Symbiosis: One is free to move, the other is not. But they both need each other.
Eventually we will see computing as a utility like electricity that will be consumed on demand. I also believe that cloud infrastructure providers will ultimately be able to undercut the cost advantages and carbon footprint of the data centers of even the largest companies. Just not yet.
As Gartner’s 2012 Predicts, Cloud Computing dated December 8, 2011:
"The perceived (and real) risks to the technical reliability, integrity and security of applications and data that are entrusted to cloud providers hold back organizations' initiatives."
For many CIOs, we as an industry still need to overcome security issues, build trust from the IT organization, ensure open exchange of information, and even negotiate treaties on the rights of information domicile and ownership.
However, there are benefits to using the cloud and even the public cloud starting today that can transcend these issues. There are several use cases that require a cloud platform, particularly in the context of content and collaboration, that would not be possible or at least very difficult today. The first is when sharing information between companies, such as those that are currently described as an extranet, only easier to set up. The second is when information is public anyway and the efficiencies of cloud make distributing this information more efficient as well. The third is where the risk or cost of hacking or intrusion is low compared to a relatively high cost of operating computing resources internally. The fourth is when the need to provide information externally, particularly for the purposes of accessing in mobile environments, outweighs the relative risk of exposure of that information.
Business to Business Collaboration
Credit: Confederation of Indian Industry, Jan 2011
Business-to-Business Collaboration through IT systems has always been difficult when any one side of the collaboration is responsible for the infrastructure. Trying to get the IT organization in a large corporation, even a technology vendor, to set up an external system that is accessible from outside the firewall is nearly impossible—not from a technology perspective, but from an administrative perspective. And there is no way that the IT organization is providing a VPN.
This often leads to the default means for collaboration, which is email. I have been involved in enough standards and board meetings to recognize this is a real problem for even the big IT vendors. Perhaps this can be done with Private Cloud instances outside the firewall, but that again would require thinly stretched IT resources. Yet this needs to be done when two or more companies cooperate on development of products, joint bid offerings to customers or coordinated marketing campaigns. At the end of the collaboration, the results need to be owned by everyone, not just the one who set up the collaboration.
Information that is public by default provides another opportunity to share in the cloud. When I first started broaching the subject of Cloud Computing with CIOs and IT departments, I was met with a bit of incredulity about why anyone would want to do this. However, the idea of putting information that was already or should be public in the Cloud didn't really meet much resistance. After all, this is what everyone is doing with web content, either in a DMZ or CDN and Cloud provides an excellent vehicle to manage that content. Marketing departments want to provide marketing material to potential customers and see that material as wasted as long as it is behind the firewall. Also some government agencies must provide certain information to the public by law. If it is going to be public anyway, putting it behind the firewall is only hiding that information.
Small, Medium and Underserved Organizations
Medium and small size organizations are likely to have an IT department that is swamped, if they have one at all. This is the situation we have for internal systems here at Alfresco, like HR and expenses. However, this situation is not limited to smaller companies as even large companies have their underserved departments with strained resources likely focused on core business processes. Many collaboration and content needs may not get met and it may be impossible to know what the impact will be.
Smaller companies are more likely take the risk of putting content in the cloud or with a SaaS vendor, but increasingly, it is becoming more acceptable for non-mission critical departments to also store information in the cloud or with a service. That is if that service can be shown to guarantee security.
Sometimes speed of execution outweighs the risk of exposure. Many on-demand projects or customer interactions require IT resources "Right Now!" or business will be lost. Limiting the time of exposure in the wild or public sphere may help, but if business demands immediate access and IT cannot provide that, then organizations will seek ways to make it happen.
The Mobile Worker
Finally, there is that nether world outside of the office, but still in the domain of the enterprise. Increasingly, we are doing more and more work outside of an office. Right at this moment, I am writing this in my home office, away from any distractions. I am often on the road working - in the air, in a hotel, in a convention center - on presentations, plans or reports, much of which I would just keep in the enterprise. A similar situation exists where workers are out in the field or at a customer site, where working outside the office is essential. Increasingly, this work is being done on tablets and mobile devices.
These are situations where you would want to have the mobile device or laptop be seen as an extension of the firewall. However, using VPN connections is not always practical and can create their own security concerns. If you could put and store the content and materials you need to get the job done in the cloud, you would not only make yourself more productive, you could raise the productivity of the entire organization. This of course assumes that the content is secure and perhaps available only for the duration of the task at hand. The value of the work should exceed the risk of exposing the content.
There are many more situations where you wouldn't want to put content into the cloud. Any corporation that is regulated should consider documents and content under regulation and be stored on premise. Highly sensitive information such as board documents or legal documents should be maintained behind firewalls. I know of two very large corporations with very popular cloud services that are using Alfresco to store their documents behind the firewall for this reason. Records whose final disposition is managed and destruction guaranteed should be stored in a controlled environment. Mission-critical documents that must be absolutely accurate and must not be tampered with should also be considered behind the firewall.
However, these new use cases are so much easier in the cloud. They become the reason to start to move to the cloud and actually add value to the enterprise systems to which they are connected. As Gartner puts it:
"Users should plan for a gradual shift from on-premises IT architectures toward a hybrid model in which these architectures coexist and interoperate with public-cloud-based architectures. For most midsize to large user organizations, a shift to a totally public-cloud-based strategy will not happen during the next five years."
I have heard the term "Hybrid" used for this combination of In-the-Cloud and On-Premise enterprise structure. I prefer to use the term "Symbiosis" since these environments are very complementary and help maintain the health of each. The more symbiotic these systems are, the more effectively they will work. Just like symbiosis, the cloud and on-premise may be very different, but have evolved to derive mutual benefit. If you remember your high school biology, this is called Mutualism. From a content perspective, we can see how these use cases of on-demand content services, enabling mobile working and facilitating B2B collaboration can help the enterprise thrive. Likewise, the enterprise is the protector of information and the producer of content from internal processes.
Like any symbiotic relationship, these systems will reach a balance. As I said previously, I think it will be a long time before the cloud becomes a dominant component. However, equilibrium of 80/20 where 80 percent is in the enterprise and 20 percent is in the cloud could be something we see in the next few years. We are far from that equilibrium at the moment, but the signs are there. If we look at this as a symbiotic integration of systems, it's easier to see how we get there.
Our next lesson on Content Biology will be about “Content Osmosis”.