means they put all data in AWS and are facing astronomical costs as a result or that cloud services spread across providers have not led to greater efficiency, the cloud doesn’t always work for all businesses. If some infrastructure remains on-premises, the business can more easily sync their data back on-premises (even if they can only keep the most important data) and re-evaluate. But if the business takes a cloud-only approach and lacks on-premises infrastructure, migration from one service to another can take months (in some cases years) and becomes incredibly complex and costly. All this means that the business will be more reluctant to admit their strategy needs re-evaluation and are defenseless against price hikes or service changes.

Another serious issue that will affect some businesses is that they might run legacy applications that simply won’t work in the cloud. For example, perhaps your business has heavily invested in a healthcare research application built exclusively for your systems that cannot work on a cloud in a way that it would comply with HIPAA regulation. You may have to retool the app entirely before moving to a cloud. Instead, in this case, it might be better for the application to instead remain on-premises if it is otherwise functional. A business then would have to seek a cloud-first approach and put what they can in the cloud, rather than continue to pursue a cloud-only approach.

Who Should Use Cloud-First or Cloud-Only?

When deciding what strategy is right for which business, advantages shouldn’t be thought of in terms of direct IT expenditure (money will likely be saved in that area and others regardless) but rather the overall goal of the business. If your business is looking to get into the cloud but wants to still have a lot of control over their data and services, a cloud-first approach might be best. This would allow your business to use the cloud when it makes sense, calibrate costs from a variety of vendors, and always have a way to take back data if the cloud is not adding value to your organization. On the other hand, if your business is looking at goals like moving employees remote, working out of co-working spaces, or minimizing IT staff as much as possible, a cloud-only approach could work best.

ZebraHost Cloud

ZebraHost is a great solution for businesses looking to explore the cloud. Our services synchronize well with on-premises hybrid clouds. We also offer a variety of solutions for businesses seeking a cloud-only approach including active directory, backup, private clouds, remote desktops and more. None of our technology is proprietary or locks you in either. We remain transparent and will give you 100% control over your data.

    • Can fit a cloud-first or cloud-only approach

    • 24/7 support across all our services

    • simple, flat-rate pricing

    • Powerful security with hardware firewalls and vLAN

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