Although the song was originally written to describe a different environment than what we see today, the lyrics and the message are universally true and timeless.
Change is inevitable and a fact of life, but one thing that is different in the last 5 years is the pace of the change. We have gone from changes that take decades to notice and impact our lives, to changes that are measured in months.
The most notable and rapid changes are technology related – so how should a modern business deal with this environment? How fast should the change be adopted? How much should be adopted? Can you afford to “wait it out”?
The topic is complex and vast – there are many examples of change and technology adoption revitalizing the business and enabling it to soar to new heights, but there are also many examples of change having the exact opposite effect. So, what is the right answer? As with most things that truly matter – there is no simple answer, no magic “one liner” that just makes it work. However, there are guidelines and best practices that when understood and followed can guarantee a positive and successful outcome.
Here is a simple 5 step process that will get you started in the right direction:
- Establish a baseline – it’s impossible to grow and change without a baseline. Rely on experts that understand both the business and the technology to perform an audit of your existing environment and give you a written report. Use this report as a baseline and starting point for any change.
- Determine realistic business goals for the next 3, 6, 12, 24 and 36 months. Forget about the technology and focus on the business – every good technology improvement accomplishes a very specific business goal. You must have a “big picture” – without it any solutions that are implemented will cause as many issues as they solve.
- Identify an in-house “technology champion” – business oriented individual(s) that understand the value and importance of technology, standardization and automation. This person or a group of people need to be able to bridge the gap between technology and business. This is one of the most difficult and sensitive roles and requires a very specific combination of business knowledge and expertise combined with a natural affinity for process improvement.
- Small steps – series of small changes and improvements made over time are easier to manage and control and the value of the end result is much greater than the sum of individual improvements. A word of caution; never lose sight of the “big picture” and make sure that all small projects and improvements are properly fitting and contributing to the “big picture”.
- Find the right balance between the “in-house” work and “off the shelf” products and don’t be afraid to use them both. This balance greatly depends on the size of the organization and is a topic for discussion in itself, but the rule of thumb is that whatever your business problem may be, others have likely faced it and solved it – so seek the industry experts and look for advice before plunging into custom solutions. More than likely, “there’s an app for that”.
The times may be changing, and at it may feel overwhelming and too complex to tackle new technologies, but luckily there are others who are currently going through the same process and others who have already done it. Peers, industry contacts and events are an excellent way to reach out to experts and ensure that changes you are making are done right and in a way that fits your unique business circumstances. When properly implemented, technology can propel businesses to extraordinary heights.
I believe that we are at the tipping point where more and more businesses are going to move their hosted infrastructure from in-house to one of the large providers.
Cloud computing has been around for more than 9 years, but it was 2006 when Amazon popularized the term with the introduction of “Elastic Cloud Computing”. This makes cloud computing mature and established technology – because as we all know 9 years in real life is like 1001 in techie years.
That makes the question of “to use the cloud or not?” more and more dated every month. However, even to this day there are many misconceptions and a fair degree of uncertainty surrounding the whole issue. The ones I hear all the time are: “Is it secure?”, “How do I get access to my data?”, “Is it compliant with regulations?” These are all great questions and as the technology has matured the answers to these questions have been evolving.
An example of the evolution of cloud computing, is that the services offered by Microsoft, Google or Amazon, the big three cloud providers, continue to be better, faster and cheaper. Most recently the costs have dropped to the point where it’s not possible to have a reasonable “in-house” configuration that’s comparable and competitive to what the cloud providers are offering. These recent changes make the cloud related questions even more relevant than ever.
So, what is the cloud? This is a question that doesn’t have a simple answer that everyone can agree on, but is clearly a question that needs to be answered before we see mature businesses and industries shift to the cloud infrastructure. So, rather than focusing on a complex and unavoidably techie answer, I think it’s better to answer the question with an analogy.
The best analogy that I recently heard was comparing cloud computing to the industrial revolution. I couldn’t agree more. Just like the industrial revolution, cloud computing is many different things to many different businesses and individuals, but overall it’s a powerful force of change that is enabling many technology start-ups to grow at astronomical rates. The best and most well-known example is Netflix whose entire infrastructure is running on Amazon’s cloud services. Last year Netflix did $5.5B in revenue and reached a truly amazing milestone of over $1M in revenue per employee. The same infrastructure they use is at the disposal of any start-up in the world for less than a cost of a new laptop per month. How awesome is that?
So why wouldn’t we all use cloud computing? Depending who we talk to there are different objections, questions and concerns that are raised. As it turns out, all of them can be grouped into two main objections:
The Intangible Objection
Given the Netflix example, most people will agree that cloud computing is great, scalable and cost effective – but is it for “real” businesses? Is it for businesses that were around long before the cloud and all related technology even existed? How can such businesses entrust their customer and other sensitive data to something abstract like the cloud?
This intangible objection is something that I run into all the time – and I believe that it’s caused by the abstract nature of the name used to describe this awesome modern service that allows us to outsource our infrastructure to a trusted provider. The very name “Cloud” implies that our sensitive data is somewhere out there and that we can’t really control or trust who or what has access to our data. This is why I stopped using the word “Cloud” and started to refer to this great service as “Managed Infrastructure”.
Managed infrastructure is easy to explain and easy to understand. Take the servers you have today, which are most likely already virtual servers running on VMware, and replace the underlying hardware infrastructure that’s been managed and maintained by your in-house IT department with a hardware infrastructure that is managed by trusted providers. That’s it. It’s still your servers, completely managed and controlled by your IT department. Instead of running on your own hardware hosted at costly data centers (and most likely insufficiently redundant) these servers are now running on state of the art hardware managed by one of the big 3 providers. Better, faster, more secure and less expensive.
The Legal Objection
This is a Canada specific objection, raised simply by the fact that infrastructure used by the three big providers is physically located in the USA. So does this matter or not?
There are two federal laws that protect the privacy of Canadians – the Privacy Act and Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA).
The Privacy Act is related to the rights to access personal information that is held by the government and as such applies only to government institutions. Therefore it doesn’t apply in this case.
The second act, PIPEDA is the one that governs how private and public sector businesses that acquire personal data for commercial purposes need to manage such data. PIPEDA is a complex and long act, but in essence it states that a business that collects personal data for the purpose of commercial activity is fully accountable and responsible for the protection of collected data. However, it does not require all Canadian businesses to store collected data in Canada.
In addition to PIPEDA which is a federal act, there are other provincial acts related to personal information protection that address how public companies need to handle personal information or have acts that have been declared to be “substantially similar” to PIPEDA.
Considering the current Canadian legislation there is nothing that would prevent a private Canadian business from using managed infrastructure services offered by a company outside of Canada, as long as the Canadian business performs the same due diligence they should perform when hosting the data inside Canada. This due diligence should cover different aspects of data management such as physical security, data encryption, deletion of data after the contract is terminated, etc.
Given that both the legal and the intangible objection can be addressed in a reasonable manner and that the cost of managed infrastructure offered by cloud providers has dropped significantly over the past few months, I believe that we are at the tipping point where more and more businesses are going to move their hosted infrastructure from in-house to one of the large providers.
This trend has already started with a wide adoption of applications that are running on cloud based infrastructure. Odds are that either you or someone you know is already using Microsoft Office 365 and/or Salesforce.com to run their day to day business.
So why does cloud computing matter? It matters because just like the industrial revolution, it’s fundamentally changing how business is done and what it means to be a successful modern enterprise that can attract the best talent and provide the best customer experience.
Provincial Canadian Geographic Restrictions on Personal Data in the Public Sector – The Center for Information Policy Leadership – Hunton & Williams LLP, 2008 http://www.hunton.com/files/Publication/2a6f5831-07b6-4300-af8d-ae30386993c1/Presentation/PublicationAttachment/0480e5b9-9309-4049-9f25-4742cc9f6dce/cate_patriotact_white_paper.pdf
FREEDOM OF INFORMATION AND PROTECTION OF PRIVACY ACT [RSBC 1996] CHAPTER 165 http://www.bclaws.ca/civix/document/LOC/complete/statreg/–%20F%20–/Freedom%20of%20Information%20and%20Protection%20of%20Privacy%20Act%20[RSBC%201996]%20c.%20165/00_Act/96165_03.xml#division_d2e3112
Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada – Acts and Regulations – Privacy Legislation in Canada https://www.priv.gc.ca/resource/fs-fi/02_05_d_15_e.asp