Amazon CTO: ‘You should be able to walk away’ from cloud providers

At an Amazon Web Services summit event in New York City last week, CTO Werner Vogels said one of the core philosophies related to the company’s market-leading suite of infrastructure as a service products is that customers should be able to opt out whenever they want.

“You should keep your providers on their toes every day,” he said during the event, which was webcast live. “If we are not delivering the right quality of services, you should be able to walk away. You, the consumer of these services, should be in full control. That is core to our philosophy.”

Vogels spoke specifically within the context of the company’s pay-as-you-go pricing model in which consumers pay for as much, or as little, of the services they want. But, according to many, AWS and other cloud providers don’t necessarily make it easy to leave. Sure the systems can be turned on or off depending on need, but just how easy is it to move data out of AWS’s Simple Storage Service (S3)?

Related story: What should cloud providers know about their customers?

“In the cloud technical community, there’s this prevalent idea that data has gravity, and once you move your data into a cloud provider, it becomes burdensome to get it out,” says Dan Koffler, founder of Hybrid Cloud Gateway, a service that helps customers connect their on-premise IT environments to public cloud vendors, such as AWS. Koffler says it’s not necessarily hard to move data out of S3, it just may be more expensive than putting it in.

Concerns related to vendor lock-in are “a major obstacle to cloud adoption,” Koffler says. Lock-in is one of the biggest concerns customers have when setting up a cloud strategy, he says. AWS isn’t any better or worse than other public cloud providers Hybrid Cloud Gateway works with — Terremark, Rackspace and GoGrid Cloud Hosting each have similar barriers, he says. “It’s pretty much the same with all of them, it’s just part of the cloud business model, they want customer adoption and they want to keep their customers,” he says.

An AWS spokesperson wrote in an email that the company is “committed to offering customers choice and flexibility,” noting that customers “don’t want to be locked into a particular operating system or programming language and want to bring their existing skills to the cloud.” Rena Lunak, an AWS spokesperson, also said that it costs more to put data into the S3 system than to take it out because of the multiple layers of redundancy the company uses to back up the data. She says customers are free to add data to or remove data from S3 as they wish, and such requests are a small portion of a customer’s bill.

Other customers find ways to work around vendor lock-in. Jorge Escobar is the vice president of engineering for Order Groove, a SaaS-based e-commerce site that allows retailers to offer subscription services and recurring purchase plans. Escobar says he’s built the system with middleware in place that protects the company from vendor lock-in. Middleware allows Escobar to separate the back-end cloud services from the front-end application layer. Object relational mappers, or ORMs, are readily available, usually for free, he says, for most programming languages to be built into the code. “I don’t know how commonly they’re used, but it’s the type of thing where if you don’t have it, you can get bit in the butt, and then it just takes a lot of long nights and weekends combing through the code and taking out any remaining calls to your previous system,” he says.

There are professional services that do that work for you. Informatica, for example, is a company that provides data integration processing, allowing data to be moved from on-premise to cloud environments easily. The company has built “bridges,” which are basically applications that allow for connections between a variety of popular on-premise apps and popular cloud services.

Juan Carlos Soto, senior vice president and general manager of the company’s cloud division, says while customers may be concerned about vendor lock-in for IaaS providers, the bigger concern is with SaaS vendors. In an IaaS environment, the data can simply be taken out of the cloud, he says. With SaaS, a lot of time-sensitive employee data is integrated in with an application. “It’s important to make sure you have good tools to be able to retain access to your data, it’s your data after all,” Soto says. If a customer uses a customer relationship management (CRM) or human capital management (HCM) cloud-based offering, there can be a lot of data that is sent up into the cloud. Customers should make sure providers, SaaS or IaaS, have a data expunging process and ensure it’s outlined in a service level agreement (SLA).

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