What's Behind That Cloud?

I'm starting to learn that my cloud and your cloud are different things. We all tend to interpret the computing "cloud" in our own ways, because in reality it's an amorphous mélange of off-site applications, private clouds, social media, mobile devices and hosted services.

Whatever it is... it's not the same to everyone.

I wanted to get to the heart of the cloud (oooh, "Heart of the Cloud" is SO going on my "future band names" list). So I sought out two of the smartest people I know who can address cloud computing or off-premises applications or whatever you want to call it. First, Chris Musico, director of global communications for AvePoint, Inc., spent some time with me a while back. Then Tom Ahlemeyer, solutions marketing manager for cloud at ASG called me from sunny Portugal a few days later. We had two very nice conversations. Here's what I learned:

Chris Musico, AvePoint

I started by asking Chris what he thought of this statement: We all have heard the great reasons to adopt a cloud strategy for many, if not all, of our business processes—it makes companies more agile and more effective, reduces costs and optimizes the delivery and operation of IT to make them simpler, more flexible and faster. Yet, it has not been as widely adopted as one would expect. Why is that?

Chris answered: "When you don't manage information on your own premises, there's a feeling of ‘loss of control.' You relinquish control to someone else. If your system goes down, you can't walk down the hall and choke your IT administrator to get it back up and running again," he said. Even with a bulletproof service level agreement (SLA) with an outside provider, there still is nothing you can do if a fiber optic cable gets cut by a backhoe in New Jersey, I guessed. "The decision you have to make is whose throat do you want to choke? Do you want it to be your own people, or a cloud service provider?" asked Chris, hopefully rhetorically.

"What we're finding is that a lot of companies aren't going into the cloud all the way. They may take one workload, like a high-level collaboration or a Teamsite, or they're using the cloud for second-tier storage. Specifically with SharePoint, companies may want to keep their on-premises SharePoint, but are turning to Office 365 or Azure as a storage location. They want to get their toes in the cloud (stretching a metaphor, I thought) by using it for some things, but not everything," said Chris. "And the good news is there are ways to do that, and still be comprehensive in terms of records management policies and governance. The hybrid story is compelling, and really the hottest topic in cloud right now," he said.

I then asked Chris: People point to the complexity as being somehow daunting to typical IT departments, so they avoid the effort, or at least downscale it to the point of irrelevance. Is that fair? Or are IT departments simply being cautious?

"Yes. A lot of companies still have questions regarding data security. But also important is the need to recognize regulations around ‘data sovereignty.' For governmental organizations, especially, their data centers HAVE to be in the country of creation. For the US, you can luck out. But in Asia or Australia, that infrastructure is not in place. Data centers need to be put in place, so they can abide by their own rules," Chris explained. "The larger providers—Microsoft and others—are beginning to build out data centers in other countries, so they're helping in that regard," he added.

But, as Chris was quick to point out, the data sovereignty issue is just one fairly small factor holding companies back. There's a lot of FUD—fear, uncertainty and doubt, too. "All it takes is one outage that's highly publicized in the news, and people get freaked out about going to the cloud," Chris said. "Microsoft has only had a couple outages, but when it happens, the news spreads like wildfire." You can have all the service-level agreements and business-continuity language in your contract that you want, "but when we hear about an outage that prevents them from accessing the information they need to do their jobs, that scares people," Chris warned.

I posed this to him: It's been a few years since we've been talking about cloud, and SharePoint, yet we're still talking about "sticking a toe in the water." What else has been the holdback? If it is all it's cracked up to be—lower costs, rapid deployment, business agility, yadda yadda—how come we haven't raced to embrace it? "IT moves slowly, in general," explained Chris. "It's a cultural change for IT organizations. If you're used to on-premises software and maintaining hardware and all that, the cycle to refresh that culture is measured in years," he answered.

"The other aspect is: If it's not necessarily broke, why fix it? If you are reasonably comfortable that your technology is good enough, why would you throw it out for a technology that seems relatively unproven and scary?" asked Chris. Good point, I thought.

I told him maybe it's about the bucks. "Saving money—capital expenditures versus operational expenses-is only one consideration. For our customers, the decision is more about scalability and business agility. If there's a sudden uptick in sales, you can go to the cloud and have the business pick up automatically—you don't have to purchase more hardware unnecessarily. Same goes for when your business goes into a lull, and you don't need as many resources... you pay as you go," he answered.

"Being able to respond to changing business needs is the biggest driver. Business holds the pursestrings. But there are a lot of chefs in the kitchen. You talk to IT about how it will get implemented, you're also talking to business about what they need, and their bosses about cost saving and business justification."

Since Chris' company, AvePoint, is in chin deep with SharePoint, I wanted the degree to which he accepted (or even endorsed) the existence of a "shadow IT"—where end users bypass IT and go off the reservation to create their own applications in order to accomplish their goals?

"It happens, you're right," he said. "If you create bureaucracy roadblocks, people will bypass them, which defeats the purpose of the technology in the first place. So it's incumbent on organizations to train and explain how to use the technology to their greatest advantage. If you can do that, you can overcome the shadow IT issue altogether. It doesn't matter if you buy on-premises hardware or software, or Documentum, or SharePoint... none of it will matter if you don't properly train your users on how to use it and how it can help them. It won't matter if you go cloud or not."

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