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Software column: The cloud – A practical view

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October 14, 2016 by Jacob Stoller

jacobNot long ago, the most common IT job description was network administrator. The work involved a lot of repetitive tasks: update user profiles, manage email capacity and security, apply Microsoft Office patches, stage new PCs; and of course, deal with the multitude of problems that crop up on a corporate network.

Today, network administrators are few and far between. The typical company might use online Office 365 for desktop computing, hosted Gmail for email, and the online service Salesforce.com for customer account management, leaving insufficient work to justify an internal person.

Who to call for help?

The bad news is that end users having problems with IT may have no internal person to turn to for answers. The gray area around the network administrator’s role had many aspects. If somebody struggled with computers, kept forgetting passwords, or picked up a virus from a questionable website, the network administrator got the call. Often the fix involved coaching somebody through a problem.

This gap affects everyday users and business owners. A common complaint among end users, for example, is that the cloud can seemingly cause things to disappear. “If there is an auto update of an application while you are working, you could lose the file,” says Michael O’Neil, president of Toronto-based InsightaaS, a research firm specializing in cloud computing issues. “That file is somewhere, of course. But if you no longer have a network administrator to find it for you, you might be out of luck.”

However, the issue is more complex than a lack of handholding. Cloud computing has changed how business owners plan, acquire, and deploy IT capabilities.

“Cloud computing allows you to automate functions that you maybe couldn’t automate in the past, for example, linking your email to your online CRM system to your web-based lead capture system so you can issue customized quotes,” says O’Neil. “However, that’s going to require some integration, and this can be a little bit more complicated because the data lives wherever it lives. There are mechanisms for connecting cloud applications, but they’re not that easy to use.”

Consequently, many are turning to cloud brokers or cloud integrators, who are able to manage suites of cloud applications. According to O’Neil, it makes sense to redeploy money saved from dispensing with on-premise IT infrastructure towards this kind of service.

“Moving to a cloud-based administrative application saves you money, assuming you have a desire to spend those savings wisely,” says O’Neil. “These integration tasks aren’t impossible for somebody who knows what they’re doing, and the price of acquiring such services isn’t exorbitant.”

Quartet Service, a Toronto-based IT provider originally built on providing nuts and bolts services, has seen its business transformed by this trend. “Our business has changed like crazy,” says president Rob Bracey. “The integration part of our business is growing like there’s no tomorrow, and I think there are a couple of drivers to that. First of all, there’s so much more that IT can do than it used to be able to do. And tying all the loose ends together is more important than it has ever been.”

Integration, however, may only be the starting point. “We’re finding that the problem with cloud apps is not only tying them together, but ensuring they’re used in the organization,” explains Bracey. “So even with a well-integrated suite of cloud services, you need somebody to help evolve the culture of the organization to adopt the cloud services.”

Cloud services can be divided into two categories – the public cloud, which is home to mass-marketed cloud services, such as Office 365 and Google Apps; and private cloud, consisting of hosting services from vendors who provide a higher degree of application management, and a suite of consulting services related to the human aspects.

A bit of both

The emerging standard practice is to combine the two. “Certainly in our approach, we have taken some of the more mundane requirements of our clients and put them into the public cloud, and some of the more mission-critical things and done them in our own cloud,” says Bracey.

A positive development, according to O’Neil, is that this separation makes it easier for buyers to understand what they are getting for their money. “In the old days of on-premises systems, you would hire a contractor to manage your systems, and you’d pay them a monthly retainer basically to patch vulnerabilities and fix outages…” says O’Neil. “Now, that’s reflected in your monthly cost for the software. So the cloud broker fee tends to be a little bit lighter and a little bit more transparent. You’re paying for delivery of a specific capability.”

In general, the cloud provides an economical business model for acquiring significant IT capabilities. The big question is whether organizations are ready for these capabilities.

Jacob Stoller is principal of Toronto-based consultancy StollerStrategies. Send comments to editor@on-sitemag.com.

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