Creating Business Agility
By Scott Murphy
VP Strategic Business Development, Data Perceptions Inc.
Published May 3, 2018
Businesses are moving to the cloud to reduce costs, but the real benefit is operational ability, both within the IT department and the business.
The trend is steady and unmistakable: Businesses are moving to the cloud. In stages, they are moving externally and internally facing services and custom and off-the-shelf applications and services.
They are adopting infrastructure as a service (IaaS), platform as a service (PaaS), software as a service (SaaS), increased virtualization, microservices, and containerization for improved reliability and performance.
They are using public cloud, private cloud, and hybrid clouds; but the trend has been shifting to the public cloud in the last few years at an accelerating rate.
We are seeing this trend toward cloud in the communications technology industry. Traditional on-premises communications services have been moving to the cloud for over a decade, but we are now starting to see this happen on a larger scale.
The Question Is ....
What is driving businesses to the cloud?
The answer is not quite clear; however, many assume that it is totally cost driven. This is partially true, however, deployment of services in the cloud is being mainly driven by reduced operational costs by leveraging the scale of cloud services.
But cost is not the only reason businesses are moving to the cloud at an accelerating pace.
There are a few key business and technology reasons or challenges that Data Perceptions has identified and summarized with the acronym RASSCAL (Reliability & Availability, Scalability, Security, Configuration, Automation, Logistics) that we believe to be more significant driving factors than pure cost. Not only are operational costs reduced, but scaled operations allow RASSCAL improvements across the board with increased agility with pay-as-you-go services.
Reliability & Availability
As enterprise products and services are increasingly globalized with supplier and customer ecosystems becoming more tightly integrated, the demand for reliability and availability has increased substantially.
Moving services to be hosted in the cloud allows the service to be instantly more reliable and available to customers, suppliers, and employees. The service can exist with failover across multiple data centers with limited additional investment or effort.
This improves uptime and allows IT staff to focus on applications and data instead of base infrastructure.
Most cloud providers have gone beyond basic IaaS (compute and storage) and have added many PaaS features that can be used to further improve reliability and availability.
Features such as databases, containerization, security, artificial intelligence and machine learning, analytics, Internet of Things, blockchain, DevOps and developer tools, and others, provided as a service, can improve how systems are deployed and reduce IT staff effort.
One challenge for businesses that host internal applications in the cloud is reliable connectivity to the cloud with enough capacity. A popular way of addressing this issue has been the deployment of software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) solutions that can aggregate bandwidth across multiple Internet connections and prioritize/optimize traffic and applications.
Many businesses are challenged to predict the impact on IT resources, as business demands increase or decrease. Historically, IT needed to gaze into a crystal ball and determine the capacity they would need 12, 24, and 36 months in the future so they could build infrastructure to support the business. The inevitable outcome would be that they would over or under provision some or all aspects of the infrastructure.
One of the key benefits of cloud services is that it is elastically scalable and can grow and shrink with demand. This could be hourly, daily, monthly, or yearly, allowing the business to excel at providing services with scalability and agility for adjustments.
The challenges of business security are bigger than ever. Historically, securing data and systems has required acquiring tools, many of which were not within the planned budget.
Today's data breaches are often attributable to operational practices that are inadequate at preventing security incidents. New issues with secure connectivity to the cloud providers are also a challenge.
There are many ways to address this through SSL (TLS) VPN, SSL-enabled applications, multi-factor authentication (MFA), and SD-WAN tools. The cloud does make this more challenging, in some ways, as everything is virtual. But with a layered approach to network, system, and data security -- coupled with taking advantage of the tools provided by the cloud providers -- improved security is within the control of the IT department and can be better aligned with business operations.
One of the challenges of achieving the reliability, availability, scalability, and security within business systems is management of the configurations of systems. Historically, this required mountains of documentation on the applications and supporting infrastructure... or it walked out the door when there were changes in staff.
With the cloud, virtualization, and automation, new tools for configuration management of both applications and infrastructure have become more common. Tools like Ansible, Docker, Terraform, and Puppet (there are many others) streamline configuration management and allow for simplified deployment in the cloud (infrastructure as code). These tools can improve reliability of systems, as they are better understood and easier to replicate in testing, staging, and production. This leads to less downtime (scheduled or unplanned) when used in conjunction with good operational practices.
Another outcome of configuration management in the cloud is that infrastructure and systems automation has become easier. Cloud providers allow businesses to monitor their usage and scale their services up and down based on demand, using configuration management and standardization in conjunction with automation tools.
Automation can further enable scalability but also enhances disaster recovery capabilities.
Many IT departments have struggled with the logistics of managing application availability, and as a result have been resistant to change. Whether it's systems patching (improving security), application upgrades (new features), or other systems changes, the cloud (in conjunction with configuration and automation tools) enables greater flexibility to utilize good change management practices like blue/green deployments.
Other logistical improvements can be achieved using cloud-enabled monitoring tools, many of which are included with cloud subscriptions. This improves the visibility of systems' availability, performance, and capacity.
Another logistical opportunity is to optimize costs across various cloud providers. Different providers specialize in different areas.
Compute, data storage, specialized application/database support, bandwidth, etc., can all be optimized across providers to provide a better cost and user experience. However, businesses should not underestimate the cost of complexity when considering spanning across cloud providers. If you get it right, like some UCaaS providers have done, you can achieve cost optimized performance and provide an outstanding user experience.
Blending Solution Simplicity
Beyond the compute and storage (IaaS) services in the cloud, there is a compelling simplicity to moving to the cloud for software or software platforms (SaaS and PaaS). This is especially true for communications technology as businesses can deliver robust services on a very granular basis to different types of business users. Businesses can blend or span services to fit the way the business needs to work without the long lead time that comes with having to build an infrastructure solution to fit the new requirements.
With the trend to move business applications and services to the cloud, some organizations overlook the fact that changes are required to the premises side of the cloud to successfully take advantage of cloud services. On-premises networks, identity and authentication, connectivity (SD-WAN mentioned earlier), and security need to be optimized for access to the cloud applications and maintain the overall user experience.
Businesses are moving to the cloud. Yes, to reduce costs, but the real benefit is operational agility, both within the IT department and the business. To achieve these benefits, IT staff will need to embrace these changes and opportunities for improvement. Many businesses are already enjoying these benefits and many more are in the visioning and planning stages. Businesses can achieve a business advantage by leveraging the scale and agility of the cloud and allowing IT to focus on business operations.