Faced with depressing predictions of looming budget cuts cloud computing has come to the fore of discussions to uncover relatively short-term economies in IT functions within the public sector. But how much of the cloud story is hype? How different are cloud architectures to the web-server farms that organisations have had the means to access for well over a decade? And how realistic is it that core business systems will move out of the data centre into the cloudspace?
Most of the CIOs I speak to are sceptical of the real-world practicality of large-scale porting of business critical apps to the cloud. They site concerns over data security, business continuity, administration and the realistic challenges of running a relationship with a vendor that will need to provide robust administrative tools to manage day-to-day support activities. Even those CIOs who brush through all of these concerns with optimistic verve, there are still huge issues to take onboard about the scalability of databases and commercial structures supporting cloud platforms. And what about the proprietary nature of the various cloud platforms? It's a very new industry and the entire market is experiencing a sharp learning curve.
What's the difference between cloud computing and web hosting?
Experts of cloud computing will allude to a small number of very pointy differences between cloud computing and traditional web server hosting. The first clear difference is the potential for multi-tenancy - the ability for individuals and companies to buy into a share of a computing platform that has a seemingly endless supply of processor and storage capacity. They will site dramatic advances in technology that have made possible new levels of virtualization and scaling that is unprecedented in the industry. Other enthusiasts of cloud computing will point to a step-change in the possibilities of deploying virtualized applications made possible by the administrative tools and technologies that the competitive bun-fight for cloud computing has inspired by the major vendors. Whilst these advances in the framework of tools for applications design, deployment and administration might not be exclusively the domain of cloud computing, this is most definitely the 'flag' that these new innovations fly under.
Having stepped through the minutia of the cloud debate I conclude that it doesn't really matter whether cloud architectures are fundamentally different; or whether the software tools that cloud computing has levered to the surface are part of the cloud computing story or not. What matters to hard-pressed IT leaders in the public sector is that - thanks to cloud computing - more opportunities exist for virtualizing server platforms, and achieving economies by adopting smarter means of running key processes including the design, deployment and operation of business applications than ever before. Cloud computing provides a greater ability to leverage the competencies and resources of third party vendors (with smarter technology) while organizations only pay for what they use.
But with so many concerns over the robustness, database scalability, administrative tools etc. of cloud computing, what is the first step that IT leaders should take on this journey?
Situational and departmental applications - the first step into the clouds
While some private sector organizations like easyJet are taking the lead in cloud computing by adopting policies whereby all future application should be considered for deployment on the cloud before any other justification is considered, the majority of public sector organisations are adopting a more cautious approach. The first applications most organisations are considering for cloud deployment are the departmental and so-called 'situational applications' that I describe below.
For departmental managers and executives, IT budgets have always been a bit of a lottery. There are so many business processes that occur in any public sector organization, and their operation is to tangentially different to the private sector, that most departments have to make do with the majority of users gaining access to a core administrative system while workers that need a bigger bag of different systems are required to make do with spreadsheets, PowerPoints and Access databases to fill in the cracks in their information management. The gap between information needs and information systems capability is forever growing while IT teams lack the resources or budgets to respond to every need with a shrink-wrapped software tool. Even today, most middle managers report they lack the information they need to discharge their roles and the information they do get is often not in the format (or completeness) to make it useful.
Developments in Rich Internet portals technology spearheaded by investments into cloud computing are now reaching the market. They provide users with the level of user interface experience and responsiveness to queries comparable (if not better) than the systems resident applications they're used to using. Rich Internet portal platforms like Encanvas engineer a new marriage between data mashups technology, building block applications design and pain-free deployment and operation needed to support near infinite numbers of secure and live community spaces in the cloud.
Rich Internet portal solutions for the Microsoft Azure cloud like Encanvas Secure&Live™ are purposely designed to meet enterprise requirements for situational applications; described by thought-leader Luca Cherbakov of IBM as "applications developed by small teams in response to new business situations that possess the economics that mean once used they can be discarded".
Experience gained in the last decade on the use and deployment of situational applications suggests that while situational applications start simply as a robust IT answer to a business problem, generally these solutions mature into business critical IT systems as users and stakeholders benefit from their use and start to mature their use cases. And many of these applications start within a department - to serve a departmental need - and grow because of their usefulness and practical rewards.
The way communities and teams tend to mature their situational applications takes on a common roadmap:
(1) Applications start with the need for 'secure and live' community spaces providing access to collaboration and participant interaction.
(2) Then the need to acquire data from different data sources emerges.
(3) Next, users call for more enquiry and analysis screens and capabilities.
(4) Then the need for more formalized business processes materialises.
(5) Finally, (and only in some cases) requirements for predictive engines emerge - providing the ability to anticipate the likelihood of events and impacting scenarios that might impact on the community.
While the majority of IT users are adequately supplied by a small number of systems (such as sales administrators that will spend all of their time on a CRM system, or an accounting clerk who will live in their SAP or Oracle portals) there are a smaller number of department managers, marketers, R&D and creatives that demand robust IT solutions to serve themselves with richer sources of insights and smarter tools to rationalise the information overload of the digital age.
Situational applications are seen as the remedy to the 'long tail of demand' for business applications coming from this very important minority community of IT users scattered across the enterprise that make innovation happen and spark competitive advantage. Unfortunately, at the outset of these departmental and situational software development projects, it's often not clear what the return-on-investment might be for investing in the development of a robust IT solution. Equally, there can be relationship and organisational pressures surrounding a software development project that mean cooperation is not assured and data acquisition and aggregation may be prohibited by practical IT roadblocks or the unwillingness of parties to play ball.
It's in this complex arena of information change management that the unique blend of economics and functionality manifested in cloud computing platforms like Encanvas comes to the fore; where the cloud represents a more neutral zone for cooperation (with each contributing party owning its own data and ability to regulate access permissions while sharing the same technology platform).
Why are situational applications the obvious start-point for cloud computing initiatives? The main reasons are these:
· Most organisations have too many software products and supplier relationships. Reducing the number of discrete software applications through harmonisation offers a direct route to savings in IT expenditure while the ability to deliver more applications right first time through situational applications is assured.
· Cloud architectures provide a faster and more painless means of designing, deploying and operating custom built applications. They're more economic and can scale to whatever size they need to grow so there's no risk of outgrowing the hardware platform.
· The cloud is seen to be a secure and live 'neutral territory' for organisations seeking to share data and collaborate with their communities - there is less of an emotional issue towards where data resides.
· Making a start on the cloud journey with situational applications addresses the 'long-tail of demand' for business applications so IT teams can be seen to deliver responsive IT solutions to emergent business needs by serving up robust IT solutions at very low cost.
· While situational applications can grow to become business critical, there's a big difference between starting from day one with new applications on the cloud and attempting to port the much less numerous core transactional platforms that are critical to business continuity.
Use case examples of situational applications
Here are three use case examples that show how situational applications can mature into best-fit business critical information systems; ideal early stage candidates for cloud computing.
1. Streetworks (local government department)
At the introduction of the Traffic Management Act in 2004, the Traffic Manager of West Sussex County Council identified that the current information management of the department was unworkable if all aspects of the new legislation (calling for improved cooperation with streetworks undertakers and demonstration of parity on planning decisions) were to be met. With the current IT systems, no mapping functionality existed that could provide a single page view of all planning aspects. Engineers were required to reference six different internal systems to build a clear picture of the planning considerations - and even then mistakes could be easily made. Another major challenge was the impact of TMA legislation on the administrative overheads of the department demanding that the Council input all of its own streetwork assets, activities and events in order to demonstrate parity with other streetworks undertakers (before TMA 2004 this information was not reported). An urgent solution was needed to comply with the TMA requirements - otherwise the Traffic Manager estimated that at least 2 additional FTEs would be required simply to keep up with the administrative overheads (at a time when skilled staff with appropriate qualifications were scarce due to demand driven by the new legislator framework). An interim situational application was developed by IS consultants NDMC and West Sussex County Council to provide a bridging solution to respond to the new information demands of the TMA 2004 legislation in advance of core business systems being brought up to date. The project team identified the sources of data from across the department and mapped out a requirements specification. Samples of each of the data sources were gathered and a 'start-point' proof of concept was developed. This application was presented to a workshop of users and stakeholders who spent a day discussing the format and operation of the system. By the end of this one-day workshop, the majority of the systems design was completed and a fully functioning test system was deployed onto the Encanvas system within 2 days. As the result of this project, the WSCC streetworks team was comfortably able to service the anticipated peak in demand for noticing of works without needing to create new posts and West Sussex County Council became the first local authority in the southeast, outside London, to operate and full EToN3 compliant system.
2. Credentials Management (professional services)
A global professional services organisation found that it was unable to satisfactorily provide credentials of past projects in support of new client engagement bids owing to the lack of retained information. While some detail of contact information was held on a Lotus Notes intranet, project information was either not captured or was to be found in different systems. The current situation meant that evidencing capabilities was proving to be difficult and was risking future business growth. In response to this business challenge, the organisation worked with IS consultants NDMC to create a situational application using Encanvas. The application was created during the course of six days with the project team working in a workshop environment. Data mashup technology, incumbent in the Encanvas platform, was used to acquire data from disparate sources - including the Lotus Notes Intranet, a third party database (held in .CSV format) and project systems. User search and enquiry forms were created that used drop-down filters and free-text weighted search to simplify the enquiry process. Once filtered queries were returned, the resulting records could be downloaded in a templated form for instant inclusion into bid documents and proposals. As the result of the situational applications deployment, senior partners were instantly able to harness the credentials of the global knowledge center operations in support of future bids. Whilst this system achieved an ROI within the first 6-weeks of use, it continued to be used on a daily basis for over three years before an integrated platform solution was developed to displace it.
3. Compliance Management (electronics sector)
A global electronics company found that in order to comply with new regulatory demands from its parent in Japan, it needed to install a license management and reporting solution. The European operation was given scant notice of this new requirement and were challenged to get a system in-place within 6-weeks! The project manager elected to work with IS consultants NDMC to design and deploy an interim situational application using the Encanvas Rich Internet platform. Through a one-day workshop the project team devised a data model and website design. Taking advantage of the data connectors provided by the Encanvas platform, the project team was able to import historical licensing data held in MS Access and spreadsheet files to deploy a working solution within five days. Following a period of user testing, a second workshop was initiated to recommend iterative changes that were subsequently implemented using the code-free design environment of Encanvas; changes that took only a ½ day to implement. Having the license management system on a web hosted environment meant that the Japanese parent company is now able to access report data for compliance purposes directly 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This interim solution has now been running since 2005 and continues to satisfactorily meet compliance reporting requirements.
The idea that IT functions will achieve step-change reductions in operational costs is unlikely to happen without a harmonisation agenda where the hundreds of software applications that organisations use are trimmed down to a manageable number - perhaps to less than 10 core applications platforms. Migrating the many homemade and discrete applications and spreadsheet systems to a common secure and live architecture present a real and immediate opportunity for short-term cashable economies.
Cloud-borne Rich Internet Portal architectures like Encanvas Secure&Live deployed on Microsoft Azure present IT leaders with the opportunity to not only 'test' the economics and viability of cloud computing as their first-step to cloud computing, solutions such as this also provide a mechanism to economically serve the long-tail of applications demand that exists within all organisations today (improving internal customer satisfaction towards IT).
So if you're considering making the move to cloud computing, why not consider taking baby steps first with situational and departmental applications - and just make sure you're able to reach the cloud before you leap.