Free Trials — the Key to Successful Cloud Computing

Finding the best cloud computing provider has never been easier, as almost all of them offer free trials and free starter credit. But don’t be tempted to rush in without some forethought.

The free trial has become one of the most popular ways for IT people to learn, research, test and evaluate. For some, it even provides enough base computing power to do real work for a certain period of time with no cost or financial risk at all.

But the ease with which cloud computing is available at low cost has its issues. It liberates and empowers users, and theoretically stimulates innovation, which most organizations want. But it brings with it proliferation, fragmentation, and some very strange expenses claims. Not to mention a frustrating challenge to the integrity and security of in-house systems and some rather worrying internal support tickets. (“Sorry? You want to allow an external service to talk to our LDAP server? Why, exactly?”)

The abundance of free tools and equipment at home also worsens the problem of Shadow IT and server creep — more people using their personal tools and techniques — and credit cards — to get things to happen at work, even to the degree of commissioning entire computer instances to get stuff done. After all, why put in a formal request for a new Customer Relationship Management system (and wait 6 months for it) if you can rent one today for $40 a month, set it up in 30 minutes and hide the cost among the stationery expenses?!

There is a vast range of suppliers for cloud computing services, but the resources from a global supplier make it worth considering over a local provider. They will have the geographic resources to cope with multi-country operations, of course. Those same resources will help them provide better security, reliability and continuity. It gives the organization flexibility in implementing its data hosting policies. But perhaps above all, the experiences that a cloud computing provider gains from being active in one territory means that it is well placed to launch new services and upgrades that have already been deployed and tested in others.

So, having decided to try out a cloud provider, what should you do first? In the case of Alibaba Cloud, for example, a free trial account is quick and easy to set up via the website. Once done, all new customers automatically receive USD $300 in free credits on their account.

The only prerequisite for receiving the free credit is that you need a verified and valid payment method in place before it gets applied. This can be a credit card, a PayPal account, or both.

The $300 credit is split across two areas: $50 is allocated to Elastic Compute Server (ECS) instances, Server Load Balancer and Elastic IPs. The other $250 is for database, data, media, network, and security services such as ApsaraDB, Object Storage Service, Table Store, Content Delivery Network, Data Transmission Service, E-MapReduce, Anti-DDoS Pro, Mobile Security, Web Application Firewall and ApsaraVideo Live.

All services are available on Subscription or Pay-As-You-Go.

The core product in any cloud trial, with any provider, is access to the base compute service. This will comprise a processor for an amount of time, with RAM, some storage and a pipeline to transfer data through. Vendors will offer a simple mix of these features at differing prices.

For example, as at the end of 2017, $50 would buy one processor with 1GB of RAM, 40GB of disk storage and 530GB of data for up to 60 days. Or perhaps two processors for half the time with a slightly reduced transfer capacity.

Still part of the core product will come with some extras. In the case of Alibaba Cloud, that includes basic Anti-DDoS protection, a must to help protect against cyber-attacks. You may also opt for a service called Server Load Balancer, which manages highs and lows in traffic by automatically distributing application requests across different availability zones. This service is provided for a specified time or volume of traffic and is ideal for maintaining high availability.

With any cloud service, it’s always important to remember that resources purchased with the free credit are not automatically stopped after the credit is expired. They will continue to incur charges to the account unless or until they are manually stopped and released.

Growing the skills, culture and competencies to manage a cloud computing operation within an organization is best performed step-by-step. Each step forward offers new learning, which will inform the next step. Do not bite off too much at one time — but use time to prepare.

As an IT manager, take time to use free trials effectively and sensibly. Some tips include:

· Know how to stop. Before commencing a trial, check the process for terminating an account or deleting the credit card payment method. If there’s a date on which the free trial converts to a paid subscription, put that date in your calendar.

· Work with finance, not at the CFO level but at the Accounts Payable and Procurement level. Have an honest and open meeting with the finance team to let them know what you’re trying to do and the financial options you are encountering. With a bunch of low-value high-volume transactions, credit cards and new expense payments about to hit, you’re going to appear like a flashing beacon on their dashboard, so get in there first as a friend — not later as a troublemaker.

· Embrace FinTech. Get prepaid credit cards complete with online dashboards which allow you to see itemized payments in one place.

· Treat each new trial account or trial server instance as a project in Trello, Asana or similar, which progresses through a limited number of phases to one quantified measurable outcome, with an owner and a countdown to trial expiry.

· Share Learnings. It is vital to find a time and place to compare outcomes, likes and dislikes with other trials or reviews. Even between teams that work in close proximity, there can be material difference in their experiences of performance, configuration, support, control and usability of the cloud services and their progress towards their trial goals.

· Someone on your team is going to need some financial skills in addition to technical ones. Build a shorthand language so that the most financially-oriented person on the team can talk about cloud usage briefly and simply in team meetings. For example, “10 instances, $750 per month spend, below budget, four renewals coming up”.

Ongoing spend, even on a free trial, should be monitored closely through the control panel. This will provide continuous feedback on the best way to balance resources with cost and provide the opportunity to tune the cloud service to the specific need and budget.

Don’t create servers that are more powerful than you need, otherwise you’ll burn through your free credit quickly. Keep track of the extras that you may spend on overruns for a free trial — unexpectedly large storage and big data transmission events can add unexpected costs, almost all of which can be avoided when cost monitoring and tuning become second nature.

Visit the cloud services console each morning. Tie the visits in with the team’s daily routine, ideally before the day kicks off. Your first port of call should be the spending summary dashboard. In the case of Alibaba Cloud, it’s under “Billing Management” and is updated daily, with itemized billing and historic trendlines.

Set threshold alerts so you get timely emails when monthly usage exceeds specified amounts. In the case of Alibaba Cloud the threshold can be as low as $1.

If your cloud provider offers the feature, use the “Refer A Friend” feature and check the dashboard regularly to see if any of your contacts have signed up. In the case of Alibaba Cloud, each referral earns you an additional $20 credit coupon.

Assign someone in your team with the task of downloading CSV usage records each week for each product (the server, load balancing, table store, content delivery, database and others) and spend a short time checking for anomalies. If usage is higher (or indeed lower) than expected, or vastly different from last week, find out why.

Assign a different person to approve payments from the person who fills a basket with services. It can be a hindrance at times, but it’s good practice. Most people are happy for the reduced burden of responsibility they carry, if the role of buyer and payer are split. Those team members will also realize that they are less likely to be blamed if anything goes wrong, as there is a much reduced likelihood that they could have been responsible.

Everyone in an organization wishing to progress with cloud computing should see it as a gentle flow and not a cataclysmic leap. There is no reason for any company not to engage with cloud computing immediately. With the barriers of cost, complexity, control and commitment fast melting, there are absolutely no barriers to taking the first step with cloud computing.

If a cloud project fails, take the opportunity to learn from the experience. Discuss and document the reasons why it failed, and use them as a stepping stone to consider trying again. Merely recognizing that you actually have the option to abandon a project is valuable. Doubly so when the IT cost of that project did not actually cost you or the company any money because it was all done with a free trial!