Can We Support the Cloud?

Everything seems to be moving into the cloud, which is to say solutions hosted by an external company and provided as a service. The cloud is all very well, but have we got the infrastructure to support it?

Most business have internet access for a variety of reasons these days, but going forward more companies are offering you Software as a Service (SaaS) and cloud computing. The benefits are obvious: you don’t need to invest in hardware or the expertise to run it, you just pay a monthly or yearly fee for however many users you have, it means any size company can afford the latest and best technology to help their business. The problem is it relies on your being able to access the services whenever you need them. And there’s the rub.

The most cost-effective internet connection is ADSL, even for bigger businesses you can get multiple lines bonded together to give you more speed. The problem is that ADSL isn’t really fit for business use. Sure, you can get business packages, you might even get service level agreements (SLAs), but at the end of the day they all fall back to BT (or Openreach, technically, who are the Railtrack of communications, they own and operate all the lines). And the problem is that while BT have guarantees in place to fix a voice line in hours, an ADSL service/line can be out for up to two days. Imagine that impact on your business when none of your staff can get to any of your hosted services, which could be everything from email to phones to documents and beyond.

The benefit of the cloud is that you can access from anywhere, so you could argue that in the event of an outage, your staff could work from home, but there’s no guarantee their home connections won’t be affected (a recent outage took out most of South Wales, hundreds of area codes were affected, so unless your staff happen to live out of the area then they probably won’t use it either). That outage was actually caused by a problem in Birmingham, so it’s not just local issues with the lines that can cause problems.

Then you have the issue of contention. Most broadband providers have contention rates of around 20:1, which means 20 customers share one line. Contention means fighting for bandwidth with everyone else. As you can imagine, the more people online (and during the day in a business-heavy area, that means everyone) the slower you go. I’ve seen download speeds on an 8Mb line drop to 0.5Mb. You can get business packages which go as low as 1:1 contention, which should eliminate this, but availability may be an issue.

There are obviously alternatives to ADSL:

  • SDSL – limited to 1MB or 2MB download (and upload, it’s synchronous), not offered at all exchanges and is based on your distance from the exchange. Again, it largely uses the broadband network, so if an outage occurs you’re still affected. Contention tends to be lower (10:1) and 1:1 packages are available. At least four to six times the price of ADSL.
  • Leased Line – the ultimate connection, your own dedicated line, but it’s very expensive compared to any of the other options and the faster you need, the more expensive it is. Installation with be a few thousand and it’ll cost £8-10k a year to run, probably on a three-year contract. Zero contention, it’s for your use only.
  • Fibre – if you’re very lucky you might be in a BT or Virgin fibre area, but most businesses aren’t. So while it would be a good alternative, with faster speeds and better contention, for most people it simply won’t be an option.
  • Satellite – supposedly has very good coverage and package prices aren’t too bad, but it usually only works one way, the upload is actually done by broadband in most cases, which kind of defeats the purpose. A two-way connection is very expensive.
  • 3G – once the physical lines are out of the way you’re left with ‘mobile broadband’ using 3G. Not the fastest, coverage and speeds will vary greatly, even if they say you’re in an area with good coverage, and prices can be expensive or offer limited bandwidth. Probably OK as a backup solution or for mobile users, but not what you want for a fixed site.

Regardless of your choice, you’ll find most offerings fall back onto the BT network at some point, with the exception of fibre (which generally rules itself out due to lack of availability) or 3G (which rules itself out based on speed, cost and reliability), which leaves you open to outages up the chain even if they local lines work OK.

So, while the world seems intent on moving to the cloud, unless you have the pockets for leased line you really are in the hands of the providers and, frankly, they’re not good enough to gamble your business on. Why BT can guarantee a couple of hours to fix a voice line but broadband, running over the same line, can take up to two days to fix, is beyond me. Surely the phone system is largely the same now, all controlled by computer equipment, not physical switches, so what’s the difference?

At the current time, in the UK at least, the options available are not fit for purpose and most businesses will encounter common outages of their internet connection unless prepared to pay vast sums to buy premium services. As we become ever more reliant on our internet connections this problem is only set to grow and while BT are rolling out fibre, it’s too slow and still doesn’t guarantee reliability if the service fails, rather than the line. It’s limiting services like VOIP and video calling, which offer massive cost savings to small and medium sized enterprises. We really do need to get a 21st Century network up and running to stay competitive in the future.