March 22, 2011

Where the Cloud Meets the Road

It occurs to me that a lot of gesticulation has been going on about the cloud over the past few quarters: is it good for business, is it secure, will it really reduce costs, etc. ad nauseam.   I myself have pondered these questions, much to the benefit of theoretical mind games, but what about the practical – the real on the ground client stuff?  Let’s be real for a minute – the scenarios that businesses are considering right now is that a hybrid public cloud/private cloud or public cloud/no cloud makes the most sense.  The reality is that for many companies’ cloud engagements, the cloud is still a messy, hodgepodge, dynamic environment that is growing not by leaps and bounds but spits and spurts as the technology continues to improve and the costs continue to come down.

Anyone except the solo entrepreneur will tell you that in order to effectively leverage the cloud, you’ve got to be able to make it work with your internal infrastructure, not replace it.  There are fountains of technology gizmos that can make this happen like Azure Connect, BCP for SQL database replication, ADFS, AppFabric etc.  The problem is that for all of the talk about how great these tools are and some of the practical use cases are, no one seems to be talking about the people and the processes.  To start filling this gap here are a few questions that you might be asking yourself and some possibly coherent thoughts which come after.

1.  What happens to my people if I outsource my collaboration tools to the cloud?

The value of the cloud is not just in moving capital expenses to operational expenses.  It is also in getting your limited IT resources back to doing the business of your business – the rubber meeting the road.  For instance, you don’t need to invest in the skill of setting up and maintaining email any longer.  What you do need to invest in is making sure that your email administrators are trained in managing the new infrastructure because for all the wiz-bang of the cloud, it still doesn’t run itself.  It does require less effort and fewer people – time and personnel that can be split when they were full, etc.  Are you going to have to let people go?  I sure hope that anyone that is an email admin has more knowledge than just the email system he or she manages – yourActive Directory periodically needs some attention and I bet they know a thing or two about that too (unless <shudders> they are Notes admins).

2. Where do I even start?

The ‘cloud’ isn’t exactly scary – it’s just a marketing name for stuff that’s always been there along with some fantastic new tools and pricing scenarios to make it easier and cheaper.  Don’t even think about starting big – we aren’t seeing million dollar deals in the cloud yet so don’t feel like you have to move the entire shop all at once.  START SMALL – pick an app – you have dozens if not hundreds of them.  Pick one-off doohickeyies that you hate maintaining.  Little ASP.NET web apps that collect data and spit it out into a spreadsheet.  Access databases aplenty.  Drop me into any IT shop and inside of ten minutes I can find you a dozen of these things that are the bane of some IT person’s existence.  Start there – they are smalland refactorable, it makes things simple.  Dip your toes into the water and taste the sweet nectar of cloud computing.  Yes, well, you get the idea.  Get your feet wet on something you know, realize a quick win and then consider building something from scratch out there – maybe your next LOB that you have on your lengthy list of LOB-ey things.

3. Is there anything out there that is self-service?  I don’t have the programming resources to meet all of our customization needs, but can’t I just get an environment that I can turn over to power users and have them build applications by pointing and clicking?

It’s possible that I made this a seriously leading question because I like the answer – Office 365, meet IT Pro folks…IT Pro folks, meet your trainer on all the fun that you can do with Office 365.  Away you go.

4. Governance around #3 please?

Governance is a tough nut to crack.  The reason is because no one really knows what it means and even fewer people are good at it.  We assume that it describes the procedures and control around information and processes – at least that’s what they taught me in school when I wasn’t snoring.  In my little brain, the more governance and control you put around something, ergo the more rigid you make a collaborative environment, the less useful and the less appealing it becomes.  If you give a guy a tool that will do 10,000 things and then place 20,000 rules and controls around it, what have you accomplished?  I’m not advocating that it be the wild west – although there is actually a business case for that which I’ll explain sometime – what I am saying is that rules of the road you are considering should be carefully weighed against making your new tool impractical.  If you make it harder to use the new tool than building a one-off Access database or Excel spreadsheet, most folks will just keep what they have and boy won’t you look dumb for spending all of that money.  So how do you balance use and governance?  Use the tools that are provided to help you – SharePoint 2010 (cloud or on prem) is chock full of automated governance and auditing features.  And when you do have to write something down – do what we do with customizations – be discrete.

5. I don’t like variable costs – any way around it?

Yes and no.  First, variable costs may be harder to plan and budget but variable costs are a GOOD thing.  Imagine all that money you spent on the last server rack which sits, what, 90% idle.  Sure, you knew exactly how much you spent and can capitalize it over the course of 4 or 5 years.  Neat.  Now, imagine how much money you could have spent on OTHER things if you had done that at actual (10%) cost – or less, in reality,because cloud services are cheaper than on prem per minute and you don’t pay for them when you aren’t using them.  Still bummed?  Microsoft lets you buy buckets of compute/storage now – so you can flatten out the fluctuations a bit and there are no penalties for going over – you just pay for what you use over what you budgeted.  Kind of nice when you think about it – if you go over your budgeted computing time, you just pay for some more minutes/hours/instances/whatever.  Try doing that to a maxed out server farm next time marketing comes up with a great idea and forgets to tell IT about the 3,000,000 hits/second you just scored.  By the way, Azure isn’t the only one that does bucketing to help level things out.  Amazon Web Services can also be bucketed quite nicely too if that is your flavor.

It isn’t all good news – I’ve been accused by my detractors of having an answer for everything – so I’ll play devil’s advocate for a bit – there are some downsides to going to the cloud, too. But that’s for next time.