Cloud Computing

Why CIOs Need to Get Their Head in the Cloud

There is probably no hotter topic in business technology right now than cloud computing. Like many other rapidly popularized technologies, the cloud has inspired its fair share of advocates and detractors, with opinions often drawn from both fact and fiction alike. As a result, today’s CIOs—who must view cloud usage strategically, not theoretically or anecdotally—often find themselves fighting a multi-front battle.

Today’s CIOs not only must mitigate fears and manage expectations internally, but also must do so while simultaneously defining terms and contingencies with cloud service providers. To complicate matters further, while these critical conversations and negotiations are unfolding, CIOs often have to make tough decisions to restructure their own teams to best meet new—and quickly shifting—operational realities. To top it all off, applications must be architected to take full advantage of the productivity improvements and operational realities the cloud can provide.

No one could fault a CIO for wondering if adopting a cloud strategy is worth the trouble, especially when that CIO already has a roadmap packed with new technology deployments. In fact, asking that simple question is a great place to start. Understanding that a move to cloud technology can be quite complicated allows a CIO to move forward thoughtfully and strategically, priming the organization to most effectively and efficiently capitalize on the benefits a strong cloud strategy offers, without compromising other future plans for the information technology architecture. And make no mistake: if done right, those benefits can be myriad, but an effective cloud strategy must always align with an IT organization’s overall enterprise architecture plans.

Employing a hybrid approach that employs private software as a service (SaaS: the ability to consume prepackaged applications), infrastructure as a service (IaaS: the ability to host applications), and platform as a service (PaaS: the ability to build applications) to host everything from outward-facing applications, such as social media and file sharing, to more proprietary ones, such as CRM and development environments used by engineering teams, can offer substantial advantages.

How substantial? With the adoption of cloud technology, organizations can see multi-thousand percent increases in time to delivery for new applications, dramatically better utilization of storage capacity, and millions of dollars in annual savings on hardware and software support costs and a technology infrastructure that is easier to scale to accommodate shifting workloads. However, these results can happen only when agility is included as a design principle for IT systems. Only by embracing agility will CIOs be able to deliver on the promise inherent in cloud computing.

Such a change doesn’t happen overnight. The road to a successful cloud deployment can be a long one, with many twists and turns. Some CIOs make the mistake of thinking their organizations are more ready for the transition than they actually are: an assumption that can cause some serious growing pains and misunderstandings.

Often, a back-to-basics approach—though it might seem pedestrian to the more technically adept within a company—establishes essential core understandings. First, a CIO must drive the realization that the cloud is not a magical monolith that manages anything and everything with one click of a save or send button and can offer much more than just hosting.

CIOs overestimate employee knowledge of the cloud at their own risk. Not only is public comprehension of the cloud relatively new, but also it has been introduced to most people in a way that elicits extremely high expectations among end users. Thanks to the consumerization of IT, many organizations are forced to compete—at least in the minds of stakeholders—with Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook. After all, it is the cloud, right?

Many employees, from entry level all the way to the C-suite, have the expectation that whatever resources their organization employs will function the same as the giant data centers built to handle 300 million Gmail accounts and a billion searches each day. A comprehensive process of education is a critical component to any cloud strategy, and the more inclusive that process is, the less difficult an organization’s transition will be.

Often, it is through greater understanding of how cloud computing can and can’t benefit an organization that critical cultural challenges are revealed. Some must be made clear in advance to minimize any future downtime, and groups within an organization will invariably be wary of relinquishing local control of their applications to an off-site host out of fear of compromised functionality and lack of lifecycle control. At the same time, even though an enterprise cloud service provider offers a more secure environment than most IT data centers, legal teams and procurement organizations might see the cloud as an open door for security breaches and compromised data.

There are day-to-day operational challenges to consider as well. If an application or service is causing problems, end users will call IT for a solution. But what if that application resides off site or is hosted by a cloud vendor? Who is responsible then? In order to support internal and external SLAs, a CIO must negotiate strong contracts with cloud vendors before implementation. Expectations and responsibilities of the processes that IT establish to support a cloud infrastructure must be regularly audited to test ongoing effectiveness and identify possible issues.

In addition, adopting a cloud infrastructure will require new corporate IT functions. The efficiencies the cloud provides will reduce the need for traditional IT activities such as database and server administration and change management, while at the same time increase the need for expertise in security, virtualization, storage efficiency, and process automation. Before making any transitions, a CIO must be sure that the organization’s IT team has the relevant skill sets. If not, decisions must be made whether to hire the necessary experts or to source them from cloud vendors.

A CIO working to implement a cloud strategy for the organization also faces choosing with which cloud vendor to partner. More than ever, this relationship is an increasingly critical and strategic partnership. The evaluation of vendors should be thorough. New cloud-based technologies and infrastructures debut daily, and many are positioned to make a major impact on IT departments. CIOs should identify which upcoming cloud technologies could best benefit their organization and then evaluate which cloud vendors have the products and expertise to effectively leverage those technologies. After being identified, vendors must then be evaluated for stability, degree of commitment, and level of service. Technological capability is important, but it is only one component to an effective cloud partnership.

But perhaps the most important thing to consider, beyond the questions of cultural, operational, security, and service levels and partnerships, is the CIO’s preparedness to launch and manage a cloud implementation. CIOs must identify how the cloud technology can benefit and meet business objectives, advocate internally for adoption of that technology, and then manage the relationships with cloud technology vendors to make sure implementation goes smoothly and ongoing operations are as efficient as possible. In essence, if a CIO is to become an advocate for the adoption of a cloud strategy, that CIO must serve as a broker between the organization and cloud providers to make sure both sides of the equation are doing what they need to do to make the cloud work.

As challenging as that all might sound, it really depends on the decisions made today. CIOs who effectively implement a cloud computing strategy grounded in strategic realities and real business imperatives will find unprecedented levels of reach, power, and efficiency. Those who take a more haphazard approach, though, might find themselves steering their organizations into the kind of cloud out of which it is difficult to find a way.


Cynthia Stoddard is CIO at NetApp



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