We keep hearing about cloud based solutions, how they absolve us of the need to have IT teams and make everything simple, fast, secure and painless. So what’s the real deal. Is it happening or is it hype?
As is often the case, I feel it’s a great idea hijacked and gone wrong. We've now seen three legal firms embark on this journey, two with private cloud solutions (although one of them was hurriedly moved in house when the original plans went pear shaped [Storm clouds perhaps]). One of these two seems to have been pretty successful and the jury is out on the others for now.
So what’s the problem?
As is often the case, a combination of marketing hype and managers trying to trim costs can lead to unintended outcomes.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with true cloud based solutions where a particular function or application is housed entirely in cyber space, including data storage and multi device access / synchronization. Apple
seem to be getting their heads around it quite well at present in the Photo Stream and iTunes spaces. I can’t say I’m so convinced about the document storage, but I can see the benefits. Let’s face it I use such things every single day, and in their place, they do a truly great job.
Taking a whole desktop computer and its applications, storage and processing power and plonking it off in never never land (on a shared device) doesn’t fill me with confidence however and there are quite a few reasons for this cynicism.
- Processing power and Memory
- Individualisation and access
- Application compatibility
- The “between stools” problem (a biggie !)
Now before all the techos get on their high horses and whinge that all these things can be mitigated (they’re largely correct in that) the problem, like the early days of computer sales, is that the salespeople don’t understand the nuances, and neither do the purchasers, until it’s too late. So lets look at each of these.
Processing power & memory
You take an operating system for a “personal” computer and run multiple instances of it on a single computer in segregated memory space. Almost by definition you have to be careful about the memory and processor usage of all applications so no one application can hog too much and starve the other users of the same piece of hardware. A service provider to a client recently suggested that 20 windows 7 users on a machine with 16 Gigabytes of RAM seemed like a high performance and appropriate idea. I nearly choked. I run half that amount of RAM on my laptop.
I don’t care how whiz bang your server is, it’s a server, it’s shared between other users doing who knows what, and has a finite amount of processor and memory. A personal computer is a single device. Looks (from where I sit) a lot like the dumb green screen shared terminal mini computer systems I cut my teeth on, but less efficient because it’s not designed to work that way.
Now if that’s not a big enough threat to your operational performance, we’ll put the internet as the connection between you and the actual operating piece of equipment. Bright... Not !
Individualisation & access
The users want Macs and IT wants mainframes. That’s pretty much the size of it at present. Users are becoming more sophisticated in their use of personal IT. We have the advent of mobile devices and very advanced applications, operating systems and sharing (typically via real cloud based applications and storage) , and better educated users (which is an age thing basically as the typical aged users has now grown up with IT everywhere). The PC gained fame and utility because it allowed people freedoms that mainframes and minis simply did not.
As corporate IT groups and security have pushed the Windows PC ever closer to it’s mainframe ancestors, Apple have seen a new gap open up and been very happy to fill it. So in the cloud based desktop environment being promoted, the number 1 job is to take the personal out of the PC in every way. It’s true that once virtualised and hosted, you can access your PC from anywhere, but you can’t do much with it, so you need other more personal devices. So far the windows based ones have been duds, and the Android and Apple groups have surged forward in the personal space.
No one ever got fired for buying IBM
. No one ever got fired for being a Microsoft
Microsoft have in recent years been focused almost exclusively on marketing to the IT department. Making them important and focusing on features that IT wants:
- Locking down the environment
- All applications should come from Microsoft or be written with Microsoft tools
- Oh and let's not forget the all important MS certification, paid for by employers and used as bargaining tools against them as the IT guys pump up their resumes with extra letters!
Most older MS Windows applications (which is pretty much all of them), make the assumption that they own the PC they are running on, and certainly have access to all of its resources. When you look at what happens in a shared machine virtualised desktop environment, LOTS can go wrong. I know there’s been immense amounts of work done to get around these issues, but lets face it, they are not simple issues and if we’re trying to use a Mack Truck as a sports car there will be limitations:
- Personal devices and synchronisation
- Local Printers
- Shared scanners
- USB memory sticks and CD drives and Hard disks
All things users want in varying degrees, IT doesn't want them to have (often for good reasons) and somewhere in between lies the line of best fit through this maze.
The “Between stools” issue
This is a big one. The sell that management buys into in many cases is that with a cloud based infrastructure, you don’t need ‘owned’ resources, of either the physical or human kind, because they've been outsourced. You save money on all sorts of things because you don’t have drip fed hardware upgrades or backup issues, it’s all taken care of for you.
Most things that sound to good to be true........ are.
The users still need an access point, often an old or existing PC. That’s ok for now. The local access device needs an operating system and it has a screen resolution. All three of these will at some stage push an upgrade or change. Other peripherals like printers etc will also still exist. Now we get to the thorny issue of applications and who manages the application. The service providers are (more often than not) happy to perform infrastructure functions like hardware, operating system, Office applications and associated help desk functions. Sometimes, actually often, they purport to provide specialised IT skills like database admin functions (DBA), but again this is usually limited to pure DBA functions not application stuff.
The application vendors of more specialised applications (like ERP or CRM facilities, which at present most legal firms still “own”) will provide support at a technical level for their applications. And between these two stools there is a gaping chasm.
Application and meta data configuration and maintenance. Application tweaking and configuration. Data extraction, Reporting, importing etc.
OK, there are specialist service providers who can provide these services, but it’s a fair bet in many cases, that they haven’t been part of the sell by the Infrastructure or “cloud” provider nor the rationalisation plans of management off the back of all this.
Trust me, this can be a big big hole which consumes money and attention to fill in.
So what’s the answer, is this cloud thing any use?
Yes, it certainly is, but like anything it’s only useful when it’s strengths are played to, and it’s not a panacea. Desktop operating systems shared to behave like mainframes don’t seem logical to me, and the rebellion from users might be enough to make it even less successful. Let’s face it users are more sophisticated and more fully aware of the flexibility and productivity that a wide range of technologies and applications can afford them.
There is no question that cloud based application environments and services which add flexibility to users and make things easier are a success and will continue to grow. Organisations who continue to focus on cost reduction and excessive user control may well have forgotten why the technology environment is there in the first place.
About our Guest Blogger
Peter has a Bachelor of Business, with a major in Commercial Law and 25+ years expertise in the provision of solutions design across multiple industries and solution types, with a strong focus and specialisation in ideas and solutions for professional services environments.