beware the host with handcuffs

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IWR.CO.UK INFOTECH4i|i^. BEWARE THE HOST. WITH HANDCUFFS. Are you locked into your Web 2.0 services provider? Martin De Saulles explains how to.



BEWARE THE HOST WITH HANDCUFFS Are you locked into your Web 2.0 services provider? Martin De Saulles explains how to make sure you never regret letting a third party host your organisation's information


ne of the characteristics of Web 2.0 semces is their collaborative nature. Hosted on the web servers of a thirdparty provider, the wikis, blogs or files created by your organisation can be shared by colleagues dispersed across wide geographic areas. The constraints of desktop and enterprise applications are slowly disappearing as more organisations start w{)rking in tbe "cloud" of internet applications. Never has it been so easy for indi\'idua!s and small groups with little or no technifal expertise to use collaborative tools for d range of activities. But while the advantages of such services to users have been widely trumpeted, there is less consideration ofthe potential downside. It is certainly easy to upload files and post information to blogs, wikis, social media and content management systems, but what happens when the organisation wants to take its data out of these systems? It may need to move the data for a number of rea.sons, such as archiving, backing up data or transferring over to another service. Wiien an organisation's .systems are its own this is relatively straightfoi-ward, but when the seiTers are controlled by an external company and the data is in a non-standard proprietary format, there could be a problem. ONLY GAME IN TOWN Software giant Microsoft is one ofthe most profitable companies in the world largely because it has created a de facto set of standards for the operating system and office applications that nui on the majorit>' of personal computers. Most organisations use Microsoft products because nearly everyone else uses them, so documents and tiles can be shared and read without issues of incompatibility; This has worked well for Microsoft and can also be seen to WWW.IWR.CO.UK

be working for social media sites such as MySpace and Facehook, where the incentive is to join a network where you are most likely to find your friends and be assured of compatibility. Other Web 2.0 companies would like to emulate this success. A .speaker at last year's Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco declared: "The challenge we have in the Web 2.0 world is to invent new kinds of lockin." Whether this ambition becomes a realit\' depends to a large extent on us and the demands we place on the proWders of web sei-vices. Over the last 12 nu)nths, following instructions from its managing director, a consulting firm with 300 employees spread over six sites in five countries has sought to outsource as many IT services as is feasible by making use of appropriate web services. Its email is now managed by Google's hosted service. Office applications are run online using the Zoho oftice suite. The firm's internal knowledge-sharing wikis are hosted by PBWiki. All projects are co-ordinated using 37 Signals' Basecamp project management service. Contact details for clients and suppliers are held within Plaxo. Ajid the company's external-facing blog is run by WordPress. This example may sound a little extreme, but small and medium-sized

When the servers are controlled by an external company and the data is in a non-standard proprietary format, there could be a problem businesses, as well as departments in organisations, are turning to the web as the primary platform for managing their infonnation. Rod Boothby, product manager for web services company Teqio, says: "For many organisations, it makes far

more sense to have a trimmed-down IT department that is leveraging the best of soft\vare as a service that is out there on the web." It is difficult to find organisations that are willing to talk about their experiences of moving data in and



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out of web semces, but one that was prepared to talk, on condition of anonyiiiity. is a UK-based television production firm. Their problem came when they wished to stop subscribing to a web-hased contact management system which held contact data on their stakeholders as well as meeting notes and associated documents. They took the basic data out ofthe system and imported it into an Excel spreadsheet, but extracting the notes and attached documents proved much more difficult. According to the executive concerned, it required a considerable amount of work and time and while the vendor was helpful, "it didn't seem like they were geared towards losing customers because there weren't really any alternatives as to how to extract the data, other than the method we chose. "I think that eompanies need to have better options

company with your data. Fortunately, there are encouraging trends from some ofthe larger providers in terms of making data transfers more straightfoi'ward. XML is a standard format for moving data around and blog host WordPress allows users to export their posts and comments in

"It's a bit like emptying an organised desk over the side of a cliff"

XML. The provider of online organisation services used by over a million people and businesses, 37 Signals, also uses XML as well as standardised formats such as vCard and CSV for data export by users. Perhaps the most significant development was a recent announcement by Google CEO Eric Schmidt: "The more we can let people move their data around, the better off we'll be." How far Google lives up to this remains to he seen, but the growing availability of application programming interfaces (APIs) by Google for a number of its serviees shows it may be serious. Bootbby sees the freeing up of access to data tbrough more open APIs as essential to the survival of many providers of web serviees. "Companies that don't open their APIs will not be able to add the functionality that their users want." he says. If he's right, then competitive pressures may help to ensure free movement in data betvi'een applications. Jason Fried, founder and CEO of 37 Signals, says: "For many companies, having their own IT department v\ili be seen as a legacy idea - expensive and slow." If that is the case, those of us responsible for managing information and information systems within organisations will need to develop systems and processes for managing the transition. •

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a\ ailable when they wish either to sever their contracts or move certain parts of their information into different softw'are. Otherwise, it's a bit like emptying an organised desk over the side of a cliff." And vendors may not always be so helpful, particularly if tbey have gone bankrupt, so this is a good example of the need for upfront planning before committing to web services. BEFORE YOU GO AHEAD Before committing your organisation's data to a web service, you need to ask some basic questions. How long has the company heen trading and how secure are its finances? How easily can you take your data out and in what format? What third-party applications are available to enhance the service? How does the company back up customer data? Wliat pricing plans does it offer and how flexible are they? Does it have an online forum for users to ask questions and make comments on its services? It may not be possible to answer all these questions but tbe harder it is to find the answers, the more .sceptical you should be of entrusting the