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Cloud Computing: Its not just about access from anywhere

Article first published as Cloud Computing: It’s Not Just About Access From Anywhere on Technorati.

Too many extolling the virtues of cloud computing are ignoring its most transformational benefits

Cloud computing has definitely moved into the mainstream. You now see commercials from Microsoft, Cisco, IBM and others every evening on prime time Cable TV. CNBC has created a Cloud Computing Special Report for investors to learn more about it. Even government agencies are now moving to cloud-based solutions.

Unfortunately, one of the most touted reasons we see for using cloud computing – that it provides universal access to data and applications from the Internet – has nothing to do with what cloud computing actually is. This is simply what web-based applications have been doing since the 1990s. True cloud computing offers a whole lot more.

In October 2009, The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) published an excellent definition of cloud computing that calls out five essential characteristics that separate clouds from simple remotely hosted, web-based computing models:

  1. On-demand self-service
  2. Broad network access
  3. Resource pooling
  4. Rapid elasticity
  5. Measured service

I know, some of these terms are mouthful – especially to those who do “live and breathe” technology. However, they remove so much of the work and complexity that has so frequently made management of computing so painful and costly:

On-demand Self-Service (Think “Now”): With on on-demand self-service, you do not need to ask your provider to execute an “IT project” to enable you to use your application (or update it) to support a new business development. You can do whatever you need, when you need it – without the cost and delay of overhead managing your vendor.

Broad Network Access (Think “Convenience”): This lets you work wherever you need, whenever you need – from your work or home computer, netbook, tablet, or smartphone. Traditionally, this was done through browser, to bypass the need to install local software. However, the rise of (cloud-based) App Stores now allows us to install richer applications to access our data – wherever we are, on-demand.

These first two characteristics are what most people think of when talking about cloud computing. However, it is the next three characteristics that make true clouds stand out:

Resource Pooling (Think “Black Box”): Somewhere far away IT people are managing shared, redundant infrastructure across many data centers. They manage maintenance, business continuity, elimination of failures and bottlenecks, etc. You gain all of the benefit of these large-scale investments in time and resources – but without the need to do any work.

Rapid Elasticity (Think “No Limits”): You never have to worry about capacity planning. If you suddenly get a surge in traffic (due to an emergency or unexpected popularity) the computing resources you need are automatically – and immediately – available. You avoid slow-downs, timeouts and outages that waste time, cause frustration and turn away customers.

Measured Service (Think “Value”): Pay only for what you use – and no more. Rather than paying 100% for servers that you only use at 20% utilization, you pay for the exact number of resources you use, when you use them. The ideal cloud providers charge usage in terms that everyday people – not just IT systems administrators – understand and value.

cloudcomputing-180pxsWhen explaining these cloud computing characteristics to those whose “day jobs” are not in tech, I like to use the electricity analogy. When you buy a new television, you do not call the power company and ask them to initiate a project to set up your television. You simply plug it in and begin using it. If you don’t like where it is in your house, you unplug it, move it to a different room, and plug it in again. At the end of the month, you don’t pay for the power company’s generator and labor investments; you pay for the extra kilowatt-hours your television used.

Services that meet all five of these characteristics are so much more convenient and valuable than legacy computing models. That’s why cloud computing has the potential to be so transformational.

BYOT: Treat your employees like consumers

More and more companies are asking employees to “Bring Your Own Tools” (i.e., laptops and PCs) or “Telecom” (mobile and smartphones). Consumer tech is advancing so quickly, and is now so interconnected that this should be the norm—not the exception—if companies want happy, productive employees.

People are frustrated with their office tech

There are only two kinds of technology in the world. The first kind is the technology that you choose to use; the second is technology you are forced to use. At home, we have a tremendous amount of choice between desktops, laptops, tablets, mobile phones, etc. At work, we have little choice.

We have all heard the jokes (often daily) about how bad office tech is. It is usually less productive to use than the tech we buy with our own money. It is frequently out-of-date. It is often not suited to how we individually work: some people go from meeting to meeting, needing something that boots instantly, some want big screens, others extreme portability.

The is a by-product of centralized enterprise management

The frustration we see with our technology at work is not intended. It is the result of the inherent delays of centralized enterprise management.

At home, if you want a new smartphone you go to the store, try it out, and buy it if you like it. However, if you are an enterprise IT manager you need to wait for enterprise service providers to ramp up and support it… then wait until your prior purchase contracts are ending… then get bids and budget approval… then on-board the new provider, setting up support structures… all in-time to be a whole technology generation behind. This cannot compete with the consumer tech model. (Have you ever seen a centrally planned model beat a purely competitive one?)

For basic employee tech this is no longer needed

I know, at this point you enterprise IT managers are raising the need for standardization to guarantee compatibility, support Service Level Agreements (SLAs), etc. However, this is an argument for the technology world of the past.

In the old days (I am old enough to have done what I am about to bash), we had lots and lots of desktop software to install and support. In those days, you could not: provide rich interactive experiences with standard browsers; deliver software via SaaS; run applications anywhere in reliable, easy-to-install VMs; plug your smartphone into your enterprise exchange server at the Verizon or Apple store; etc. All of this required tailored systems engineering and strict configuration management. However, times have changed. These services are all consumer-ready, integrated “out of the box” and proven at very high consumer adoption rates.

Its time to let treat employees like consumers

happy_tech_140pxwWhile it is important to maintain enterprise standards and controls for the back office—be they on-premise servers or managed service agreements with external partners—it is time to treat the front office like a storefront.

Publish a list of operating systems, browsers, wireless cards, and mobile platforms that are compatible with your back office systems and let your employees consumers bring their own tech. Provide an annual stipend they can be reimbursed for. Let them pick from this what works best for their daily work. They will be happier and more productive. (You may even attract new creative, productive employees.)

This is not as hard or scary as some think

Yes, you will have to provide online document storage and mandate anti-virus and backup services. Yes, you will have an “uncontrolled” variety of tech people will be using (and asking for your help with). However, this is not a scary as you think.

Business-to-consumer (B2C) tech companies have been doing this successfully for years. As they cannot perfectly control their customer’s behavior, they do not try to do so. Instead they build enough flexibility into their tech, ensuring it will it work for 99.XX% of customers who follow their published “minimum system requirements” guidelines.

Not only does this model work; it works better. I have looked at end user cost of support numbers for small and large companies, for support of external and internal users. In all cases the command-and-control-styled internal computing numbers were worse. Giving employees choice doesn’t just make them happy; it will also make your CFO happy.

It is also flexible and “future-proof”

Once you let go of the centrally controlled enterprise management model (for basic employee tech), you get a whole set of new benefits. You are no longer held hostage by remove a lot of dependencies on specific vendors, platforms and service providers. You no longer have multi-year delays planning and negotiating adoption of technologies (that usually evolve in leaps and bounds every 12 months). Your employees will pick the leading products in the market, as they prove themselves appealing. Those who do not want change will protect themselves from it. Those who are early adopters will champion innovation in your organization.

BYOT lets the fast-moving innovation of the consumer tech market work for you, not against you.