Agile Clouds

By Bob Violino  |  Posted 01-10-2013

Agile Clouds

Numerous organizations are either using cloud computing services or planning to deploy them. In fact, the cloud has moved well past the experimental stage to become a keystone of many IT strategies today.

"Both public and private clouds are becoming mainstream in the enterprise and will continue to do so because of the flexibility, ease of maintenance and cost controls," says Janel Garvin, CEO at research firm Evans Data Corp. in Santa Cruz, Calif.

"While we're seeing more enterprises embracing private clouds, there is a lot of interest in hybrid clouds, and we expect that to continue with enterprises keeping functions such as enterprise resource management, finance operations and customer data on private clouds, but making communications, e-commerce and other outward-facing operations on public clouds," Garvin says.

At Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., cloud computing has become an indispensable IT resource for students, faculty, staff, outside researchers and hosted clients of the college.

"If we had not built our cloud and still depended on distributed computing, we would not be able to provide many of the services we provide today," says Bill Thirsk, vice president of IT and CIO at Marist. "Like all organizations, budgets are stretched tight but demand is endless, so we rely on our cloud to quickly deploy appropriate resources such as specific processor, memory and storage to our users."

Marist recently built and delivered an education analytics cloud that provides students with a desktop image with their Microsoft applications, advanced open source tools, a big data engine and any needed middleware, without having to load any software onto their personal computing devices.

Thirsk thinks cloud-based services are still immature, and there are "broad and deep market opportunities for those companies that first look at their service provision through the return-on-assets model," he says. "Add some advanced engineering and software development energy and adaptability to market demands, and the service would be a market winner."

One application area where the cloud still falls short is enterprise resource planning (ERP) designed for higher education, Thirsk says. "We have not yet seen a really good, large niche application or industry ERP that is truly cloud-enabled," he says. "Most of these applications are simply single instances being hosted on behalf of the client."

Marist's experience has been that the large ERP vendors "have not yet moved from the one app/one box/one processor model for either their software development or their SaaS [software as a service] model," Thirsk says.

And while businesses are flocking to take advantage of low-cost software through the cloud, there are still questions about whether they will be able to pull back their data if the cloud provider fails in some way, says Thirsk.

UST Global, an Aliso Viejo, Calif., technology solutions provider, is moving into cloud computing in a big way in order to be more agile in a highly competitive market. The company is taking advantage of SaaS offerings wherever possible, and moving enterprise applications to a services-based delivery model is a top priority, says Tony Velleca, CIO.

For example, UST Global is using the customer relationship management (CRM) platform from Salesforce.com and human resources applications from SAP's SuccessFactors, among other cloud-based offerings.

Agile Clouds

"We're going with SaaS for the simple reason that we don't want to deal with [software] upgrades" in order to get quick access to the latest product features, Velleca says. In addition, he says, most of the cloud applications are being designed for mobile use, and UST Global is making a huge push toward mobility as part of its effort to be more flexible in its markets.

"The key trends today are mobility, social, cloud and big data, and they're all closely related," Velleca says.

Most of the cloud applications UST Global uses now come with support for social media, Velleca says. "That's extremely important to the way the enterprise works," he notes. "All transaction systems [should] have a social platform with them. The next generation of applications need to be socially enabled."

The move to SaaS is not the only cloud effort underway at UST Global. The company relies on Amazon.com's public platform-as-a-service offering to support its innovation lab and corporate website, Velleca says. UST Global also operates a private cloud powered in part through server virtualization technology from VMware and Hyper-V. UST Global is also using ServiceMesh to help manage policies across virtual environments.

With the private cloud, "we can deploy [servers] into secure networks to set up a development environment very quickly," Velleca says. In addition to greater speed and flexibility, UST Global expects to see benefits such as cost savings from a reduction of capital expenditures on servers and other hardware.

Some companies are running productivity applications in the cloud. Intero Real Estate, based in Cupertino, Calif., supports more than 2,000 agents at 14 corporate offices and more than 40 franchise locations. The company implemented Microsoft's Office 365 Exchange cloud-based offering to provide a cost-effective, scalable way to deliver messaging for agents who rely on email to communicate with other agents and clients, and to help close time-sensitive deals.

"Ultimately our reason for moving to the cloud is to provide better scalability, agility and efficiency to our agents," says Eric Rees, Intero Real Estate’s director of IT.

While cloud services have existed for years, Rees says "today [the] technology has finally caught up with what its full potential can be. Cloud services are able to accommodate many businesses, especially those in the small to mid-size market space."

The biggest concern Rees has about the cloud is its overall reliability. "There [are] a lot of variables with cloud-based services, so naturally it's something that you need some sort of reassurance with," he says. "And of course not being in control is something that most IT people have a hard time with."

Expect to see cloud service providers promoting their services with more aggressive marketing and limited time offers to attract customers, in the hope that they will become entrenched in their systems, says Garvin of Evans Data.

"In the private cloud sector better appliances or ‘cloud in a box’ will be launched, appealing to enterprise IT managers who want the flexibility of cloud with a plug-and-play appliance," Garvin says.

What does Garvin consider to be the biggest challenges and concerns regarding use of the cloud? "Security, security, security--and reliability," she says. "These are two most important factors in cloud services and form the biggest barriers to adoption."