Software developer Christopher Shockey saw the first signs of trouble in late 2008. A sales rep who had always represented Web application development provider Coghead was now calling on behalf of Coghead's much larger rival Salesforce.com.
Soon, other sales reps left, and Coghead slowed new releases to its development platform. In December, CTO Greg Olsen wrote on the Coghead blog that the company was looking for more funding.
Then, on Feb. 18, 2009, came the death knell, in an e-mail to customers announcing Coghead was ending its cloud-based development platform service immediately "due to the impact of economic challenges." ERP giant SAP bought Coghead's intellectual property but pulled the plug on the development platform, giving customers until April 30 to retrieve their applications and data.
It took about 4.5 person-months for Shockey, founder and principal of Hekademia Consulting, to port his CRM application from Coghead to Intuit's QuickBase database. While he's philosophical about the forced migration, it's a stark reminder of how quickly a cloud vendor can go under.
In August 2008, the shutdown of online storage vendor The Linkup (formerly known as MediaMax) spurred a nasty online fight over who was responsible for losing customer data: The Linkup or Nirvanix, another firm spun from the same parent company. In March 2009, Hewlett-Packard shuttered its Upline storage service. Such failures raise the question of whether you can trust cloud-based storage providers -- or any cloud-based provider.
Whether you trust the cloud to host your data, a critical application, or your entire app development effort, there are four steps you can take to make sure the death of your cloud vendor doesn't kill your business as well.
Step 1: Do a health check, and hedge your bets
The first, and most obvious, risk is the financial failure of a cloud provider. Before signing on with a cloud services provider, run the same health checks you would with any vendor, such as their revenue, profitability, cash on hand, and number of customers.
In addition, some analysts and industry reps suggest spreading the risk through the time-tested strategy of splitting your business across several competitors. This also makes it easier to push rivals for price cuts, although your total savings won't be as high because of the need to manage multiple vendors.
Step 2: Back up your cloud data
In cloud computing, providers hold your important data, servers, and even entire applications in locations you have no direct access to, often in virtualized or proprietary environments. The only way you can reach them is through the vendors' own download utilities or APIs.
So you need to be sure you have backed up your key assets -- locally or at another cloud provider. And make sure your data, virtual machines, apps, and so on are accessible at all times. For example, use establishing data retrieval methods, such as FTP, that don't require cooperation from the vendor.
In an implicit admission that their services could fail, many cloud providers make it easy to regularly back up your data the old-fashioned way: at your own site. Intuit's QuickBase Desktop service, for example, lets customers back up their data from QuickBase onto a local Microsoft Access database as often as they like.