Guardian Life CIO: Caution in the Cloud

Frank Wander has what he thinks is the perfect technique for getting the most out of the slowly maturing cloud computing market: Move slowly along with it.

Wander, the corporate CIO for Guardian Life Insurance, is no stranger to the cloud. Guardian uses software-as-a-service products to run Guardian’s expense management system, as well as some of its human resources processes.

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He’s seen plenty of evidence that cloud computing resources can be acquired much more cost-effectively than physical ones, especially when the contract is structured properly. And he believes that there eventually will be cloud alternatives to pretty much every category of enterprise application.

In the meantime, however, given his vantage point from a highly regulated industry, he’s also well aware of the cloud’s limitations in the area of information security–and he’s not willing to undermine all of the steps he’s taken to minimize operational risk for a company that manages nearly $29 billion in assets and has more than $200 billion in active life insurance policies.

“It’s not anything we would entrust our infrastructure to at this point,” he says. “We have a machine that works extremely well, so I’m not going to put it in jeopardy.”

Technology transitions have happened many times before. Wander tells of a CIO in the early ’90s, who bet the farm that he could move everything off the mainframe onto distributed servers to significantly reduce costs. The business case looked incredibly appealing, but the results were disastrous.

As a result, Wander’s approach to the cloud is circumspect. Whenever there’s reason for him to consider moving some IT resource to the cloud, he watches the market and looks for experiments other companies are undertaking in that area so he can learn from their mistakes.

It’s no easy feat because, as Wander is all too aware, CIOs generally do not broadcast their problems. He’s careful not to buy into the hype behind the cloud, which would have him expect things that vendors can’t yet deliver.

“It all sounds good until you get into it,” he says, “and then the devil’s in the details.”

In many ways, cloud computing reminds him of earlier technologies, such as LANs, WANs and the Internet, all of which were dubbed “revolutionary,” yet proved over time to be more evolutionary, with the full potential taking as many as 20 years to be realized.

There’s no reason to think cloud computing will mature any faster, and Wander fully expects a strong cloud computing model to emerge, offering all of the tools a CIO needs to run IT in the cloud effortlessly. How long that will take, however, is anyone’s guess.

Which is why, for now, Wander is content to continue outsourcing more critical systems, such as Guardian’s ERP environment, to hosting vendors, which offer a more mature approach, complete with contracted security.

Ultimately, Wander believes that, like most technologies, cloud computing will become ready for prime time through IT executives taking risks on it and working out the bugs. Not surprisingly, he will make smaller sized bets that align with the risk/reward ratio.

“Pioneers take the arrows,” Wander says. “There really is an advantage to not being the first-mover sometimes, and this is one of those times.”

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