Seeking a practical path to cloud adoption
Fri 15 Apr 2016
“Companies with experts ready to solve the problems.
Cause only an expert can see there’s a problem
And only an expert can deal with the problem…”
When it comes to cloud strategy and direction, there’s no shortage of expert advice available.
In fact, experts of every kind are at your beck and call to tell you a very complicated story about cloud. You can quickly get confused … and they know that. They merely want you to rely on them. And maybe you will. After all, the more complex and mystifying we can make their work sound, the more paralyzed you are likely to feel. As Laurie Anderson’s satirical song suggests, “only an expert” can deal with your problems.
But is this really the case? Are you really as dependent on the so-called cloud experts as many of those experts would lead you to believe?
I’d like to suggest that you are as empowered as you need or want to be, particularly as you enter the early stages of cloud adoption. And, truth be told, right now everyone is at an early stage of cloud adoption. Some IT leaders are further along than others, yes. But the cloud-based transformation has actually just begun.
What’s clear is that now, as an industry, we are committed to cloud. That you and your peers are at least attempting to formulate strategies. That you are making investments. That you are taking active steps.
1) Raising your risk tolerance
While issues such as governance, management, and security remain top of mind, you may feel less conservative today than you were just a year ago as it concerns cloud. Why? Because your customers (both internal and external), partners, and other stakeholders are demanding more and faster access to IT services and capabilities. In many cases, as you are surely well aware, they have even been acting unilaterally to obtain these things.
Despite the risks and uncertainties of the present moment, this is a vital matter for IT leaders. Cloud is an opportunity that, at least in some areas, can’t be delayed. Your questions now start with the word “How.”
- How can you quickly make these critical moves – without either waiting for or hindering future strategy and security moves?
- How will you step from your current state position towards an envisioned future state without having to map that future state in any sense of completeness?
- How will you position your IT organization for an onrushing future in which the seeming boundaries between on-site and off-site IT capabilities have been obliterated?
To answer these questions with confidence, you’ll have to ensure your foundations are solid. You want to put first things first before you wade deeper into the myriad of cloud-related concerns to follow.
2) Complicating cloud
So let’s start with the definition of cloud. It turns out that your definition of cloud can influence whether you are focused or unfocused when it comes to your cloud adoption practices.
Here’s the National Institute of Standards and Technology definition of cloud — or, as NIST calls it, “cloud computing”:
Cloud computing is a model for enabling ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications, and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction. This cloud model is composed of five essential characteristics, three service models, and four deployment models.
The issue here is that this very technical definition is impractical. If you want to try to figure out whether cloud is the right model for a particular purpose, you need a definition of cloud that you can apply to that purpose to show the costs and benefits in measurable ways.
Just consider some of the elaborations applied in the NIST document. The more elaborate the definition becomes, in fact, the more difficult it becomes to apply:
- Broad network access: Not part of cloud. Network access is important, sure, but “broad”? What if it’s just for use within your lab?
- Resource pooling: Not part of cloud, just a cloud-enabler. As I like to say, you could build a cloud service on top of a non-virtualized environment. It would just be foolish to try. That doesn’t make virtualization part of the definition of cloud.
- Rapid elasticity: If you have any appreciable elasticity in the cloud system, it should be rapid — yes. But elasticity itself isn’t inherent to cloud, even if today most cloud environments are elastic. I don’t think it will stay that way, because that implies that cost is unimportant.
- [Defined by] service and deployment models: This is where NIST gets to incorporate the buzzwords, SaaS, PaaS, public, private, etc. The problem with these is that they’re really just guideposts. Any given cloud solution can, and eventually almost always will, combine all of these models. (This is the true meaning of “hybrid.”)
Bottom line: These factors don’t add value if you are, like most of the market, in the early stages of knowing what is and what isn’t a cloud approach to a given business problem. They provide depth, complexity, and context—useful at later stages, perhaps, but impractical as a foundation.
3) In search of a practical definition
That’s why it’s necessary to cut through the noise and seek a practical definition. Here’s one that “cherry picks” from the NIST document in an effort to get to what’s essential:
Cloud is a system where users can configure and deploy technology resources on their own while the owners of those resources still maintain control of them. It is defined by four characteristics:
- On-demand availability. Just in time and just as needed to give you greater control of your spending and ensure IT capabilities are fully deployed.
- Self-service. Users — meaning your organization’s stakeholders (employees, clients, partners, investors, and on an on) — can, on their own, get the resources they need. This is usually within certain limitations set by those running the resources, but critically, stakeholders are able to bypass bottlenecks and move at their own pace.
- Metering. Visibility for the provider (whether a vendor or an internal IT department) into the use of the services they deliver and the health and capabilities of the systems providing them.
- Chargeback/showback. An underrated essential feature of cloud that allows a resource to appear infinite even though in point of fact it isn’t. If users are made responsible in some way for the cost, they can be allowed to use as much as they can bear to pay for.
If you have all four characteristics in place, you have cloud. The first two are the technical benefits of cloud: resource use driven directly by the user. And the last two are the technical counterweights required to keep cloud manageable: seeing what the demand and supply ends of the system are doing equally, and enabling self-limitation.
The point here is to have a practical definition — one that you can use to move into cloud. If your initial definition is excessively complex, you are likely to lose the plot. Your actions and investments quickly become scatter-shot. Or you merely become vulnerable to “experts” who will make key decisions on your behalf.
4) What’s your absorptive capacity?
Consider the concept of “absorptive capacity.” In the early 1990s, management theorists Wesley Cohen and Daniel Levinthal defined it as “the ability of a firm to recognize the value of new, external information, assimilate it, and apply it to commercial ends.”
This insight applies to IT organizations as well as firms as a whole. What it says is that you need foundational knowledge to assess new knowledge and make important decisions. If outside experts possess too much of the knowledge and understanding of key issues, then internal IT teams have little value to add. They become unable to absorb or act on new knowledge. At that point, the external experts take over or, at least, begin to assert far greater influence than they might otherwise.
Interestingly, the authors see a link between absorptive capacity and aspiration.
Organizations with greater foundational knowledge, in other words, tend to be more assertive or proactive in terms of seizing new opportunities. By contrast, organizations “that have a modest absorptive capacity will tend to be reactive,” as they put it.
5) Your world … now and next
You may have a data center or merely a server room. Perhaps you’ve consolidated down from 30 or 40 servers to just 15 servers in recent years. Of those servers, five are virtualized. That was a huge accomplishment, generating significant cost reductions. But it was a long, painful process — one that took twice as much time as you’d hoped or had been led to believe it would.
Your organization also has some SaaS applications, but they are mostly out of your immediate purview. Maybe the marketing team relies on a marketing automation application provided through the Web and the sales team uses a CRM system similarly delivered. Meanwhile there also a lot of ungoverned usage of online storage and sharing tools.
You don’t have any cloud environment on premises, or formal, dedicated cloud strategists or specialists on your team. But maybe you are looking at some IT-focused cloud applications like disaster recovery services, for instance. You have a storage array, and you’ve been doing tape backup as long as you’ve been there, but you see the opportunity to further tier your storage and move appropriate activity off premises. But …
Your overall status in cloud is probably that you are starting to envision a future state in which all workloads, data stores, and applications are cloud-based, and that cloud basis is both on and off your premises — and more of the on-premises systems are paid for by lease or subscription instead of capital investment. Your stakeholders — employees, contractors, partners, and customers — all have appropriate levels of access and can get credentialed through your portal without thinking twice about whether the resources they are spinning up live on premises or off.
Which all sounds terrific, except for the distant boom of reality striking.
How — there’s that word again — will you get from here to there? Right now, you may have no plan or merely the foggiest sense of one. Even if you have a plan, you know that it is very likely to have to change significantly. You keep moving forward in an opportunistic fashion, but solid confidence is elusive.
By the way, your scenario may be different if you work in a large firm with a bigger budget, because you may have cloud strategists and specialists or “tiger teams” charged with meeting cloud-oriented objectives. You may be able to afford high-priced consulting firms to help formulate five-year plans. But with greater teams comes less speed, less agility, less visibility into the end of the initiative, and many other uncertainties that make it difficult to be grounded and feel like you are bringing value rapidly and effectively.
6 ) How much choice do you want to have?
So what does it mean to seek guidance? How can you gain reliable advice without becoming overly reliant on your advisor? How do you avoid ceding too much authority to those so-called experts?
Here’s an essential question to consider at the early stages of formulating your cloud adoption strategy: How much choice do you want to have?
The road is about to fork on this issue as a critical decision point is reached. Some IT groups will rely on their partners to make choices for them with respect to available cloud services and applications. Some will decide to preserve and maximize their options.
One way or another, you will choose to align yourself with partners to support your cloud adoption strategy. Some will encourage you to delegate decisions around which cloud service providers or applications you use. Some will enable you to maximize your vendor selection choices.
While a credible case can be made for either path, recognize that when you allow your options to be limited you are limiting the choices of your line-of-business groups. Some portal-to-cloud solution providers may treat certain vendors (like Amazon or Azure, Marketo or HubSpot) as “rogue” choices and force you to pick from vendors you otherwise might not have chosen.
That’s the nature of surrendering options or even decision-making authority. And those are decisions you should consider as you decide upon your cloud adoption partners and providers of guidance.
Ultimately, you will confront trade-offs and decision points as you move deeper into the realm of cloud adoption. You simply want to ensure you are making your adoption decisions with eyes wide open. You want to clearly consider issues of choice and constraint, flexibility and inflexibility as you move forward.
You don’t want to end up regretting your decision to surrender your decision authority. And you don’t want to rely on experts who make things mysterious at your expense.
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