How to build a vertical market cloud practice

Building a vertical market cloud practice requires an understanding of industry needs, compliance regulations and technical skills for core services.

As interest in public cloud services matures, some service providers and integrators are proactively setting their sights on vertical markets -- particularly financial services and health care companies.

But developing an industry-specific cloud practice involves much more than identifying a prospective client list. It requires a deep understanding of the industry's core business needs, knowledge of specific security and compliance regulations, and investments in the technical skills that will be required to adapt or customize core cloud services for vertical markets.

"The vast majority of the companies we deal with do not want to deal with broad services; they want to know the services meet their specific concerns," said David Stewart, senior solutions architect for virtualization for Computer Design & Integration LLC (CDI), a managed services provider (MSP) and data center integrator in Teterboro, N.J.

The vast majority of the companies we deal with do not want to deal with broad services; they want to know it meets their specific concerns.

David Stewart,
senior solutions architect, Computer Design & Integration

Logicalis Inc., a systems integrator in Farmington Hills, Mich., is another cloud and managed services specialist that focuses on selling into several verticals. "Our sweet spot, our business value-add is in understanding the client's business and helping them figure out what is the best fit for them," said Karen Burton, Logicalis business development manager. Logicalis is a division of Datatec Ltd.

So what does it take for a service provider or solution provider to build a vertical cloud practice? Here are three things to consider.

Take time to understand the target industry

"Domain expertise is the lowest common denominator for addressing any vertical," said Jaywant Rao, vice president of global alliances for cloud service provider Savvis, a CenturyLink Co. in St. Louis. That means understanding enough about the critical applications for a given market to know what customers expect in terms of cloud service levels, security and other infrastructure requirements, he said.

"You need to understand how the industry operates, their applications, their challenges, the main players and also the big app players," Rao noted.

This doesn't happen overnight. Logicalis, for example, has been building its industry knowledge in health care for years. As a result, the company was able to structure its cloud service with the performance, access and security clients that health care applications require, Burton said.

This, in turn, enabled Logicalis to position its infrastructure as a viable option for independent software vendors (ISVS) like API Healthcare that are adapting their applications for delivery via the cloud. "You need to get very deep into the business," Burton said.

Industry knowledge is also important for addressing a potential customer's compliance concerns and gauging whether certain security considerations or access control processes can be addressed more cost-effectively in the cloud or on-premises.

In some cases, for example, a health care company might be able to meet its business requirements more quickly with a secure application delivered as a service, especially if it has limited IT resources on staff, Burton said.

"You need to understand how to lighten their load," she said. If the answer is to put your client into the cloud, be prepared to be audited thoroughly and regularly to back up your claims.

Invest in virtualization expertise for individual applications

Understanding the structure of applications is critical for knowing which applications can be migrated onto an Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) platform, and which can't, said Kris Bliesner, CEO of 2nd Watch Inc., a Seattle-based premier consulting partner for Amazon Web Services (AWS). Some vertical applications still aren't supported in virtual servers.

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"IaaS is the next generation of virtualization," Bliesner said. "AWS, as an example, takes virtualization to a step most enterprise IT shops never think of (or need to)."

Using IaaS virtualizes the network layer, while most IT departments stop after the server or storage layer. This is a great way to solve network security and isolation issues. But integrators and VARs need to understand how the landscape is different than a physical data center network to ensure their applications and systems will function properly, Bliesner added.

So being able to assess the compatibility of core applications with cloud infrastructure services is a critical business competency.

Choose platform services that can be adapted

Any cloud practice that wants to target a vertical market will also need a certain amount of control over the security and performance of the underlying cloud infrastructure.

"There are many moving parts in the cloud technology ecosystem, and there is no standards body to govern endpoints for services or other items," Bliesner said. Providers should be prepared to invest in particular platforms specifically. For example, Rackspace is different than AWS is different than OpSource is different than Terremark and so on.

"This will require integrators and VARs to narrow their vendor partner pool. I advise [choosing] based on which platform better supports their needs in the particular vertical(s) they service," Bliesner added.

Logicalis gets around this by using private cloud infrastructure implementations to accommodate its health care clients. Likewise, Computer Design & Integration LLC (CDI) has built a standard layer of services that can be extended through middleware, according to Stewart at CDI.

"IT doesn't necessarily define the requirements," he said. "The way we build the infrastructure and the way we build the cloud itself has to let us drop in different cloud use cases. We can't rebuild the cloud for every client, but we can provide an abstraction layer that is transparent to the end user."

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