Getting Lost In “The Cloud”

An Implementation Case Study

Our small charity (~15staff) went into “The Cloud” and we got lost in it. After a lot of puffing, we’re still there – but we now know where we are at. This is a story others can benefit from. Or at least enjoy a knowing chuckle.

The Need

We are a small charity, with 10 staff in a central office and 5 home based staff. We had two physical Windows servers in the central office but allowing terminal server (thin client) or VPN access to any staff who were home based , or who simply wanted to work from home from time to time and were given access.

The existing servers were ancient. The existing computers were a mix of desktop machines and laptops, quite a few still XP based, plus some Win 7 and a few Win 8 machines. The existing support was from a local company who were willing, but not proactive, and sometimes a bit slow.

With all the talk about The Cloud, and encouragement from our auditors, it was an easy decision to make. The old kit was well past its scrap date and more importantly, was performing badly. We needed to spend a lot – just to stand still! There was a real business risk of system failure (whuich actually happened during the conversion). So it was clear to go cloudwards and replace all our existing PCs at the same time.

A Bumpy Start

The Specification. A brand new CEO swept in and asked staff about all sorts of things. They complained about the IT, among other things. They acted swiftly, drew up a specification by themselves, quickly pushed it out to tender, agreed a figure with Cloud-Heaven ltd for a private cloud service. Very nice, but the then CEO (no longer with us) wrongly-spec’d the brief.  They under counted the number of full users we needed and over counted the number of email accounts.  The person who was going to actually implement the work (project lead) should have been involved with the brief.
Lesson 1: make sure the project lead is deeply involved with the tendering process.

The Cull. Our project lead then started the process of culling existing data and obsolete email accounts. When you are running your own servers, there is no imperative to clean up accounts of those have left, other than change the pass words of course. And with high staff turnover, there’ll be lots and lots of old accounts and old email addresses, especially as most places do not like generic email (e.g. Accounts@xyz.org.uk or MedSup@abc.edu ). In the cloud, we are now paying monthly for every account and for every megabyte. That sharpens the focus. Thankfully with income tight, colleagues were supportive for a massive slash’n’burn of old files and old accounts. But. But it does take time to do all this, and a quick leap into the digital Cumulonimbus was not looking so quick.
Lesson 2: factor-in clearing the crud. Of course, this can begin with the start of the tendering process.

The Contractor. Cloud-Heaven ltd got the contact, to send us documentation for payment and to plan out the implementation. The Contract and paper work has been lengthy and opaque.  The contract started with two pages of really small print, and the quantities were not included at all. It was assumed that the quantities were the same as the tender document and we had to cross refer all the time. When we got invoices, it was hard to tie up with the contract. Furthermore, Cloud-Heaven ltd was one subsidiary of many and we’d get invoices for different services from all sorts of companies, but all part of the same group when we looked closer. But with different bank accounts, so accounts had to take care of who was getting paid for what. Their account manager did admit this was not that user friendly.
Lesson 3: this is unavoidable. Anticipation of this problem might help.

So the preliminaries took far longer than expected, in part an own goal on our part, due to the weak tender brief and due to the legacy accounts, files and general mess we had to sort out. But there was more to come….

Getting Serious

The Unexpected. Of course, “Mr Murphy” has his part to play. We then had a hard disk failure on the local servers.  With one of three drives down we were advised by our old IT support that it would be OK.  But a subsequent local power cut on weekend before Go-Live really spooked the local servers and they never worked properly since.  Every morning we had to reboot the lot and they didn’t resume service till circa 11 or later.  Disastrous for work productivity. But with enough grovelling and apologies, colleagues will put up with a lot. Furthermore, Cloud-Heaven’s attempts to draw files off the local servers push them over again.
Lesson 4: nothing you can do about this. Staff were told this would be a griefsome business. Though we’d over-egged it, but no – it was really griefsome.

The New Hardware.  Nice pile of 15 new boxes, what joy. And a technician came round to do the setup for us. But it was a real disappointment.  The setup of each machine was done only in regards to User ID and Cloud access.  The project lead (qualified accountant) spent ages finishing off the setup personally on each laptop: charging completely flat batteries; getting local machine passwords changed; check backup & maintenance system flags; do Windows update (very time consuming, usually 35-39 updates); setup printer drivers (from local datastick), install anti-virus onto local machine.  But this has been an unexpected additional burden.  Anti-virus was installed on some machines in a wrong way, causing them to have difficulties.  Shouldn’t Could-Heaven have done it instead of the on-site accountant?
Lesson 5: getting new hardware at same time as cloud move gets all the trouble out in one hit, and the staff are aware and ready as they can be. But you will need to press the supplier far harder than I did, as to what “setup” includes and excludes.

Hardware Support? We were naive too. We did not realise that Cloud-Heaven’s support did not include the local kit. We had to blag help in the handover period and then reengage our old IT support company to continue help.
Lesson 6: ask that question! If the CEO drops his work laptop down the stairs, who will look at it? (In this particular case, a Chinese tin can & plastics manufacturer I think.)

Cloud Day. This was fair, rather than awful.  We were sent portable hard disks to copy files from the old servers and then post onto Cloud-Heaven’s server centre for initial transfers. On Cloud Day file transfers went OK. Getting across some people’s email back-catalogue was problematic because the volume was so much in a couple of cases. There were quite obscure problems with Raisers Edge, and Sage Accounts, but Cloud-Heaven technical people liaised with Blackbaud and Sage respectively and issues were resolved without too much delay. Some important meetings were missed because MS Calendar was not properly working for a couple of the senior management team. There were unexpected problems configuring the central printer trays to what MS Office thought they were.
Lesson 7: getting the posted hard disk loaded with files from the old server was essential. Getting as much across before Cloud Day meant that Cloud Day went OK.

Aftermath

The HelpLine. There was uncertainty in Cloud-Heaven as to when we left installation phase and entered live operations and therefore were meant to use the Helpline. On more than one occasion they said we were in a grey area between installation and live.  Really?  It is this particular period that we needed more help, not less. The Helpline since has been swift and helpful, though I have received no reports as to the number of calls made, cloud usage and other such reports
Lesson 8: watch out for falling into a gap between installation and operational phases in support.

The Old Kit. An essential task that can be done even while the tendering process is going on is revising the equipment list. The organisation’s Fixed Asset Register did not list all IT equipment as quite a number of the individual items were under the capitalisation threshold of £500. However it should all be on the Equipment List. But when there is high staff turnover, and some laissez-faire types go and get their own purchases paid for, then tracking down who has what and where it all is was a laborious business. Piles of laptops were spread over the office floor on more than one occasion. It was satisfying when at the end, the list and the physical piles tallied.
Lesson 9: This task can be done early on in the project plan.

Getting rid of the old kit was easy. Some staff wanted to purchase their old laptops, a good way for safe disposal and generating a small amount of good will. Some was loaned to ex-staff who continue as leading volunteers with us. Computer Aid International came and took the rest away, to a certified high level of reformatting, and a new future in a sunnier climate

Conclusion

It is not that the staff were unhelpful.  Each individual from Cloud-Heaven really have been conscientious and courteous.  The old IT support company too have helped, even though we are ceasing our business with them.  But the sum effect was a hard conversion for us.  Cloud-heaven’s business model, the way it works with customers is leading to a poor experience indeed. Quick with the invoices, obscure with the paperwork, slow with the broader explanations.

Read the lessons above and use them to prepare for your own cloud move, and your troubles will not disappear – but they will be a bit less.

(c) Bill Lovett

May 2015

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