Cloud Support Conundrum: Who Takes The Call?

When the cloud goes out, the phone is going to ring.

But with the number of solution providers offering integrated solutions from various cloud vendors exploding, the question of whose phone rings when the cloud goes down, or suffers a glitch, is pressing. And for VARs and vendors alike, who provides the first line of support for cloud computing environments becomes an urgent concern.

Cloud support has come under a microscope and has become a major differentiator for cloud vendors and solution providers. Earlier this year, cloud pioneer Amazon Web Services launched a host of new cloud support options after being faulted for not making adequate support available. With the new cloud support options, Amazon guaranteed faster response times and launched a Platinum cloud support package aimed at the enterprise which costs 10 percent of AWS usage with a $15,000 monthly minimum, which gets users access to a Technical Account Manager (TAM) and swifter response times. A new Bronze cloud support level is aimed at individual developers for $49 per month. At the time, AWS also slashed prices for its Silver and Gold cloud support plans and promised swifter response times.

At the same time, other cloud mainstays, like Rackspace Hosting, have highlighted their cloud support options as what separates them from the rest of the increasingly crowded cloud pack. For Rackspace, the mantra is "fanatical support."

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Cloud support is a high priority for end customers, as it is there to ensure that their cloud environments stay up and running, that they're not experiencing any downtime, and, in the event of downtime, they're not paying for it.

But the question remains: When the cloud goes dark; who gets the call?

"There's a huge misconception that if it's cloud it should work," said Raju Chekuri, president and CEO of NetEnrich, an IT-as-a-service play that offers a suite of services to VARs and other cloud providers.

But eventually, Chekuri said, a service call will be necessary and the question of "who do I call if something goes wrong?" bubbles to the surface.

In NetEnrich's case, the VAR is the first line of defense. Clients want one number to call, and since NetEnrich works with various cloud providers like Amazon, Rackspace, Savvis and others, it shouldn't be incumbent on the customer to sort out who to call for which component.

"We are biased toward making the VAR the center of operations," Chekuri said.

NEXT: VARs Vie Take The First Cloud Support Call

Making the VAR the key contact is even more important when it comes to the SMB and mid-market, Chekuri said. Cloud support poses a "huge challenge" for smaller companies and VARs and resellers have a massive role to play as the solution provider and trusted advisor and should answer the call.

The trick is to eliminate the questions of "Where do I go? Who do I call?" and for the most part, end customers don't care as long as applications are working, Chekuri said, adding that "VARs have a significant opportunity to take this over."

Jeremy Przygode, CEO of Los Angeles-based cloud solution provider Stratalux, said his company takes various cloud resources for customers and applies IT practices, monitoring and management. The professional services/managed services offerings create an interesting paradigm where several vendor offerings are feeding into a single cloud solution for the end customer. Przygode said that amalgamation of cloud plays makes it imperative that Stratalux customers have "one throat to choke."

Essentially, Przygode said, if there is a problem with Amazon, which can impact Stratalux's data center, which in turn can impact the customer. When a problem like that arises, the customer calls Stratalux and the issues are sorted out. Stratalux has support contracts with each of its cloud vendors to ensure problems get fixed quickly.

"We're the experts," he said. "And we give customers a flat fee…You just want one neck to choke. If we're able to resell all of these services, it's easier for customers to call one number. We're the brand that our customers interface with."

Owning the customer support contract is also beneficial as it opens the door for cloud providers to tack services onto cloud deployments.

"The most interesting thing I see in this is how support has the opportunity to be more and more value added," said Ryan Nichols, head of product management and marketing for San Mateo, Calif.-based cloud solution provider Appirio.

According to Nichols, customers want a partner they can call. And when Appirio builds a customer an app, that customer wants to know the app will work as advertised. What's unique about Appirio offering custom app development and building to customers is that it can support those apps and improve them at the same time, adding more value on the back end.

Next: Strong Cloud Support Creates Stickiness

For Appirio, that creates a new revenue stream by enabling the company to offer a cloud management play and create an increased level of stickiness.

"It's the ongoing capacity to make these improvements. Once we build that app it ensures it doesn't go stale," Nichols said, noting Appirio calls that its Cloud Improvement Program.

That's a turnaround, however, on how Appirio used to work in the support arena. In the past, Nichols said, Appirio would dial up the vendor, for example, if there was an issue.

"If only we'd built in the capacity to do these things it would relieve the friction," Nichols said Appirio thought at the time. "It changes what support means. It's more about continuous improvements."

Same goes for Google Apps, for which Appirio plays the partner role and supplies customized views, training and other value adds.

"It's sticky because we're there and we're adding value every day," he said.

For some providers, like Terremark, which was recently acquired by Verizon, the support question depends on solution provider partner preference. Either the solution provider can take the first call, or Miami-based Terremark can.

Jim Livingston, Terremark's senior vice president of channels and alliances, said a lot of VARs developed services around parts and replacement and built out programs around that model. But cloud computing flipped that paradigm on its ear.

Livingston said he sees fewer VARs wanting to be the first call as cloud computing margins are thinner compared to parts and replacement. And while Livingston said, "it's very advantageous owning the customer relationship," many solution providers aren't ready to build out their own network operations center (NOC) to prepare for the cloud boom and to be able to adequately fight the fires that can erupt in cloud environments.

Paul Hilbert, partner at Network Doctor, an Englewood Cliffs, N.J.-based solution provider, said cloud computing solutions open the door for VARs and solution providers to offer remote support and that Network Doctor offers cloud support to its client-base and is their main point of contact.

"If there's an outage, I need to be 100 percent in control... We can't just wait for someone else to fix the problem," he said.

For Network Doctor, being the first line of support is as much about control as it is about margin. But ultimately, it comes down to being able to serve the customer and keep the cloud running with little interruption.

"If Google has a problem or a hiccup, who do you call?" he asked. "You can't call Google."