Head for the clouds

5 Oct 2010

The move to cloud computing is not necessarily a simple one. We take a look at exactly what’s involved

Cloud computing might be depicted as providing IT a utility like water or electricity, but making the change isn’t necessarily as easy as flicking a switch.

A panel discussion at last month’s Cloud Computing Summit shed light on the work involved in integrating cloud computing into an organisation. The first step to take is to for managers to educate themselves about their own business. The charity Trócaire is using cloud computing as a way to link donors and aid workers more closely and its consultant MIS manager Mary Healy said the exercise really focused the agency on its processes and where technology interfaces with these. “Clarify your business processes before, not after,” she said.

Trocaire is using Salesforce.com, the online customer relationship management tool.

“Ultimately everything we do is about relationships, whether in a village in Somalia or with our donors,” continued Healy. The charity’s wide spread of operations – it has a presence in 25 countries around the world and various locations in Ireland – made the cloud a good fit for its needs, she added.

A good way to start is taking a point solution and moving it to the cloud

Knowing how technology is used to help people to do their jobs makes it much easier to make decisions about what part of cloud computing might suit. Even then, moving to the cloud should not be an all-or-nothing strategy, according to Andrew Greenway, Accenture’s cloud computing lead for UK and Ireland. He suggested a good way to start is to take a ‘point solution’, or single application, and move it to the cloud.

Jonathan Siegel, founder of ELC Technologies said: “I would test the cloud with areas of your organisation that can embrace it, such as CRM or monitoring or billing. Don’t leap into the water with both feet.”

When the decision is made to go in, businesses should plan for the possibility that they may have to come out again, advised Frank McCracken, chief operations officer of Saaspoint, a cloud consulting company. “One of the things you should be asking your cloud provider is ‘can I get my data at any time, in a format I can use?’. Most cloud providers such as Salesforce.com do that.”

The cloud model is different from traditional IT where buying a system involves paying up front and this effectively locks a company into using it for some time in order to make the investment worthwhile. Many cloud services need little, if any, capital spending and many providers offer 30-day trial periods. McCracken urged businesses to avail of this option. “Try before you buy: that’s one of the main advantages of the cloud, so you don’t get buyer’s remorse,” he said.

Echoing the point, Tim Pullen, managing director of Cloud Consulting, pointed out that would-be customers of the cloud have choice and should exercise it. “That’s the whole point of a service relationship. If it doesn’t do what you need it to do, feel free to make that choice. You don’t have to stick with a big supplier just because they’re a big supplier. Have a look around, see what’s on the market.”

Pullen said that evaluating providers beforehand is the most critical aspect of moving to the cloud. “To me as an end user, the cloud is a service proposition or a commercial proposition. I’m not being asked to buy anything or invest capital in it. It’s a per-user-per-month service relationship and with that comes a necessity to carry out due diligence. That’s absolutely critical. Just because it’s sexy and everybody is talking about it, don’t forget about your standard good practices that should still be necessary. Always look into whoever’s going to be supplying you with this service.”  

Ultimately people use technology and this shouldn’t be forgotten when the time comes to get them onside and adopting any new system. “For us, leadership was key,” said Healy. “It really required senior management buy-in. For us, pushing or gently nudging colleagues is better than pulling or dragging them, even if it might take longer.”

Trócaire’s move to the cloud was concerned with two factors above all: educating people about what it meant; and fighting the perception that the data might not be safe.

“For us, the pros far outweighed the cons. We looked at lots of systems, some of which were cloud-based and some of which weren’t, and the fact we wouldn’t have to do any maintenance or upgrades was a huge plus,” Healy explained.

She said there is a need to explain that there are risks involved in keeping data in-house. “Somehow people have this assumption that because they’re minding it themselves, they’re minding it better than anyone else because there’s ownership, which is rubbish.”

Healy also warned that organisations should factor in downtime and the possibility that they may not have access to their applications in the cloud at all times. “As an end user I have to say it’s brilliant – it transformed my attitude to IT in general and the cloud in particular – but it’s not as simple as people are suggesting,” she cautioned.

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