When Is Lift-And-Shift the Right Cloud Migration Strategy?

Much of today's literature on cloud readiness and migration focuses on refactoring existing services and applications to be cloud native or to utilize serverless technologies. However, the simpler strategy of rehosting—or lift-and-shift—is still relevant and, in many scenarios, is still the right place to start.

April 1, 2020 8 minute read

Whether you are just beginning your cloud migration journey or have been planning and preparing for some time, you have likely heard a lot lately about cloud native architecture. Organizations have been both building new services and refactoring existing applications to leverage microservices, containers and orchestration and "serverless" cloud computing. These new approaches to solution architecture certainly have changed the way people think about the future of cloud.

But what ever happened to the good old-fashioned lift-and-shift approach? Does the more simple rehosting of legacy workloads to the cloud still have a place in today's industry?

It turns out that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to cloud migration. There are still plenty of situations where rehosting your applications and data from an on-premises data center to the public cloud—with effectively no code modification—is not only viable, but a preferable strategy for your business.

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Before you start

It's worth remembering that, regardless of what approach you take to get to the cloud, planning out a migration strategy is still in order. This process should include:

In addition, before moving anything to cloud, it is important to leverage an app rationalization and prioritization framework. Even with lift-and-shift, some apps are easier or more critical to move than others. You may be pursuing a hybrid cloud strategy, where moving everything to the cloud is not desirable, or even possible. 

Moreover, a cloud migration can be a good time to reassess whether certain components still meet your needs or should be decommissioned rather than moved. An application that is unused or broken in your data center will be no more useful or functional in the cloud.

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Lift-and-shift value proposition

As you finish the initial steps and move on to building a migration plan, there are many reasons to consider lift-and-shift as the right means for getting to the cloud.

Reduced implementation effort

There can be no question that migrating existing infrastructure, applications and data to the cloud is a substantial undertaking. And the larger your organization and legacy footprint, the bigger the job. In most situations, both the immediate and long-term benefits outweigh the risks, but one way to reduce the upfront migration challenges is to employ a rehosting strategy. The level of implementation effort, and associated initial cost, is far lower to move an app than it is to refactor or rewrite it—assuming your apps and services are already working today.

Financial and accounting benefits

If you are need of a fiscal win, the relative speed and ease of a lift-and-shift approach means you can very quickly show both a reduction in total cost of ownership and a shift from the capital expenditures (CapEx) of your existing data centers to operating expenses (OpEx) consuming cloud services. With that said, if you prefer CapEx, most cloud providers make it possible to procure long-term cloud resources that qualify for depreciation (e.g., Azure Reserved VM Instances, AWS EC2 Dedicated Host).

Increased portability

When developing solutions, many organizations express concerns that early architectural commitments may lead to reduced flexibility through vendor lock-in. This is as true in the cloud as anywhere else. However, by employing a lift-and-shift strategy, you retain a higher level of independence. It is much easier to move rehosted apps to a different provider than it would be with either full cloud native rebuilds or other vendor-specific SaaS offerings.

Security improvements

While an app lifted and shifted to a cloud virtual machine (VM) cannot provide access to the full spectrum of benefits that native cloud offers, many of the built-in security features of public cloud are available right away. Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is easily implemented across almost any cloud environment, and larger IT organizations will also appreciate having granular role-based access control (RBAC) to ensure your cloud-hosted resources are only visible to the right people. These features are often available even if you retain a hybrid cloud solution.

Availability and scalability

A lift-and-shift strategy will give your organization a high level of availability and scalability—two of the core principles of cloud computing—immediately, all while reducing your overhead and cost of administration and maintenance. If your existing applications and infrastructure already experience chronic or peak-usage strain, it is much easier (and cheaper) to scale up or scale out your cloud VMs than it is to expand the hardware in your data center to satisfy demand. And with proper configuration and resource distribution, you can fairly easily attain "five nines" or higher availability or, potentially, even a truly fault tolerant system.

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Use cases for rehosting

Given the benefits that a lift-and-shift cloud migration strategy can provide, what are a few scenarios when this approach might be right for your organization?

Time is of the essence

While nobody wants time pressure to be the driving factor for major business decisions, sometimes this is unavoidable. Perhaps the lease on your existing data center is expiring, or your hardware is reaching end of life. Maybe the current costs for maintenance have become prohibitive, or maybe there is pressure from your board of directors, CFO or investors to shift away from CapEx. No matter the reason, sometimes the initial migration of resources from on-premises to the cloud has to happen fast. When that is your scenario, lift-and-shift will provide your most expedient path to the cloud.

Disaster recovery

If you are like most companies, your data is the lifeblood of your organization. On-premises or colocated disaster recovery is often complicated to implement and expensive to maintain. It means double the hardware—ideally at a distinct physical location—and nearly double the human and administrative cost. A cloud-based strategy for disaster recovery is exponentially cheaper. Quickly lifting and shifting your data to a public cloud provider's robust data centers gives you easily automated, scalable backup, while maintaining broad flexibility to decide where your data is physically located.

Apps ineligible for refactoring

Sometimes the applications you have simply cannot be replatformed, refactored or rewritten. If you are currently running commercial off-the-shelf software (COTS) in your data center, you probably cannot do much, if anything, to alter the software's code. Assuming your third-party vendors do not offer a SaaS solution, then your only cloud option may be to lift-and-shift. The same can be true for your public-facing websites built on content management platforms like WordPress.

Leveraging existing capabilities

Your existing IT organization understands the tools, technologies and processes involved in your enterprise solutions and architecture. Making the shift to cloud native development, containerized microservices or serverless architecture comes with a learning curve. Rather than hastily forcing a native solution, sometimes it makes sense to take your time, leverage your people and look forward to incremental future gains through replatforming and refactoring to cloud native as your organization learns and evolves.

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Acknowledging the cons

Nothing is perfect, and a lift-and-shift strategy is no exception. Pursuing this approach to your cloud migration does come with certain drawbacks, and it is worth becoming familiar with the limitations.

Keeping existing technical debt

Earlier, we said that lift-and-shift mitigates risk because you can move apps and services unchanged to the cloud, assuming that they already are working for you today. On the other hand, if your existing applications are buggy, ineffective or insecure, a straight lift-and-shift strategy brings all of those problems and technical debt from your data center into the cloud.

Resource inefficiencies

Typical organizations, by necessity, provision hardware and infrastructure for application peak usage. Old habits die hard, and these historical practices can easily carry forward to VMs in the cloud. In practice, this can lead to oversized cloud instances, particularly earlier in the migration journey. With practice and experience, improved instance sizing will lessen these concerns and improve your efficiency.

Incomplete set of cloud capabilities

Unlike cloud native rebuilds or public SaaS offerings, a rehosted application in a VM does not enjoy the full breadth of a cloud platform's capabilities and features. This can mean reduced agility and innovation relative to newly developed or rebuilt cloud native implementations.

Higher operating costs

While lift-and-shift migration offers a fast and inexpensive path to the cloud up front, it also frequently results in higher levels of operating cost once the move is complete. Even with adequate instance sizing, the inability to separate components into distinct purpose-driven cloud services reduces the overall elasticity that true cloud native implementations enjoy.

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Taking a holistic approach

Ultimately, as with so many things, there is no single right answer for cloud migration, even within a single organization. The decisions you make for your organization's transition will depend upon your current state, existing capabilities and business objectives. However, with careful planning and a thoughtful approach, lift-and-shift absolutely maintains a place as one component in a successful migration strategy.

Our multicloud consultants have experience helping organizations lift and shift their applications and data, whether by the dozen or by the thousand, to the public cloud. Whether you are taking your very first strategic steps or you have a migration underway and now need assistance achieving your business goals, we can help you make the right decisions. And if it turns out that lift-and-shift is right for you, we will be available to partner with you to plan, execute and deliver at every step of the way.

To have a conversation with us, contact your WWT account manager directly or reach out to us here.

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