Cloud Adoption Part 2: A business case and reality check

This is the second part of ORION’s blog series, Cloud Adoption, about cloud technology and its adoption in Ontario’s research, education and innovation industries and enterprises. 

The cloud. Google has about 1.1 billion search results on the subject – no doubt a hot topic for technology leaders in the 21st century – so we asked chief information officer at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, Ben Davies, to share his views on implementing cloud technology. Should we use a hybrid model? Why is the cloud so important, and to whom? Think of this as a reality check with an in-house expert.

Is cloud architecture the new normal?

Technology leaders have been following the maturation of the cloud services industry closely but, until recently, these offerings have been very focused and limited.  In the last few years, however, cloud services have proliferated and matured quickly to the point that they have become a viable alternative to extend and potentially replace existing enterprise architectures. So the “buy vs build” discussion is quickly being replaced by “rent vs buy vs build”.

The promise of economies of scale and plug-and-play capabilities is compelling to business and technology leaders alike. Not only do cloud services eliminate significant upfront capital costs and installation headaches, but they reduce the risks of acquisition by allowing firms to effectively pilot new systems and transition these pilots to fully operational systems. By eliminating installation requirements and environmental dependencies, pilots can concentrate on data, process, and feature configuration, shifting the focus to solution effectiveness vs. environmental compatibility.

What has been your observation with the effectiveness of hybrid solutions, which combines private and public cloud services in one environment? Who would this be ideal for? Who would it be less ideal for?

I believe hybrid solutions will ultimately be the dominant architecture of IT in the near future. There is much discussion now about hybrid vs. private cloud and that’s an important decision for many organizations. Yet, even where private cloud is preferred, it is likely that specific services that are deemed non-critical, department specific, or less sensitive, may be provisioned by cloud services. As soon as this door is opened, organizations are confronted with most of the issues involved in supporting a hybrid cloud architecture. For example, there will be a need to manage identity and authentication, data integration, and possibly backup and archiving for external services.

The hallmarks of a hybrid solution are the need to knit together disparate systems and data sets into a coherent architecture. So moving to cloud services – whether private or hybrid – will likely incur a need to develop an architecture and approach for providing federated identity management, an integration framework or service to support cross-application data integration and process management, and similar approaches to address data backup, archival and migration needs to name a few.

What are the obstacles and challenges of going to the cloud?

There is still a wide disparity in the maturity of the services provided in the cloud and, surprisingly perhaps, the scale and age of the vendor is no indicator as to the quality of its offerings. One of the more compelling promises of the cloud is that organizations can move to a utility computing model where pricing is consistent, simple, scalable and incremental. However, many vendors still fail to delivery on the promise of true (up and down) scalability and utility pricing models are often still hostage to legacy pricing models that are a poor fit for their offerings.

So the lesson here is that it’s still the Wild West. You need to do your research to ensure that moving into the cloud will bring the benefits that you seek.

Having a clear-eyed view of the broader business benefits of such a move is a critical first step.  A strategy that identifies a cloud architecture as a fundamental part of its ecosystem will have a much stronger chance of success than incremental attempts to garner specific benefits through incremental cloud investments.

Executives have varying levels of familiarity with cloud computing. What are some ways that leadership can better equip themselves with understanding this technology; how can it have an impact on their organization?

All the top business magazines and web sites dedicate significant space to technology today so there is a solid baseline of good, current information readily available for a business audience with the time to consume it.  That said, this is a huge and highly dynamic industry filled with so much jargon that even IT leaders struggle to keep up.  So I believe that the best way that business leaders can stay on top of the information they need to make good technology decisions is to consult their staff.

The good news is that because technology is so ubiquitous today, expertise has grown beyond the walls of the IT department to include important specialists in most other departments. There are more technology experts in the organization now than ever and they are spread more evenly through the organization which means that business leaders have multiple sources of expertise that they can draw on to make critical decisions.

The new challenge for business leaders is to balance the functional expertise that business units can provide with the technology parameters that technology departments must set to ensure a cohesive and supportable environment. In that sense, it is incumbent on technology leaders to create and communicate an architecture and technical vision that assists business leaders to leverage internal expertise and new and changing technology acquisition and operational models like the cloud to create strategic advantage for their companies.