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Grasping For The Cloud

The cloud is gathering. There have been several baby steps leading up to now. ASPs (application service providers) opened the door to off-site, provided service that allowed organizations to off-board certain IT functions to a data center somewhere off site. Typically, the organization owned the licenses for the applications; the data center simply stored and maintained them and provided a grade-of-service that was usually negotiated in advance (“We expect 95% uptime, and no fewer than two hours in the event of a downage”…that kind of thing).

Then the notion of “software as a service” (SaaS) emerged. It could be structured in many ways, but usually the applications were shared among many users, and could be easily expanded or contracted as needs demanded. It was the first true “drink it by the sip or the gulp” service that began to change the paradigm of licensed, on-site software to a more “cloud-like” off-premises environment.

Now we have “cloud computing.” It might be old wine in a new bottle, but here’s how Gartner interprets it: “Public cloud computing is a style of computing where scalable and elastic IT-enabled capabilities are provided as a service to external customers using Internet technologies. Public cloud is a shared service between many.” Like I said, the subtlety between cloud and SaaS is somewhat lost on me. But I am first and eager to confess that this is not a specialty of mine.

So I went to someone who knows. Lynn Elwood is vice president of cloud solutions for OpenText. She graciously agreed to talk with me at a very early hour from an airport, on a cell phone that occasionally crapped out. But she also schooled me in the mysterious ways of the cloud, and what it can truly mean to an organization. Here’s pretty much how it went:

ME: I want to start with my famous cocktail party question. Let’s say you’re at a cocktail party, and someone asks you what you do for a living. You say, “I’m in cloud computing.” They say, “Huh?” How do you describe the cloud to a layman?

LYNN: Basically, it’s a way of sourcing part of your computing service out to a third party, outside of the four walls of your own company and not in your own data center. Parts of your technology are maintained and managed outside of your organization.

ME: 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, reduces time-to-value 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?

LYNN: Cloud is still a relatively new strategy. It takes time to evaluate and understand which part of the business makes the most sense for the cloud. Most businesses, I would say, are starting to dip their toe into the water. They’re testing it; I think we’ll see more transition toward cloud deployment.

There are lots of organizations that are under strict security and data sovereignty guidelines. They’ll need to tread carefully, and ensure their cloud providers can provide their need for compliance and transparency.

ME: Along those lines, what do you think of a so-called “hybrid” solution, where highly sensitive information is kept safely behind the on-premises firewall, while less critical information can be stored in an off-storage facility? If you endorse that, what are the best reasons for doing so?

LYNN: It’s a hybrid world. Different information has different governance. Companies can decide to maintain their most valuable intellectual property behind the firewall on premises, while storing their less critical information with an outside provider. Implementing a hybrid solution means the company can have the best of both worlds.

ME: I know it’s highly, but not totally, an IT decision to put a cloud solution in place. But I wonder sometimes if IT is slightly uncomfortable about it. It sort of removes some of their overview and powerbase, and makes them relinquish a large part of their control.

LYNN: Putting a solution in the cloud is about change management and the IT team may not have faced cloud before. There’s definitely a learning curve for the IT group. I spoke with a customer recently who started its cloud experience by putting the IT development program in the cloud, which allowed them to become familiar with it, and gave them some experience when it came time to roll out the business strategies. Cloud allows the IT team to worry less about the infrastructure and to focus on the higher value business-solution side. Which can be really rewarding, and a great transition.

ME: While we’re on the subject, is it a purely IT decision in the first place?? Doesn’t the financial level and even the business operations level also have a stake in cloud adoption?

LYNN: There are a lot of stakeholders who have a role in the adoption of cloud solutions. Because of the lower friction buying cycle, business leaders are bringing forward the business case. Business and IT are working together to achieve what makes the most sense for both short- and long-term objectives. But IT has adopted a more strategic business perspective, and is definitely tied to the business strategy and revenue goals.

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