It's the Cloud, Not the Wild West

I'm not trying to exaggerate, but I've been around a while. I've seen technology trends come and go. I go back to the early days of telecom interconnect and the first development of LANs. Then I got into document capture stuff, and then content management. And my experience has been that tech trends burn hot and burn fast. So when this "cloud" thing emerged, I felt a familiar tug... "Sounds like a new thing. Might be good to jump in. And be ready to jump out, when necessary." My recent experience has taught me that there are no reliable annuities in my business. Everything changes in a heartbeat.

When we set out to explore "cloud solutions and strategies," I knew that there was an alarm clock ticking. It was only a matter of time and hype-cycles before we'd be moving on. Or so I thought.

So I called up one of the most knowledgeable people I know in the business, in order to get a temperature-setting on the condition of the market, and how people are reacting to this recent motion toward "cloud" versus "on-prem" and what that even means to business leaders.

As everyone knows, services like SharePoint have rapidly emerged onto the scene, and the best expectations indicate that the next version—Office 365—will further that movement. But even before any of that happened, organizations were adopting the ASP model, the SaaS model, the hosted model... as Dorothy said, "Things come and go so quickly here."

It was time to get a grip. So I called Mary Leigh. Mary Leigh Mackie is one of my favorite people. This will come as no surprise to her; I've already told as much. So I was delighted to hear, but also a little sad, that she has moved more or less permanently to the UK. She now lives in West London and works in the AvePoint office there. ("I like all the offices, but there's less of a language barrier here in the UK," she laughs. I guess: I've spoken to some UKers, and their English and my English don't always mesh up.)

The news of her move sort of prompted me to begin this month's "line of questioning."

"You're placeless, the company you work for has presences in many countries and time zones. To what degree do collaborative cloud-based tools help you do your job from anywhere, anytime?" I wondered.

"Good question. We have definitely decided to eat our own dog food," she begins. "Especially SharePoint. And it's been incredibly seamless, for us anyway. The biggest problem has been adjusting for time zones, honestly. But we have shared collaboration and workspaces where we do everything virtually; we all can look at the same document and be on the same page, as it were. Unless you're doing stuff like virtual machines... that can cause a little lag time in the cloud. But we're 24/7 and have been for a while."

But even Mary Leigh admits there are challenges. Internally, they "eat the dog food" quite happily. But sometimes dealing with a customer might cause hiccups. There are firewalls and governance issues, I'm sure, they have to deal with. And that's a prime example of the challenge before the typical global business. "It's a security issue... they don't want unknown people on their network. They might have a single Internet connection for an entire conference room." And with government clients, she says, forget about it. "They won't send any of their environment details to anyone, for security reasons. This is a case where you have to be on-site, and locked down. The cloud doesn't work in that case."

Moving To The Cloud?

I'd been hearing a lot about cloud versus a hybrid of cloud and on-prem, so I asked Mary Leigh about her feelings on the subject. "We think that for smaller organizations, the cloud absolutely makes sense. For small businesses, we think it just doesn't make sense to have on-premises infrastructure." This surprised me a little. I expected the opposite. But what do I know? But it starts to make sense. "It can be about overhead. Maybe they don't have the office space. Maybe they don't have storage servers. Whatever it may be."

So that implies, to me, that she's not so sanguine about a total "gone cloud" world. She tells me the future looks good for larger organizations. It's just a little early. "When Microsoft moves their entire functionality to Office 365, maybe larger organizations will go to the cloud entirely. But it's still a new product, and it's unproven. There have been some outages. Unscheduled maintenance in the middle of the day. Things like that. Larger organizations have very stringent guidelines around procurement. There are RFP processes that are very difficult to meet. Basically, larger companies have a lot more to lose. Thinking the world will change overnight—especially the highly regulated companies—is unrealistic. People are definitely considering it, but they'll need to test it a lot more before it's fully adopted."

So for now, it's toe-in-the-water time for much of the marketplace. "You'll start seeing some pilot projects. Maybe a few use-case adoptions, depending on their sensitivity. For example, we're beginning to see Exchange—email—adoptions, but the more complex platforms are being left off the cloud. For now. It remains an untrusted solution." But she implies that Office 365, when fully vetted, will allure the market into a cloud-only environment. Someday.

I have to say, some of this stuff is baffling to me. There's the plain-old cloud. OK, I get that. You store everything on a website, which is managed by some service provider out there, and your fixed costs are magically turned into operational costs and the accountants are happy, and the IT guys have a new toy to play with.

But one thing I don't get is "private cloud." Is it on the Web or isn't it?

Mary Leigh is very patient with me, which is good. I need that. "The cloud is a very general term. We typically break down "cloud" into several categories. The most plug-and-play offering for an end user is a software as a service (SaaS) offering. You log in with a Web browser, you have a password, and you then have access to a website, a portal, something. The content, the applications... it's all maintained by the cloud vendor.

Then there are the "infrastructure as a service" offerings. An example is Amazon's Web Services, where the company has full control to install and manage their own applications, but the cloud provider maintains the hardware, the servers, the networking. You're linked into a virtual machine space. In this scenario, you have a lot more control over your data and applications than with a SaaS offering.

You can now have a complete copy of SharePoint in the cloud, with all features and everything turned on, but you have total control over that environment. It's just in the cloud. You pay for what you use, in terms of which applications you run, how much RAM and storage space you need, etc., as opposed to a SaaS offering, where you might only use the cloud as a storage system. In that case, you might have an on-premise SharePoint environment, but you choose to store back-up files or archive data long term. Because it's cheap. It's an interesting alternative, for sure.

But It Gets More Interesting

Then there's such a thing as a private cloud. Essentially that is usually a privately owned outside data center, locked down and behind firewalls specifically for your organization.

So I start to get into muddy water here. That sounds to me like a user-owned, user-operated data center. What qualifies that to be considered "cloud?" I ask.

"Exactly. Cloud is a buzzword. But it implies you have data in a location or a couple of locations that is not in your own server room in your building. It's honestly just a different word for an off-site data center. The cloud is just a marketing version of that."

Mary Leigh's kind of brave admission confirmed it for me. There's "cloud" that means something to an organization's go-forward plan, and there's "cloud" that is merely part of a hype cycle. Which side of that chart your needle points to determines whether you mean it seriously or not.

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