Successful cloud implementations need careful planning, with flexibility and the timing of the switch important considerations.
The whole notion of cloud implementation has changed in the past five years. From being seen as a large and daunting manoeuvre to be undertaken only by the boldest of CIOs, the cloud has found its way to the heart of mainstream computing.
There has also been a change in the drivers for the move to cloud. Initially largely focused on trying to save money, the cloud was touted as a quick way to reduce costs. But that way of thinking has gone out of the window as companies begin to realise other advantages from cloud.
This is a move away from the old setup of hybrid cloud, where organisations would buy a range of kit from a supplier and set up a private cloud around some virtualised instances as a way of reducing costs.
The path to agile business
According to the Forrester report Simplify and innovate the way you consume cloud, global cloud adoption is being driven by the need for agility.
“Companies are adopting a richer range of hybrid cloud service categories to leverage the power of all three forms of cloud services for various mission-critical business applications,” says the report. “And as they prioritise agility to develop new and innovative ways to increase their top-line growth, cloud computing services are becoming a serious choice for enterprises.”
More articles on cloud optimisation
It is this need to provide agility that is driving many businesses to revamp their infrastructure. As Forrester points out, they’re doing it by calling on a host of different techniques, mixing and matching their cloud services.
One example is the Skipton Building Society, which is in the process of overhauling its IT infrastructure in an attempt to cut the time it takes to develop and launch new products.
The building society has combined its existing technology, based on Cisco and VMware, with cloud computing to respond more quickly to customer demands. The cloud service has introduced a degree of automation to cut the time-consuming manual processes that were slowing down the efficiency of the organisation.
According to Andy Barrow, chief technology officer at the ANS Group, who is working on the transformation at Skipton Building Society, the move to cloud supports this need to speed up development time.
“You can innovate much faster in a Web 2.0 world. Businesses almost have to act like they’re in a startup,“ he says. “There was a real desire at the building society to automate.”
It used to take months to introduce a new product, and in the competitive mortgage market that was limiting the building society’s ability to keep pace with the competition.
The approach Skipton took was tobuild on its existing infrastructure and leverage the use of cloud. And that meant going beyond the earlier ideas around cloud computing, when the trend was to buy kit from an IT supplier to set up a private cloud that would mirror the type of cloud platform offered by the likes of major cloud providers.
“If you’re trying to do AWS on-premise, you’re going to spend millions,” he says. “And if cloud is saving you money, you probably aren’t doing it right.”
Timing is crucial
There is much more subtlety about the whole process now – it’s a question of moving at the right time. When Buckinghamshire County Council wanted to update its IT systems, it wasn’t a question of moving straight to cloud, according to the council’s ICT director, James Mansfield-Sturgess.
“There was no urgent requirement to get things in the cloud. The approach we took was to look at what was needed when a contract was up for renewal or when hardware had reached the end of its natural life.
Crucially, this meant IT wasn’t considered in isolation. “Moving to cloud could well mean that your IT costs go up, but you need to look at the bigger picture – other costs could go down,” says Mansfield-Sturgess. For example, he says, moving to a cloud-based approach has reduced the number of computer rooms at the county council from five to two, saving on real-estate costs.
While this sounds like a piecemeal approach, it wasn’t. It followed a clear path, says Mansfield-Sturgess, with the cloud strategy coming first and decisions being made as part of the bigger picture. Technological change of this nature cannot be rolled out on an ad hoc basis.
“The cloud strategy came first,” he says. “We call it our Future Shape – how do we cope with the reduced budget from central government and also support a more agile way of working – for example, working from home, or working more flexibly.”
The organisation has been making much of its use of software-as-a-service (SaaS) systems as it moves away from its legacy software. It has installed applications such as Clarizen for project and time management, Condecco for room booking and Snow for cloud asset management.
“That is really paying dividends,” says Mansfield-Sturgess. “We can tell when users have got software on their PC that they’re not using and rationalise our applications.”
The council also uses a cloud-based package, Spydus, for its libraries and hosts the main council website in the cloud too. But the council didn’t choose to implement Microsoft Office 365 in its move to cloud, opting instead for a hosted offering from Vodafone.
If a new project comes along, the council takes a cloud-first approach, but it has to be in a cost-effective way – it’s not cloud for cloud’s sake. As an example, he cites the roll-out of a telephony system. “In 2013, we moved from a Mitel PBX to an on-premise, managed solution,” he says. “We moved 500 people to start with, and will eventually move all 4,500 users. The only exception is going to be the contact centre – that may not be Microsoft Lync, but it will certainly be cloud-based.”
For Mansfield-Sturgess, it’s not a question of being evangelistic about cloud, but being pragmatic, using the technology where it makes financial sense and adding a “sense of business dynamism”.
The Skipton implementation followed much of the same pattern, adhering to a centralised vision. “The whole process is to focus on the end game,” says ANS Group’s Barrow.
As an example, he cites the rise of the DevOps culture – that merging of departments – and what it means for organisations. Barrow is insistent that the culture has to come first: “DevOps is a vision. You can put in as much software as you want, but if you don’t have the culture, then it’s not going to work.” He says that Skipton, while looking to this in the long term, is not there yet and has started to adopt DevOps tooling.
For both Skipton Building Society and Buckinghamshire County Council, the important factor is planning – work out a central strategy and then how IT is going to fit within it. Cloud is clearly going to be a big part of the equation, but it must be used where it’s most effective and at the most effective time too.
It’s also important to ensure that everyone is in accordance with the strategy, from the business leaders of the organisation to the tech teams. For Mansfield-Sturgess, the roll-out at Buckinghamshire County Council meant close co-operation to ensure the smooth running of projects.
“We’re running a lot in parallel as the projects could involve different teams. We also have to make sure our network and security guys are part of the process,” he says. In the council’s case, the move to greater flexibility meant job losses in the IT department. “We’ve had to talk to them and explain how their roles are evolving. They’ve bought into the concept.”
The experience at both organisations, then, is that it’s not just about the technology. That’s important, of course, but to get the best out of cloud-optimised IT, there’s a need not to be hidebound by a certain way of doing things. Flexibility in the organisation should apply to the IT implementation too.