What's the hottest IT trend today? Many IT professionals will tell you it's cloud computing: utilizing a third party service to perform computing needs over the internet. 'The cloud' is a great place to do business -- if you know how to do it right. That means understanding the risks involved and implementing due diligence processes to protect your valuable data. 

Weighing the risks and rewards

While the definition of cloud computing varies from source to source, its meaning becomes clear when you consider one common IT goal: increasing capacity with minimal investment. Cloud computing relies on sharing large groups of servers and connections rather than using smaller local servers to handle applications. More and more companies are investing in this technology because it can dramatically reduce costs and improve efficiency, reliability, and throughput. 

For example, a large company going through acquisitions could benefit from moving their e-mail infrastructure and directory to the cloud. A move like this removes a major function from their IT shop's plate and shifts it to a third party. In doing so, they can reallocate staff and allow their core applications team to remain laser-focused on the applications that support their fundamental business requirements. 

But any time you invite an outside provider into your business, you're also inviting risk. Although most providers offer a degree of disaster recovery, imagine the worst happening: you've handed your vital information to a company that is here today, but gone tomorrow. You suddenly find yourself high and dry, with years of irreplaceable institutional memory gone forever. 

That is why it is critical to be clear about your security profiles and the type of business you're in. Where will your data be stored? How does the provider protect against corruption or loss of data? What systems are in place in case of an outage, or if the provider's business should fail? All are important questions to ask when considering a move to the cloud.

Heading for the clouds

The migration to cloud computing must be well thought out, with a structured work plan, a project management office and a team to make it happen. The first step is deciding if the time is right for you. There is no one 'right' time for a company to close its server rooms and adopt cloud computing -- it's a decision only your organization can make.

Above all else, consider your current business requirements. Do you need to control the space on your servers? Would you be better off giving some control to someone else? As you decide which, if any, activities to send to the cloud, make sure your business objectives are clearly defined and your activities align with them.

The next step is choosing the right provider. Carefully review references and levels of client satisfaction. You may even find a provider who specializes in your industry and understands your specific issues, such as regulatory compliance. Make sure they are capable of handling your infrastructure, set up clear service agreements and ensure that they keep their applications up to date. If not, you will quickly fall behind -- an undesirable position to be in, particularly if you decide to bring the function back in house.

Maintaining control

Just because you hand off some functions, you're not necessarily at the provider's mercy. There are steps your IT department should follow to maintain some level of physical control.

First, hold monthly or weekly status meetings to review any changes or upgrades to infrastructure or security platforms. The key to your success is constant communication. Let the provider know of any changes or additions to your staff. Keep in mind, you are sharing resources with multiple users, and without proper capacity planning, your provider may be unable to handle unexpected surges in usage.

Make sure the company provides a set of dashboards detailing key metrics, such as server utilization capacity, data storage, rate of increase, cost per week of computing power, number of outages, and comparisons to service level agreements. Constantly reviewing these variables can help you spot trends and potential problems.

No matter when or if you migrate to cloud computing, one thing is clear: it is changing the way companies do business. Every new technology brings risk, but with constant due diligence and communication, you can confidently put cloud computing to the test in your organization.

Mike Gorsage is a Partner and Technology Practice Leader for Tatum LLC. Tatum is the nation's largest executive services firm, providing financial and technology leadership nationwide.