Cloud

What Exactly Is 'The Cloud' ?

This is something we are asked a lot so we thought we'd share our take on 'The Cloud' with you.

Undeniably the term has become one of the most used misused marketing buzzwords of recent times and, in our minds, is associated with the latest technology and techno-magic, will solve all your business IT needs and be the way of the future. But what is 'The Cloud' in reality?

The answer to this we can sum up in three words, that we'll then explain further. So, drum-roll please... as we enlighten you (and possibly shatter some illusions) with the revelation that 'The Cloud' basically means 'someone else's infrastructure'.

There can be nuance around this, but the essence of it is captured thus. Once you understand this fact, you can probe more deeply into it and better decide what is right for your business.

Don't get us wrong, here at Onega we are big fans of 'The Cloud' and we help provide many cloud services to clients. These range from hosted telephony solutions to backup, hosted servers and security solutions such as Mimecast. In each case the core benefits are typically those of economies of scale with shared infrastructure. What you would have had to have been a large enterprise to enjoy, in terms of features, functionality and reliability not many years ago; you can now access for mere pounds per month per person. We are big proponents of some cloud services and both economics and capability are major reasons why we suggest this approach.

It was not always this way though. One of the main differences that cloud services offer is that software can be deployed more continuously on the front end and the back end because they are based on subscription and hosted services models. Partly this is enabled by the better connectivity we (generally) enjoy now - you used to have to write software, test it, produce it in a factory and then distribute it in boxes on tape, on floppy disks or latterly with CDs and DVDs. This had cost and took time. Back in the day there were no such things as security updates and Service Packs. You bought MS-DOS, or Windows 3 through 95 or OS/2 etc and that was pretty much what you used. Things get quicker nowadays in production and feedback cycles. The latest release of Office 2016 for example is being updated with new features continually deployed every few months. I note that on the latest release Outlook can help manage your travel bookings and deliveries - small innovations that over time make big differences. Back to the point; some of the first and early Cloud Services really were quite rubbish but they did evolve quickly to the point where today, they make great sense.

One thing to remember is that not all cloud services are the same. There is no magical 'hosting heaven' where all cloud services are hosted. There are big differences. Some of the differences are in the infrastructure that makes up a solution and others are around how it is managed. For example Onega's office, near the Docklands, is very close to quite a number of the best connected Data Centres in the country.  Even here though there is sharp contrast between one 'Docklands Data Centre' and another. For example pics here:

Here can be seen some of the UK's prime data centres clustered together. Telehouse x2 and Global Switch 1 & 2 sites. All with good security, high fences, generators, high powered redundant aircon etc.

Here can be seen some of the UK's prime data centres clustered together. Telehouse x2 and Global Switch 1 & 2 sites. All with good security, high fences, generators, high powered redundant aircon etc.

This is also a hosting centre, just behind the BP garage off the A13 in East London. You can see the accessible air cooling vents on the street side. The security shutters for this re-purposed light industrial building can (allegedly) be breached in about 5 minutes if you know what you're doing. Still a step up from some of the 'chicken shed' data centres you hear about.

This is also a hosting centre, just behind the BP garage off the A13 in East London. You can see the accessible air cooling vents on the street side. The security shutters for this re-purposed light industrial building can (allegedly) be breached in about 5 minutes if you know what you're doing. Still a step up from some of the 'chicken shed' data centres you hear about.

So - quite a difference between data centres. Multiple diverse Internet connections, redundant building-wide UPSs, mains supplies from different substations, multiple generators with fuel supplies good for days or weeks mark out the best of the data centres. In how they manage their operations, there can also be quite a gulf.

Beyond data centres, cloud services will run on different server hardware platforms and networks within the data centres, with different levels of security, resilience and engineered capacity. How resilient a network is to a DDOS attack for example depends on the network everything sits on and mechanisms in place to protect the servers.

A very well run Cloud service (like Microsoft Azure & Office 365, and Amazon AWS services for example will allow for redundancy within and across data centres and even across geographies. Thus if one server or whole data centre fails (rarely but they can and do), then services will still be available to be provided from the mirrored data centre.

How does all this make a difference in the real world? The answer to this good question is one we've had first hand experience of. Engineering is about all factors. Cumulatively: service of quality delivery in hardware; software; hosting resilience; engineering and operational processes mean that the end user's experience of a good service will be qualitatively and quantitatively better than that of a poorer service. Everyone will claim to have great services, but over time you learn the differences between them.

Some tell-tale things to look for are Service Level Agreements, which show contractual information as to what is guaranteed and delivered. These are akin to the warranty that is bundled (or offered) with a laptop computer.  A good business machine will often come with a three year on-site warranty with the option to upgrade to a 4 hour response time; sometimes for less than £50 which implies the chances are that you'll be unlikely to need it. The detail of this an SLA will say if compensation is paid for downtime and what the target availability is etc. It is important to read the small print as well, as many SLA documents are not worth the electrons they are transmitted with.

At Onega we have to evaluate many web services / cloud services and there can be a lot of difference in the detail here.  Many Cloud SLAs (even from very well-respected providers) will make it clear that the SLA covers their ability to provide a service, but excludes any responsibility for your data. CSPs (Cloud Service Providers) will always take measures to ensure that your data is protected (for example with replication to multiple data centres), but they don't take ultimate responsibility for data which is why you also typically need Cloud Backup alongside your new cloud services.

Another thing to look for on quality of delivery is service status reporting. Good organisations tend to be open about issues and when they will be resolved (everyone will have issues from time to time). Poor organisations can sometimes claim that there are no issues when it's pretty obvious that they do. Purely anecdotally, we've also learned to be skeptical of any organisation who claim good scores with 'TrustPilot'.

If you're pondering 'The Cloud' and how you can use this in your company, then please don't hesitate to get in touch. We're happy to discuss what's best for you and help take things forward. Also remember that 'The Cloud' is not the answer to everything. There are some circumstances (quite a number) where it is not (or not yet) the right solution. Onega have a lot of experience of cloud and physical worlds and we'd be very happy to discuss with you.

 

Onega March 2016 Planned Engineering and First Focus on DNS

This is to let you know about some March Planned Engineering and Service Updates - and our fist 'Bono Pastore' Focus area. Please see the background and overview of the program at http://www.onega.net/blog/2016/03/2/bono-pastore if you're not yet aware of this.

Our first best practice focus is going to be on DNS (Internet Domain Name Services) and making sure that clients systems (as well as our own) are in-line with best practice in this area.
 

In business terms:

DNS is the system that allows us to register Internet domains for our organisations and to browse the web and send emails with friendly names like www.bbc.co.uk www.onega.net and fred@onega.net etc. So much uses DNS that we often take it for granted much of the time – and well implemented so we should.

Being such an important system, we want to make sure that client implementations are optimal in three key areas relating to DNS:

Domain Registrations – This is the administration of your domain and the registration of it. We want to help make sure that all the details related to your domains are up to date, correct & appropriate, not due to expire any time soon etc.

Internal Resolution – This is how client and server computing devices carry out Internet resolution so that you can connect to the Cloud quickly, reliably and safely (see  Secure DNS Services for more on this).

External Resolution – This is how people find your organisation and services on the Internet – to know where to send you email, browse your website and communicate via electronic means etc. It is important that this service be provided robustly and reliably.

Our object is to conduct a review to ensure that these aspects of DNS are all well implemented across our client organisations.

The next steps are:

We will be in contact with clients over the coming weeks to ensure that we run through your DNS configuration with you. Don’t worry if you’re not technical – we are happy to take care of those parts. We have a checklist which we’ll complete with you so that we capture the key information about your domains, and identify any areas that need attention so that we (you or us as per preference and can work to resolve these and get them checked off.

For clients under Onega managed services contracts we'll liaise with you and do most of the running on this to help make sure your DNS is good and documented. For clients with whom we have PAYG agreementswe can agree with you who will do what with the aim that we make sure all our your services are robust.

Expect us to be in touch soon then about next steps and starting the process. If you are not under contract with Onega (or not sure) and would like to engage in the DNS best practice review process then please do get in touch and we’ll be happy to add you to the review rosta.

For reference:

Internet DNS Best Practice Policy – http://intwiki.onega.net/index.php?title=Internet_DNS_Configuration_Best_Practice_Policy

Organisational DNS Checklist - http://intwiki.onega.net/index.php?title=Organisational_DNS_Checklist

For information on Secure DNS Services:

http://www.onega.net/blog/2015/6/4/the-importance-of-using-secure-dns-servers

If you don’t have a login for the Onega’s Policy and Procedure wiki then please get in touch and we’ll setup access for you.

Technical changes that will occur on Onega Infrastructure:

Tuesday 22nd March 2016 12:00 (Midday) GMT - We will be changing the configuration of our two legacy DNS servers 81.3.75.71 and 81.3.75.72 to no longer act as recursive resolvers. Thus any computers or servers that are using these servers for DNS will need to be updated to use alternate (eg Secure DNS) servers before this cut off date.

Tuesday 12th April 2016 12:00 (Midday) GMT - We plan to turn off these two DNS servers - thus any zones hosted on these servers will need to be moved before that time.  We have new servers in place to take the zones and migrations will be done as part and in conjunction with the best practice review process – the new DNS servers being more best practice compliant than our legacy servers.

Why are we making these changes?

In short, so that we also comply with our own guidelines for Best Practice, but in more detail:

1) Comply with best practice - Recursive DNS Servers (ones that do lookups for client PCs) should be split off in role from ones that host DNS Zones.

2) For best security and maintain best performance of the service - Recursive resolvers can be abused in DNS Amplfication attacks (see https://deepthought.isc.org/article/AA-00897/0/What-is-a-DNS-Amplification-Attack.html if you're interested to learn more

3) So that we make sure all clients are resolving securely to the Internet and to retire an older Windows Server 2003 DNS Server which is coming towards end of life.

What happens if I don’t have best practice DNS?

We don’t want to scare anyone but if you don’t comply with best practice then you risk (in the worst case):

  1. Losing your domain or having it suspended.
  2. Not being able to access the Internet
  3. Not being able to send or receive email
  4. Clients getting redirected to phishing or competitor’s websites and email going the same way.
  5. Being unprotected at DNS level against infected websites.

The above are worst case scenarios but we aim to greatly reduce the risk of occurrence by complying with best practice with regards to your domains.

Once we've been through the review process with you the outcome should be that we can all sleep easier knowing that the DNS aspect of your IT is in very good order.

35% of Microsoft Exchange Server Deployments now in the Office 365 Cloud

Everyone knows that 'The Cloud' is the trend of the moment (as we write in 2015), and quite a journey it has been.

A couple of years ago, Onega did not recommend that clients used Office 365 as at the time it did not do everything you needed to do, that you could (and did) regularly on a server based office system. However, since 2013, Microsoft have continued to improve their cloud offerings to the point that it is now on a par with on-premises IT, and in some cases is overtaking this to go beyond. For example now, if you want to use MS Office on your iPhone or iPad, the only way is in conjunction with an Office 365 subscription. Windows 10 and Office 2015 will only be more integrated with the cloud and the lure will most likely be compelling for everyone not yet on the cloud at that point.

One of the benefits of the cloud is that it facilitates rapid iteration. i.e. instead of the traditional software model where you release software, install it on client systems, maintain it and then upgrade with Service Packs, roughly annually, and then upgrade to a new release two or three years down the track; now upgrades happen behind the scenes on a central service, are instantly available to clients without local IT having to do anything and are largely transparently to users. Office 365 has now had more than 25 iterations and a few more will likely be through before the end of the year.

The other big change in the last couple of years is that fibre broadband is now (nearly) pervasive, and fast wireless services are available elsewhere which typically give up to 50Mbps speeds for £3X a month on a business grade connection.  For established companies, the SuperConnected Cities Project (see http://www.onega.net/blog/superconnectedbroadbandvouchers) allows for free install of 'real' fibre Internet for very high speeds and SLA's. Thus you can now both have your cloud cake and eat it.

So back to the headline of the article here. Building momentum and phenomenal growth in Cloud and adoption of MS Office 365 (mainly because the case is compelling all round) means that we are now at the point where a grand total of 35% of all MS Exchange's installed user base is now on Office 365 and Exchange Online (the email only version of Office 365).

That's quite a statistic and we'd not be surprised if this was over 50% within 12 months, if not more. In fact we'd be surprised if this was less by that time.

So here, the market speaks volumes and if you've not yet got a cloud strategy then please do sign up for a free trial via Onega and feel free to get in touch to run through your particular setup and how we can help you get the most out of the Cloud for your business. http://www.onega.net/contact