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Cloud service delivery model shifts from the big 3 to tier 2

AWS, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud aren't the only cloud service delivery options. There are plenty of alternatives to consider when moving compute or storage to the cloud.

Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud may lead the cloud market, but the drumbeat of the competition is growing louder from niche alternatives and upstart challengers.

Other public providers in the mix include the likes of Alibaba Cloud, Dell Technologies' Virtustream, IBM's Bluemix, Iron Mountain, Oracle and Rackspace. Meanwhile, startup Wasabi Technologies's low-priced cold storage options drew so much interest out of the starting gate, the company temporarily shut down its trial offer. Regional providers include Backblaze, CenturyLink, Joyent and NTT Communications. Managed providers and systems integrators such as Atmosera and Key Information Systems are also promoting the cloud service delivery model. Finally, traditional software vendors are building clouds to exclusively support their particular applications.

When it comes to cloud storage alternatives to the big three in the cloud service delivery model and compute market, there are too many options to mention here. Instead, this article will arm IT professionals with an understanding of how various services deliver viable alternatives to AWS, Azure and Google Cloud, the types of providers out there and what to look for from these cloud services.

How to beat the big three

Several years ago, many large analyst firms predicted the cloud market would be a three-way battle between Amazon, Microsoft and Google. While these three remain the market share and name recognition leaders, they are by no means alone. The second tier of cloud providers offers very competitive pricing while often delivering better service.

From a technology perspective, most of these second-tier cloud providers have storage architectures similar to their larger competitors. They use an object storage model that utilizes commodity hardware and software to deliver capacity storage. While the big three deploy teams of storage developers, second-tier providers typically use off-the-shelf software, which saves on paying teams of doctorates. The big three do buy their hardware at better prices than the tier 2 cloud providers, but the reality is hardware is such a competitive market that the purchase delta between a small and large buyer is relatively small.

The first step in selecting the right provider is for a business to assess its cloud skills.

From a business model perspective, most second-tier providers focus on a particular capability or product offering. For example, many have developed a reputation in the backup data storage market, while others specialize in archive storage. There are also second-tier cloud providers that specialize in specific industries like healthcare, government or financial markets. Focus and specialization enable them to provide a more white-glove cloud service delivery model, ultimately reducing the time it takes for a customer to move to the cloud.

Types of second-tier providers

There are typically three types of second-tier cloud providers. The first type, the purpose-built provider, is usually a software developer that has decided to offer a cloud service delivery model to its customers. Instead of using one of the mega-cloud providers, they build a cloud to suit their specific use. These companies typically believe by controlling all the variables, software and the cloud, they can give customers a better experience and -- more than likely -- better pricing. The most common examples of the purpose-built cloud are the data protection and disaster recovery as a service (DRaaS) examples. Companies like Acronis, Backblaze, Datto and Unitrends offer either cloud backup or DR. The advantage of that kind of cloud service delivery model is it makes cloud connectivity about as seamless as one can find.

The other type of second-tier cloud vendor is the full-service cloud provider. Like the purpose-built provider, these vendors tend to focus on a particular market segment, but support a range of software instead of just one. In many ways, they are today's version of a storage reseller, enabling customers to pick or stay with the software product of their choice while they deliver back-end infrastructure and support. These providers make it easier to "cloud-enable" existing applications, so customers do not have to start all over again with native cloud applications. While most also focus on backup, DR and archive use cases, there is a growing contingent of companies in this space -- such as Iland, Iron Mountain and KeepItSafe -- that provide desktop-as-a-service functionality.

The final type of second-tier cloud provider goes head-to-head against the big three, providing similar "raw" services like capacity and compute on demand. It may seem these providers take the most significant risk, directly competing with the mega-cloud providers; however, the reality is that many of them are very successful. The cloud service delivery model and compute framework software required to compete for customers is readily available off the shelf. Additionally, these providers may have other advantages, such as proximity to the client or limits in which countries they replicate data.

The first step in selecting the right provider is for a business to assess its cloud skills. The more time or ability it has to develop those skills, the more appealing mega-cloud providers become. The fewer skills an organization has and the more crunched it is for time, the more appealing second-tier providers are. Selecting a provider type is largely dependent on those cloud skills as well, in addition to the level of flexibility desired. If an organization prefers its current software set, then a full-service provider can help cloud-enable it. If it doesn't have a preference, then purpose-built providers can potentially offer the ultimate turnkey cloud experience.

Reasons to go with the big three

There are excellent reasons to select one of the primary cloud providers. First, all three -- AWS, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud -- are closing the skills gap to make their services more accessible for traditional enterprises to use the cloud in some way. Like the tier 2 providers, most of these efforts to turnkey their services center on data protection, file sharing and archiving. They still require more cloud skills on the part of customers than with one of the more turnkey-oriented clouds, but these requirements are lessening. Another reason is that many software providers, instead of building their cloud, are using one of the primary public cloud providers to deliver cloud services. In most cases, the software developer manages the cost of the cloud so the customer only has to deal with a single bill. Finally, there is almost no risk of these providers running out of compute or cloud service delivery model resources.

Reasons to go with a purpose-built cloud

The primary reason to select a purpose-built cloud provider is impacted as much by the "purpose" of an organization's cloud as the cloud provider itself. Purpose-built cloud providers deliver turnkey solutions like DRaaS, cloud backup and cloud archive. As part of this, they provide their own software and cloud. The inclusion of all necessary components should make for a more seamless experience, but an organization has to want to use the provider's software and feel confident in its cloud.

If a business is looking for a change in data protection or archiving software or wants to add new capabilities like DRaaS, then a purpose-built provider may make sense. If it wants to keep its current software, use a specific cloud provider or have the option to move to another provider in the future, then a purpose-built cloud may not make sense.

Reasons to go with a full-service cloud

Similar in many ways to purpose-built, the full-service provider offers a turnkey cloud, complete support and tends to specialize in a particular type of use. Full-service providers are different in that they also support a wide range of on-premises software. There is a much better chance of a full-service provider supporting a customer's current software set than with a purpose-built provider, and the full-service cloud enables companies to take advantage of the provider's cloud expertise instead of forcing them to learn everything on their own.

The full-service cloud makes sense for those looking to retain monetary and knowledge investments in their current software. It is ideal for organizations that like what they have and simply want to extend current applications to the cloud. The software that moves data to the cloud is the customer's.

One note of caution: Although moving from one full-service provider to a new one is possible, it is time-consuming and can be costly. Organizations considering a full-service cloud should make sure they are very comfortable with the data security and services available with the provider, as well as its long-term viability.

Be your own cloud

Another option to consider is organizations being their own cloud. The same economics and software that enables tier 2 providers to compete with the big three also enables enterprise IT departments to compete with tier 2 providers. Of course, this option requires businesses to build out their skill set as it relates to the cloud, but it has the potential payoff of them actually owning the investment instead of renting. If an organization's cloud strategy is multiyear, the cost to own is almost always cheaper than to rent.

Reasons to go with tier 2 IaaS

Tier 2 infrastructure-as-a-service clouds typically do not provide any additional services over the big three. Their primary advantage over the large cloud providers is price. There may also be some advantages in data center location, such as ensuring better data sovereignty and lower latency.

However, a tier 2 IaaS provider lacks the physical size of the big three. In addition, the size of AWS, Google Cloud and Azure makes it almost impossible for them to run out of resources, both compute and cloud service delivery model. As long as a tier 2 IaaS provider manages its growth well, it should be able to provide unlimited resources. But clients need to understand what provisions are in place to ensure resources won't become scarce in the future.

Be careful and be prepared

A major business concern surrounds second-tier providers. While the tier 2 market is full of vendors, not every tier 2 IaaS, purpose-built and full-service cloud provider is guaranteed to succeed. Customers need to be cognizant of the potential risks and have a secondary strategy at the ready in the off chance their cloud provider goes under.

The big three have indeed made the cloud a household name -- but there are plenty of other cloud providers, including an organization's internal IT department, to consider beyond AWS, Google Cloud and Azure. At the heart of any cloud strategy is what a business wants to accomplish by moving to the cloud, what skills and software it has to enable it to reach those goals, and what type of provider would be the best to partner with to help it meet those cloud goals.

This was last published in April 2019

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What is the long-term viability of most tier 2 purpose-built, full-service and IaaS cloud delivery models as they come up against the resources and clout of the big three?
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