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Scary but Safe: Being in the Cloud is like… Being in the Clouds

We’ve heard a lot recently about major outages in cloud-like information services. Sony’s month of agony and  impressive losses is the most extreme example, but we’ve also seen outages from Amazon, Microsoft, and Google, to name a few. These are frightening events for anyone placing (or considering placing) more business-critical services in the cloud. But it’s also a good illustration of the way reason and emotion diverge.

Cloud proponents such as Salesforce.com’s Marc Benioff are giving   reasonable, factual explanations of why the cloud is still a good idea. They point out, correctly, that any information service can fail, and that it seems likely that cloud services will be, on average, more reliable than in-house services. Their arguments are solid, reasonable, and credible, but they miss the main point.

Human beings are not always reasonable creatures. We have evolved to respond instinctively rather than rationally in some situations, which is why we fear air travel and embrace car travel instead, despite it being far more dangerous. We have evolved lightning-fast reactions to perceived threats which often prevent a more rational analysis.

The kind of people who risk their lives by driving because they’re afraid of air travel are a cloud computing provider’s worst nightmare. Just as the idea of plummeting from 6 miles in the air is instinctively scary, so is an infrastructure outage by a remote third party crippling your business. But you have to compare it to the odds of a car crash or an in-house failure of a critical IT service.

The solution is obvious, but easier said than done: we have to favor reason over emotion. I fly all the time, but it’s still scary if I think about it too much, so I focus on the safety statistics instead. Similarly, using a cloud service may be scary, but a rational analysis should help us conquer our fears.

Cloud services, like airplanes, can help you soar and are highly reliable. But like airplanes, their failures are spectacular, visible, and scary. What everyone has to decide for themselves is whether these are choices to be made out of rationality or out of fear. Choose reason and your business will most likely benefit; choose fear and you are likely to pay a higher price in the long term. And you won’t get those wonderful little bags of peanuts, either!

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Don't Believe the Hype- Understand the benefits before you jump in

It’s great to see analysts like Gartner urging caution around cloud adoption because it’s important to see beyond the hype. Cloud computing will not be right for everyone and everything and it’s important to realise that not all cloud services are created equal.

Having been early into the industry, it is gratifying to see that my predictions for the benefits that cloud brings business have become reality: we’re now at the stage where cloud is going beyond early adopters and is reaching its peak as defined by the Gartner hype cycle. It is during this phase that customers need to be extra vigilant. With previous generation services being rebranded to take advantage of the latest buzzword and industry standards still in their infancy, it really is a case of ‘buyer beware’.

But why do people want to go to the cloud? Apart from being the technology du-jour – which let’s face it is not a good reason to adopt any technology – cloud does bring real benefits to IT departments, especially in their ability to be more responsive to their organisation. Cloud systems enable IT to become much more agile than in the past by allowing IT admins to worry less about the underlying systems and invest their time instead in configuration and integration.

But that is all a pipe dream unless you know how to transition responsibly and pick a vendor with the right technology. The two vital technologies you should look out for at a vendor are 1) Multi-tenancy and 2) Horizontal Scalability.

More on that next week- until then as Public Enemy said- Don’t Believe the Hype.

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How the Cloud is Consumerizing Corporate Email

For many years I have been telling IT managers and CIOs that corporate IT and email will have to fall in line with the plethora of free consumer email platforms available. The simplest form of this discussion compares the ‘few hundred MB’ quotas corporate users are given for their inboxes, compared to the several GB they get from web-based email systems.

For most of those years IT managers and CIOs have been telling me there is no way they could possibly compete, their users will have to make do. Some even used to joke, their users would never need a 7GB inbox; “this is email we’re talking about here” they would chuckle.

Gartner, the analyst firm, has recently qualified my thinking by publishing a report that verified that indeed the use of Public email systems is undermining corporate intellectual property & email. Specifically that;

The consumerization of IT has led to employees’ increased use of consumer-oriented, Web based e-mail, even where such usage is against corporate policy. Typical use cases include transferring files that are too large to transit the corporate e-mail environment, containing file types that are not supported, or  sending documents to a personal e-mail account to be accessed from home or another location.

After reading the report, two key issues struck me. Firstly; the authors have missed a key opportunity to weave in ‘modern day’ email management tools like Data Leak Prevention (DLP). Secondly; this whole issue makes a particularly compelling case for the adoption of cloud email services, as that’s exactly what the users are doing, with or without your control or approval.

The basis of their writing, is that users who are limited by inadequate or antiquated corporate IT systems are using cloud based webmail services such as Yahoo, Hotmail and Gmail to circumvent the limitations of their business systems. At the very least, forwarding an email ‘home’ has been common practice since Ray Tomlinson coined the @ symbol. Gartner rightly point out that;

When internal collaboration tools and environments fail to provide the necessary functionality, people fall back on the growing number of freely available  external tools and services that are targeted at consumers and provide the easy-to-use functionality they crave. These consumers are not specifically trying to break security; rather, they are simply trying to get their jobs done.

My Advice

Echoed by Gartner, has always been that banning and blocking users from using webmail services is unhelpful and unproductive, simply making the IT department look like an “impediment to business operations.” The more innovative and intelligent approach is to examine the flow of information through your email system and then deploy a DLP solution to catch anything that should be staying within the organization.

Secondly, and the much more obvious point, is that users are adopting cloud based solutions “to get their jobs done” – as Gartner points out, the recent enhancements to Hotmail are focusing on ‘time saving” and “productivity” which are more likely to attract corporate users. Regardless of your position or opinion of cloud based email systems, your users are making their way to the cloud. As with everything corporate the users are driving the technology; IT managers and CIOs should be examining ways to keep up.

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Just Enough On-Site: IT Strategy for the New Information Age

We’re on the verge of a New Information Age. The old one has been around for thirty years or more, and it’s legacy is not all that wonderful. There’s been an explosion in the volume of data produced, sent and stored on servers, desktops and laptops around the world. Companies have tried to manage by keeping pace, adding servers, amassing file stores and updating PCs every few months.

Email, not surprisingly, has been at the heart of this digital big bang, with 97% of written business communication based on email, and some 84% of corporate IP being held in email systems. For IT Directors and managers of corporate email systems, then, the Information Age has resulted in a complex and costly IT infrastructure, accompanied by huge levels of risk, given the critical value of the information held in these systems.

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