Making sense of business continuity for SMBs

Business continuity for SMBs is more complex than it seems - there's a big diversity to contend with

Across my desk this week comes a press release from Doyenz, a US firm based on the west coast with a product range that causes them to have things to say about cloud-based storage.

Of course one has to treat these releases with considerable caution, because most of the time they are the intellectual and business decision-making equivalent of a pinball machine: a whole lot of flashing lights, bumpers and noise but ultimately signifying nothing..

The Mandy Rice-Davies riposte applies – of course, companies will issue communications that with varying degrees of subtlety drive you towards their products.

They are hardly likely to do the opposite. In the case of Doyenz, it’s chief revenue officer Eric Webster, who summarises what he thinks and feels about the way smaller businesses go about making use of 1) cloud storage and 2) business continuity.

So, here’s the flipside to the recognition of the partisan nature of the press releases: just because a company’s biased, it doesn’t mean it’s not right. I have to say when it comes to analysing market conditions, I am totally in agreement with Mr Webster.

His view of cloud storage is that SMB users think of it as “a hard disk in the sky”, which is truly an apt summary. It’s a clunky slogan but that’s to be expected: the people who make this judgment are not going to cope with more complex thinking and they’re certainly not going to understand what powers a multi-platform.

But it’s not just about assessing how end-users perceive cloud storage. When it comes to the reality of the market, again Webster gets the pinball right up on the raised ramp and over the bonus targets with lots of bells and high-scores. Quite rightly, and very diplomatically, he skirts around saying that the sheer number of me-too players in cloud

Storage can only be a sign of forthcoming heartache. A lot of those players just can’t stay in business, or even operational – they will crash out or get bought and either fate is almost the same for their customers, especially the ones who don’t want to get their hands dirty in the hard technical stuff, but  who just want it all to work .

And to rack up a third hit: Webster comments on the sense of dismay which often follows from the first pass at a business continuity exercise. This centres on the ancient and unwritten law, which is nobody involved in recovery of computers will leave your machine precisely as it was just before it all went pear-shaped.

It’s hard to claim this as a new cloud-centric phenomenon, when people as wizened and cynical as me can point you to servers triumphantly recovered by hardware engineers, that pass their electronic and storage integrity tests with flying colours and yet are devoid of any data whatsoever. The engineers always think of the machinery as empty, and the data as the users concern. The users, of course, don’t quite listen to the engineers’ mission statement, and think they are going to get their stuff back, rather than just getting the server they started out with, several years ago.

That this type of misunderstanding should migrate, unchanged, to the cloud shouldn’t be a surprise: That people who have been hurt this way should be surprised when they are hurt again, well, that appears to be a deep truth about human nature.

Where I start to diverge from the Doyenz conclusions is in the way that they present the nature of the cloud for SMBs market and how it applies to their product. Yes, it’s overcrowded with products whose justification, verifiability and forward looking lifespan are all in doubt. Yes, it is certainly true that SMBs generally want a full-service restore, including the current state of their data and indeed work-in- progress (that being the most important kind).

However, there’s a whole stratum of players who Doyenz is ignoring, when it talks about databases or work-in-progress. Almost every business I visit does not work from the bottom up, populating raw hardware with basic office automation data and then possibly running some systematic insight software over the top of that stack. The real process inside SMBs is that they see a packaged delivery which appears to bestride their entire industry, and makes great promises of fitting in perfectly to the way they do business – even if this means practising a little deviation.

This can evolve to be a remarkable and extreme process, mainly because the authors of these industry-specific products are much more interested in their industry than they are in the passing fads and fashions of IT.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the general run of these products is anything from three to seven years behind the leading edge in software development, and is in the thrall of a resource crunch – the developers can’t add manpower fast enough to keep up with trends. This is a sector where a lot of industry specific products are found without GUI front ends at all, never mind web browsers. For these guys the prospect of Web 2.0 and CSS and the like are but a distant dream.

Here is the massive conundrum: maintaining a very old, slow-moving but valuable product, the database makers for various industries have come across virtualisation and cloud technologies as a way to strike a massive blow against their main adversaries – the internal IT guys in the SMBs that make use of their flakey (but important) software products.

The very last thing these database vendors want, is for thousands of disparate client companies to all embark on disparate virtualisation and cloud-migration activities with their software products on centre stage.

The upshot is: most of those sector-specific database guys are looking at a hybrid cloud setup, clunked together in much the same way as they have clunked together everything else they have done. The difference being, while their previous implementation was fully disclosed - had to be really, because it was right inside the client LAN - their cloud setup can be a black box, to their clients.

This is where the assurance of retention of work-in-progress, if you follow the Doyenz model, starts to look a bit troubling.  Once your work is done inside a distant machine, whose parts you didn’t assemble and can’t readily identify as uniquely yours, then the process of running disaster-recovery tests or even restores of yesterday’s job list can vary enormously - from child’s play right through to a worthy topic for a PhD in IT forensics.

I guess the get-out clause here for Doyenz, and a fat slice of the SMB cloud services market, is that the count of really tiny businesses in either the US or Europe far exceeds the count of larger ones, and it’s in the smaller mom-and-pop operations where simple office automation and SAAS combine to make a complete state-based backup a realistic prospect.

I take some reassurance from this, because there’s clearly a vast range of product slots and marketplaces for this type of offering, and a good deal of confusion as to how to correctly identify one’s position in the immense landscape of different scales, services, providers and even countries and political blocs, in which these products are offered.

Which is, of course, where we at Virtual Clouds come in.

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