Can you understand what you just paid your cloud provider for? Did your accounting staff have to invest significant amounts of time deciphering the costs and figuring out how to bill each department for their usage? There is often an unexpected human cost of cloud computing and billing is one area where you may end up frustrated if you don’t have a plan in place. At CenturyLink Cloud, we’re trying to ensure that our customers have an easy to understand bill that can be consumed in multiple ways.
There are five focus areas of our billing approach, and we believe that you should look for these from ANY cloud provider you work with.
1. Embrace the dynamic nature of the cloud
Paying for resources in the cloud is unlike anything that enterprise IT has experienced before. Unlike traditional servers where you pay an upfront cost, cloud servers are pay-as-you go and resizable on the fly. Need to double the CPU on a database server during an intense processing period? It’s easy, but it alters the cost of the server as originally provisioned. Cloud servers are inherently easy to create, easy to delete, and easy to scale. This can wreak havoc on financial projections and we try to make that easier to understand actual and projected costs.
On most pages of our Control Portal, users can see a billing widget that shows monthly charges to date, the previous and current hour costs, and projected monthly estimate. The projected number is based on three figures: the actual charges so far, the remaining hours of the month, and the current hour’s bill rate. Hourly charges capture every billable component that the customer has provisioned, minus bandwidth. This data helps our customers track their platform usage in real-time and prevents surprises at the end of the month.
To help visualize the monthly spend and projections, we also have a graph that shows “actual” and “projected” costs for the current month. Customers can view their costs for the last 12 months, 6 months or 3 months to gauge if their current spend is in line with recent history, or if they are trending up or down.
When you first get started with cloud computing, it can be challenging to get your head around the various costs that make up a real-life cloud investment. CenturyLink Cloud tries to make it easier on our customers by showing all the system costs in real-time. Looking out a bit longer, we plan to add embedded analytics to these reports and help the user optimize the spend further!
2. Aggregate information where it makes sense
The more information, the better, right? Only if the data is properly organized. Each CenturyLink Cloud electronic invoice includes line items for charges such as virtual servers, bandwidth, storage, and external IPs. However, server costs are aggregated by the Group that contains them. So if you have 10 servers organized into a Group for easier management and isolation (like “SharePoint Servers”), it’s simple to see the total charges as well as the cost of each server that comprises the Group.
We also make sure to roll up items like archived servers and deleted servers into buckets by data center. This provides a straightforward view into assets that are no longer in use but contributing to the overall monthly cost. Similarly, instead of cluttering an invoice with line items representing each individual public IP or hosted DNS instance, we show how many units of each were purchased and the total cost associated.
All of this is designed to provide rich, relevant data while supporting at-a-glance assessments of the total cloud spend.
3. Make chargebacks easy by supporting hierarchies
To truly deliver IT-as-a-service to your organization, you need a way to establish a chargeback model that doesn’t introduce a lot of overhead and bureaucracy to an already-overburdened IT department. Fortunately, CenturyLink Cloud was built from the ground up with enterprise use cases in mind, so we have a number of native capabilities that make chargeback simple. First, CenturyLink Cloud customers can created nested hierarchies of accounts with unique (or inherited) billing settings. At the end of each month, account owners receive an invoice with the incurred charges. This has proven to be a great way for consulting companies to isolate their customers, and enterprise organizations to split cloud control across complex org charts and departmental lines.
Secondly, besides sophisticated account management, CenturyLink Cloud also uniquely offers the ability to collect servers into Groups. A Server Group offers much more than simple organization; Groups have permission policies, scheduled tasks, capacity limits, power operations, and much more. CenturyLink Cloud customers regularly use Groups to segment business departments, IT projects, or different system environments. As discussed earlier, the CenturyLink Cloud customer invoice aggregates server costs by Group, which makes it simple to assess the cloud spend of each unit.
4. Offer multiple ways to access and process billing data
Rarely – in fact, never – is CenturyLink Cloud the only service provider used by a customer. Rather, the corporate IT landscape is made up of a complex ecosystem of partners, services, and applications. We want to make sure that the “parent account holder” can easily consume their monthly invoices in whatever way fits their existing business processes. To that end, CenturyLink Cloud offers multiple channels to consume invoices. Users of the Control Portal can print or download their per-account invoices. If you want invoices in an electronic document format, you can download it as a PDF file. Conversely if you want a computer-readable format that can be consumed by your financial applications, download all of the invoice data as a comma separated file (CSV).
Many organizations also want a way to programmatically access their billing data, and surprisingly, few cloud providers offer this. CenturyLink Cloud is one of them. Late last year we added a billing API so that customers could retrieve billing information and manipulate it before loading it into their own financial systems. Billing API users can retrieve billing history, invoice data, Group cost projections, server cost projections, and more.
This is a key feature for our other customer segments as well, including ISVs who use CenturyLink Cloud for cloud hosting and our reseller partners who need visibility into how their customers are consuming cloud services.
5. Be available for questions and respond to additional data requests
There will definitely be times when you have questions about your bill or are looking for even more granular information. Simply contact us and we’ll help you understand specific charges, or even provide you hourly charges for the month. CenturyLink Cloud prides itself on a consultative experience where customers get personal attention and guidance whenever needed. We think it’s important to be accessible and help our customers take full advantage of the cloud and clearly understand the cost – and value – of the CenturyLink Cloud cloud!
Billing isn’t the most interesting topic in the world unless you are a long-time subscriber to the Journal of Accountancy. However, it can be a key source of unexpected human or software costs if you need extensive effort to digest and allocate cloud charges. Regardless of whether you want to put your business-critical workloads on CenturyLink Cloud or another cloud, make sure that you demand cloud-friendly billing, logical aggregation, support for chargebacks, numerous access channels, and a responsive customer experience. If this is primarily provided with an add-on provider, make sure you factor that into your TCO analysis. It’s an area where surprises can crop up, which we explored in the “What is REALLY costs to run a cloud app” post on the blog recently.