The cloud. I’m going to be up front with you: I have a fairly strong dislike for the term. Everywhere you go its seems “To the cloud!” is shouted at you. From television to airport billboards, advertisements are strategically placed to pique your interest on what the private cloud can do for you. Concepts such as “hosted data centers” and “IT outsourcing” have been around for ages, but now fall under the more generic term, the cloud. Since established terms for these services already existed, you may be asking yourself “what’s the point in using a more generic, ambiguous term to describe them?” The cloud, put simply, is a buzzword with some significant momentum right now. I think it’s important that we break it down and understand what it can potentially mean. The most important distinction, in my opinion, is what the term has come to mean in the consumer space versus how it fits in the enterprise.
In the consumer space, the cloud is a term used to describe services that focus on synchronizing settings, data, or both from desktops, laptops, phones, or tablets up to a centralized repository somewhere. These cloud services facilitate the sharing of this information across the myriad of devices a consumer may choose to attach to the cloud. Microsoft, Google, and Apple have all come to offer these kinds of services in their consumer ecosystem largely after third-party strongholds such as DropBox, Sugarsync, Carbonite, and others made significant headway in this area and showcased the need for it. Regardless of the technical solution, these consumer-oriented cloud services all place emphasis on how usable it is and how easy it is to maintain your personal information (such as email, contacts, music, photos, and documents).
Lose your phone? Hard drive crash? Unfortunate coffee spill on your laptop? No worries! You’ve got the cloud and all of your data is backed up. Yes, there are other types of consumer-facing cloud services, but the vast majority (for right now) are a glorified backup and data synchronization services.
In general, these consumer-facing services work well, are incredibly useful, and easy to use. I attribute this success of the cloud in the consumer space to all the generic requests that are happening in the enterprise IT space. “We should be looking at the cloud,” is the directive in many IT shops today, forgetting that in many cases they are already using some cloud services if they’re leveraging a hosted provider in any way, shape, or form.
The term the cloud in the enterprise space has come to encompass a much broader definition than what is typically envisioned in the consumer space. There are numerous flavors and names for the cloud, and it’s common to hear terms such as “Infrastructure as a Service,” “Software as a Service,” “Platform as a Service,” or “Data as a Service.” Quite frankly, “ANYTHING as a service” could be classified as the cloud. Regardless of the specific sub-category of cloud, in the enterprise IT space, the emphasis on the cloud has come to mean the transition of what I’ll call “commodity” IT services to a third-party provider that can do it more effectively than internal IT departments.
So when it comes to evaluating the cloud in the enterprise space, businesses are asking themselves (or should be asking themselves): “is there any strategic advantage for us to train and maintain a staff of people to do simple, repetitive tasks such as running backup jobs, building systems, or patching servers?” While some organizations find value in maintaining these skills in their IT organization, there are an increasing number of enterprise IT environments that are choosing to leverage the cloud for these commodity services, allowing their internal IT staff to focus on more critical business operations.
It’s very tempting to take the ease-of-use experience of the cloud from the consumer space and try to thrust it on enterprise IT, however the cloud can be complex, and it’s not a simple solution for IT organizations to wash their hands of responsibility and accountability. Instead, the cloud should be viewed as a platform that allows IT to focus more directly on serving the business. It should be thoroughly understood and evaluated before proceeding, and it’s certainly not a slam dunk for every organization. With that said, the cloud does potentially offer some efficiencies and in the right scenario, IT departments can leverage the cloud to minimize the amount of time they spend on low-impact, repetitive, non-strategic effort. With the right cloud services in place, IT can more-directly drive value to the business, which should be the ultimate goal.
For businesses that are asking their IT leadership “to the cloud?” The answer should be “quite possibly, and let’s talk about how IT can improve our service to the business with tools like the cloud as well as our existing capabilities.”