December 21, 2011

Cloud Computing Causes IT Culture Shock

The typical discussion of cloud computing focuses on either its benefits or its enabling technologies.  It's much less common for an enterprise to examine the cultural shifts associated with the adoption of cloud computing.  This is a major weakness because, if the culture of an IT organization resists a change, that change either will not occur or will take notably longer than expected.

Cloud Computing and 'Good Enough' Service Delivery

One of the cultural shifts associated with cloud computing is a direct result of the goal of cloud computing:  to enable IT organizations to achieve a dramatic improvement in the cost-effective, elastic provisioning of IT services that are "good enough."  To understand the concept behind "good enough," consider just the availability of an IT service.  In cases where the service is business-critical, good enough could mean five or six 9s of availability.  However, in many other cases, good enough has the same meaning as "best effort" - typically two or three 9s of availability.  An approach that provides two or three 9s of availability is acceptable when the IT service isn't business-critical, and it is significantly less expensive than one offering higher availability.

To put this cultural shift into perspective, it is important to realize that it has been implicit in the traditional IT culture to implement ongoing enhancements to make the network - and the IT services delivered over the network - increasingly resilient.  The adoption of cloud computing changes all that, and in some instances it becomes acceptable for the first time that IT services be delivered on a best-effort basis.  A clear indication of that change is the success of, whose three million customers use the company's solutions to support critical sales processes.  Yet despite the importance of this application, will virtually never give a customer an availability guarantee; and since the application typically is accessed over the Internet, it doesn't come with an end-to-end performance guarantee.

New Role for IT:  Provider vs. Broker

Another cultural shift associated with the adoption of cloud computing is that an IT organization becomes less a provider of IT services and more a broker of IT services.  Traditionally, the IT organization is the primary provider of IT services.  Part of the challenge of this role is that sometimes the IT organization can't meet the needs of the business units in a timely fashion.  In the past, business unit managers have dealt with this lack of support by creating their own "shadow" IT organizations made up of business unit staff members who provide the IT services unavailable from the corporate IT department.  

Today, public cloud providers often play the role of a shadow IT organization by providing a company's business unit managers with services or functions that they either can't get from their own IT organization or can't get in a timely manner.  In some instances, IT is in a position to stop the non-sanctioned use of public cloud computing once it is discovered. There may be good reason do so.

One example is in cases where using a public cloud service causes the company to be out of compliance with certain regulations.  Often, however, corporate IT might not even be aware that one or more business unit managers have taken it upon themselves to use an outside cloud service.

Trying to prevent business unit managers from acquiring public cloud services might not be the best use of an IT organization's resources.  A better role for IT is to evolve from being the primary provider of IT services to providing some IT services, such as those that involve highly sensitive data, but acting as a broker between the company's business unit managers and cloud computing service providers for other services. Those other services might be those for which there is a defined short-term need or that can be acquired more cheaply from a third party.  

In addition to handling contract negotiations, the IT organization can add value by ensuring that the acquired application or service doesn't create any compliance issues, can be integrated with other applications as needed, can scale, is cost-effective and can be easily managed.

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