While in-store come-ons don’t actually happen in the IT realm, an analog sort of does.  If you’re a small or midsize business poised to move to the cloud and you’re working with a clean slate, your choices are fairly clear from the get-go, even if the answers are neither obvious nor universally applicable.  You could dial up an MSP who’s moonlighting or track down an IT consultant linked to Microsoft Azure or Amazon Web Services.  You could go directly into the big provider maw or keep it artisanal.

Given the cloud’s popularity, identifying your path has become harder, not easier, with the passage of time.  It’s a tale told by a lot of consultants that’s full of static and noise and frequently not signifying anything definitive. Given the temptation is to do what’s convenient, not what’s smart, perhaps it’s understandable that the voice you listen to might be the one booming over the P.A. In other words, volume trumps nuance.

That’s an important realization because confusion and uncertainty tend to favor “safe” choices, and, increasingly, today’s default choice is likely to be a big gun, a commodity provider.  By way of analogy, consider Dell Computer.  When Dell broke through in the PC business in the late ’80s, the company popularized the term “mass customization,” which only seemed like an oxymoron.  With apologies to Burger King, Dell shoppers pretty much could have it their way.  And whatever the veracity of the pitch, it worked.  A market leader was born.

The premise behind Dell’s approach to mass customization, as in Ford’s, Nike’s, and so many other industrial producers over the last several decades, is that offering (and, from the consumer’s point of view, acquiring) a commodity is a good thing. Commodities-with-benefits would appear to work out for all concerned, delivering a tailored mix of predictability and affordability. 

Cloud computing isn’t exempt from this phenomenon; indeed, it’s enjoying something of a heyday. The big, publicly traded cloud providers now dominate the market.  But is the commodity model in fact working for the business rank-and-file? How well, and for whom, is that model actually functioning?

The assumption under which commodity cloud players operate is that all clouds are equal. They maintain that the value-add that anyone else offers is negligible — it’s clearly in their interest to make that claim — and a growing clutch of providers now subscribe to an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” mentality.

I believe that’s a potentially profound loss to business users, since product/service differentiation absolutely does exist — and it must continue to exist. Under this new scenario, providers win either way, but as in any quasi-monopoly environment, the elimination of choice slams users. A homogenized industry primarily serves itself, not the customers who nurtured the industry in the first place.

So, as a savvy business owner, you need to ask: Is your cloud provider trying to solve a business problem or sell the cloud?  And, is your cloud built for you — or is it built for everyone else?

Here’s how to determine the answer: Find a vendor who has thought through your business problems and solved them for you, before you even show up. That might sound glib, but I’m deadly serious.  In four crucial areas, there are ways to separate the opportunists from those who regard a relationship with your organization as valuable and potentially enduring.

Onboarding. Will you be paying a service or other third party to get things rolling, or is onboarding included as part of the provider’s suite of services?  Strapping in isn’t a trivial matter; it entails moving applications, transferring data, helping users log in, etc.  Are you left to your own devices, or does someone have your back?

Security. Have you had a conversation with the provider about what it will take to make your system secure? Did that conversation address firewalls, security policies and procedures, multifactor authentication, intrusion detection and prevention software, and the like?  

Backups. In the cloud, backing up is like breathing; everyone needs to do it.  Is backup baked in, or does your vendor suggest you shop around? 

Support. To what degree is technical support part of the package? Is support truly end to end on all applications — which is what virtually every business needs — or is the support blanket porous?

 The common denominator in each of these use cases is DIY; a provider who expects you, as the customer, to do the heavy lifting is a provider who doesn’t deserve your business.

Commodity providers typically look to the customer to reinvent the wheel — to configure,  source, and pay for any number of critical tasks — an untenable multiplication of effort nearly a decade into the cloud computing era. 

 Not having to start from scratch is avoidable but only if the customer has the wherewithal to understand on day one that not all clouds are created equal — and commodity clouds (especially) are less equal than others.