Every time a significant shift in information technology appears, there is a period of extremes in response to it, where one minute everyone is really excited about the option and the next, an extreme pessimism sets in. Cloud computing appears to be going through the same thing. In a post from this morning’s CIO Journal, Salesforce.com’s declining profit forecast is used as a jumping off point to discuss some of the conversations at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, where the winner of this year’s CIO Leadership Award expressed some hesitancy around Cloud computing.
Now, I’m operating off of only a couple of quotes and paraphrases, so it is always hard to gauge the actual context of the remarks, but a superficial read of the blog posting might lead those pondering a move to the Cloud to doubt the wisdom of doing so. However, this is really just a brief foray into pessimism. In fact, a closer read of the piece merely underscores the sort of analysis that frankly everyone should go through before any technology decision is made. My only real disagreement stems from the fact that either Mr. Blanchette is being guilty of a bit of hyperbole, there is more to what he really said, or he is somewhat mistaken, when he is quoted as saying that value propositions from Cloud vendors must be drastically better than those of on-premise vendors.
Frequently, business success comes at the margin, so the only reason I could see for setting the bar as high as “drastically better” would be if he has his eye on other issues. For instance, in a large organization with a large technology investment, movement into the Cloud can mean a significant, and negative disruption to the organization. Movement to the Cloud often means workforce realignment at some level. In fact, I could envision a situation where movement to the Cloud could mean in increase in internal labor in order to manage the relationship. This only seems plausible where the Cloud offering represents a new system, but I can envision such a situation. At the same time the architectural complexity of the environment has significantly increased, and in most circumstances the level of control would decline, at least a little bit.
However, as I’ve posted before, the control issue is less real than people imagine. I think the same holds true for the SLA’s Mr. Blanchette refers to. Perhaps his company is different, but I have watched SLA’s (which is most companies mean Service Level Acceptance – that is the level the customer is forced to accept – as opposed to an actual agreement) gamed by a variety of techniques, such that outages and down time is harder to quantify. I have one Cloud vendor where I can get a pretty talented support person on line within seconds for my apps and servers. Even when I worked for a large company, that was absolutely never the case unless I was a personal friend of the individual I needed to talk to. Frequently, the problems that the IT and business people further down in the trenches experience with their infrastructure and app support teams, are shielded from the senior management and CIO until they become really severe. Even a value proposition that appears only marginally better on paper may reflect a significantly better reality. The question is, how would you know? The only real way, of course, is to ensure that you really understand your environment and the way it works for people. How to do that, of course, is the subject of a great number of management classes and programs, so I’ll leave that for another time.
One thing I did like from the summit was the understanding on the part of the CIO’s that people obtain Cloud services on their own, independent of IT, because most corporate IT organizations are not responsive enough. I just hope that this wasn’t a recent revelation. The inability of most IT organizations to be responsive is very old news. It is why, back in the early 90’s that Filemaker and 4D (and later Access and Excel) became the bane of IT’s existence. Since IT couldn’t provide any sort of rapid application delivery to address emerging needs, people found tools that allowed them to go it on their own. Of course, these tools were often used to create poorly engineered databases, but they worked, and business units grew to depend on them. At some point, the original designer left, or they needed the application to support more people, and they would hand over the dysfunctional system to IT to manage. The situation hasn’t changed. We live in a world where some large organizations didn’t finish moving to Windows XP until over year after it left mainstream support and a mere 4 years before End of Life. That is the reality of corporate IT. I have only seen glimmers of organizational transformation that leads me to think that this might change at some point. Until it does, the only thing that IT can really do is to take the lead into the Cloud, and be supportive of businesses seeking solutions there. I have one user who needs a moderately expensive tool, that is available in the Cloud. I could tell her to wait at least a year, until I have bandwidth to attempt to bring such a solution in house (assuming I can find the dollars necessary to support the infrastructure costs), or I can let her look at systems as a customer, with my presence only as a second opinion and to verify that these systems will fit into our overall strategy. The former means she is operating with a significant handicap for at least a year, the latter that we are able to achieve more in less time. Which do you think is the best approach?