Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Head in the clouds

A recent experience* has prompted me to write a few comments about the shift in the IT industry to the ‘new’ concept of cloud computing...

It is impossible to pick up a magazine or read an IT online article on without coming across a reference or advert relating to the future of cloud computing. But what exactly is this ‘cloud’ and how does it differ from previous internet-based hosting platforms?

At a basic level the answer is very little. Stripping away the buzz words, fancy marketing and media hype you effectively arrive back at the same place we were a couple of years ago before the whole cloud concept was conceived. In fact if you have used an internet-based email, calendar or other desktop-style application then you have already been taking advantage of the cloud. Microsoft’s HoTMaiL introduced cloud computing to the masses 15 years ago!

Cloud computing effectively provides the ability to use computer applications over the internet. Typically the application(s) in question will be located remotely on servers owned and managed by someone else. This goes hand-in-hand with another ‘new’ phenomenon in the IT industry, Software as a Service (SaaS). Again this is simply a change of business model to allow customers to replace high upfront software licence costs with more manageable charges based on their actual usage of computer resources. Computing power, storage and capacity become a commodity, purchased as and when required by the customer. Fundamentally the underlying computing technology behind the applications remains unchanged; please take note recruiters and HR personnel looking for 'cloud experienced' developers and project managers. Cloud services and SaaS are largely strategic business decisions not technological changes.

Now I realise that I am sounding a little cynical, so with a nod towards reality there are some fundamental differences with implementing a cloud strategy (especially for a large organisation). For a start there is the not insignificant impact on costs already sunk on bespoke, customised software applications currently running in-house on internally supported servers. Using a third party to simply host applications externally is an initial step, but this is unlikely to be much more different for a large organisation than simply handing over control of existing data centres to another company. The core idea behind cloud computing and SaaS is to encourage the use of standardised applications developed, supported and upgraded by third parties focused dedicated to this task, allowing your organisation to concentrate on its own core business.

I have considerable experience in the IT industry selling and delivering software solutions for business transformation projects based on the use of off-the-shelf products. In theory this lends itself well to the ideas behind cloud computing applications and SaaS. However, one of the biggest challenges consistently faced in all my deployments involved additional configuration of products to deliver the exact functionality required. The concept of change to existing business processes was not one easily accepted at any level in the organisations (top to bottom), despite any obvious business benefits. Attempting to sell these organisations a completely standard cloud-based solution is unlikely to be particularly successful without significant investment, even with C-level support.

With this in mind it is probably small businesses (especially start-ups) that stand to gain the most from the shift towards the cloud (at least in the short-term). Rather than invest in an expensive IT support group, associated hardware and suitable premises; it is now possible to outsource the effort and complexity behind many IT functions. There is also a significant time saving; the lead-time behind ordering, delivering and configuring new hardware and software generally runs into weeks or months. With the right partner this time could conceivably be reduced to minutes for the most basic functionality. Another key benefit is the option of increasing (or decreasing) capacity to meet demand; a considerable attraction to businesses that have a fluctuating order book.

As with any new concept there are significant challenges to address with a cloud-based strategy. Security will be a major concern to all, even with a reputable provider many business owners will be reluctant to allow someone else to be guardian of their most important information. There will also be a need to ensure suitable backup and recovery strategies are adopted. Access/availability needs to be appropriate for each organisation. 24x7 access may not always be required, but there would be big problems if an organisation was unable to use its cloud services due to issues such as maintenance windows that are out of its control.

Finally there is one more very important benefit not yet covered here. Mobility. Cloud services by design are intended to be used remotely, this enables additional access opportunities to a mobile workforce potentially using multiple devices. This may yet prove to be the biggest benefit to organisations, increasing flexibility, reducing costs and improving efficiency.

Now selling that standardised application to end users by promising them access from home on their new smartphone or tablet starts to become a whole lot more attractive...

*Unfortunately the 'cloud' has gained popular support over the last couple of years whilst I was distracted by my MBA. The remotely hosted business applications I used to deliver pre-dated the 'cloud' concept, so in theory I lack cloud experience. The fact the same applications now reside in the cloud without any technical change appears lost on most recruiters/HR teams.

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