Why there’s no such thing as a ‘cloud strategy’

Today’s email brought yet another invitation to a cloud event. This one is a travelling road show with keynotes and multiple break-out sessions to explore developing a cloud strategy and different aspects of moving to the cloud. A whole day on the cloud with lunch and cocktails included. Great stuff to be sure. A must attend or another example of a good solution in search of a problem? 

There is no doubt that cloud computing offers opportunities to improve IT’s ability to deliver services to the business more cost effectively. This is especially true for high labour, low return, commodity activities that divert IT resources from those which can produce additional business value. Hence the recent announcement of Spanish bank BBVA to move 11,000 employees to a cloud service for routine office applications. While not all desktop support will disappear, the net result has to be a real increase in resources that BBVA’s IT organization can focus on improving support for the core business of banking, without the distraction of the constant grind to keep email in synch with mobile devices, and keeping routine office functions, document sharing, word processing and spreadsheets running smoothly. 

As cloud offers delivery of some generic services to the business at a better cost point than doing those services in-house, it makes sense that, if you aren’t already, you should start looking at what’s involved in moving to cloud. Will moving to the cloud produce value for your business? Is that even the right question to ask? The danger with cloud – or virtualization, green computing, BYOD, etc – is not that it isn’t a good idea that may have real benefits, but in understanding how can you use it as a part of your overall IT delivery infrastructure. 

Too often CIOs view IT strategic plans as exercises done to keep finance happy, set up a long-term capital budget for equipment replacement, and sit on a shelf gathering dust until the next budget cycle. After all, most of IT management is focused on the day-to-day tactical delivery business. The overall business’ strategic plan is impacted by changes in economic climate, market factors, and external factors such as changes in government policy, among many. IT strategic plans have to evolve, sometimes very quickly, to enable the business to meet those changing conditions, by adding new function and improving effectiveness of current systems. IT has to be opportunistic, with flexibility to adopt new technologies to continue provide best overall IT value. The IT strategic plan defines the architecture, not just the technical infrastructure, but also the business approach to how the services are to be delivered.   

While a source of information, the answer to whether moving to the cloud is right for your business won’t come from seminars explaining how to set a “cloud strategy.” It has to come from your IT strategic plan and the architecture that implements it. That the cloud benefits are clear enough to percolate into industries as risk adverse as banking warrants a further look. If the benefits are there for your business, and cloud isn’t already a part of the IT strategic plan, then there are only two alternatives: change the plan or forget about cloud.

Considering cloud then starts with reviewing and adjusting your IT strategic plan’s architecture. How does the plan allocate IT resources for service delivery? With any strategic plan change, you need to ask what are and how will the impacts on existing systems and their planned lifecycles be addressed. The plan should define the parameters for determining which services must be performed in-house as core and which services are commodity – to be obtained in the most cost effective way that meets delivery standards. The plan doesn’t need to define the services; that’s what the service catalog is for. The plan should define the basis for how decisions on services are to be made. If buying third party services and outsourcing is already part of your strategic approach and is incorporated into your architecture (e.g. security controls are defined and can actually be operationalized, linkages to other systems defined, etc), then considering cloud may not be strategic at all, just another make/buy option. If your plan and architecture don’t provide for managing and integrating services produced out-of-house, then any discussion of cloud is premature. With the rapid acceptance of cloud and other new approaches to service delivery, updating your thinking and the IT strategic plan is a necessity to ensure that you can continue to deliver IT value to the business.

With a strategic plan and architecture in place that envisions the IT delivery infrastructure as a blend of in-house and outsourced services, the decision to consider cloud or any other new technology or service option becomes part of the normal operational business of a CIO – managing the delivery infrastructure cost effectively. A decision on use of cloud-based services can be viewed as what it is: buying an external service. If your operational specifications can be met, the price is right, and the experience of existing customers confirms that the vendor produces as it says it will, then whether the service is delivered by your server on-site, a third party across town, or “in the cloud” shouldn’t matter. It’s a business decision on services delivered to an agreed service level at an agreed cost.  And should that cost be less keeping the processing in-house, that’s just as valid. The danger with cloud or any other new service is that we as IT people get into the details of the technology and lose sight of why we have an IT strategic plan: to keep IT’s focus on the needs of the business.   

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