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Cloud technology – increasingly unimportant in important ways

Martin Banks Profile picture for user mbanks March 18, 2019
A reflection back on last week’s Cloud Expo at London’s ExCel, where it seemed clear a match shift is needed – and possibly imminent – but where vendors and users seem keen to cling on to old ways.

A strange thought occurred to me while walked round the exhibition hall at London’s ExCel Centre, where an ever-growing collection of barely-coupled 'Expo' events were being concurrently held. What started the thought was the fact there were just so many people there, and how so many seemed to be wandering around, lost, bemused and bumping into each other.

Some of that was no doubt down to the fact that, with each 'Expo' sharing the same large hall and using only sporadic outbursts of stand numbering, it inevitably became a byzantine labyrinth offering plenty of training for route marching and orienteering enthusiasts.

But some of that perceived bemusement had to be down to something different, something deeper. It was as though much of the audience was still wandering around trying to find out what all this cloud stuff was about!  And so the thought struck me - why are they even here? Why are they bothering themselves with technological details that really should never be their concern?

Let’s face it, at a conceptual level the cloud is pretty simple stuff and the primary concern of most users is what they can achieve by using it, how they can they exploit it for their own best purposes. Yes, what underpins that requirement is some fiercely complex technology. Indeed, as the reach of cloud and its range of application areas continues to grow so the breadth and depth of its complexity expands.

It has already reached the point where it can be safely argued that no single team in any business, can now understand the full details of the technologies, integrations, interactions, collaborations and the rest of the vast mix of '…ations' that are now implicit in bringing a business cloud service into operation. And for all those teams the question has to be - 'And why should we have to bother?’.

Caring about the wrong things

Few people in any business fret too much about what type of generating rig provides their electricity, or where it comes from, but they know damn well what they want to do with it. The same is now the case for the cloud.  All those people at Cloud Expo should not have been wandering around trying to work out what they should be doing about implementing cloud services;  they should just be outsourcing as much of the service provision as possible.

With one of the main sub-texts of all the conference sessions I got to attend being the acute and chronic shortage of skilled staff, it seemed clear that this alone should be a driver for business users to seek out service outsourcers, where those precious skills can be shared and exploited effectively.

Yet the overall impression I got was that most of the exhibitors at the show were pushing their implementation of a general ethos. In other words, the answer to complexity was for users to invest in some more complex  technology to help them overcome the existing complexity. I pass no judgement on whether that is down to wilful exploitation or an inability to see beyond the wonders of their own capabilities.

The need for much more outsourcery was shown in the presentation by Martin Veitch, Editorial Director at IDG, following a survey on outsourcing views and aspirations conducted by the company. This showed that, for the majority of businesses, major workloads are still largely being run on in-house data centers. It showed that users are finding it hard to move away from the traditional model of using systems from a single vendor, or at least as few vendors as possible.

This has the potential to create a growing gap between where many businesses could now be with their exploitation of IT resources and services, and the place they find themselves if they turn to vendors for support or advice. Users end up feeling it is just easiest to stick with the status quo.

Meanwhile the rate of change in IT, and even more so the breadth of changes and developments in additions to traditional IT, such as the IoT and mobile services - which in turn increases the potential for edge-based services - means that the traditional DIY model of IT implementation and deployment simply cannot hack it any more. There is no way any business can economically justify trying to plan, commission, implement, deploy, and manage such an environment on its own.

Here again, the staff issue is recognised as the key stumbling block, with lack of skills – and its corollary of finding enough people with the right skills and the difficulty of training up existing staff to have those skills - cited as leading the charge. An associated problem, especially once such staff are trained up, is the high salaries they can then expect. And with skilled staff in a seller’s marketplace, the obvious staff merry-go-round ensues, which makes planning current or future development or management projects difficult.

MSP – does that mean Missing the Service Point?

The Managed Service Provider (MSP) community presents itself as the most obvious solution to this problem, though this may not be the MSP as it has been traditionally understood with the most likely role played out in the technical applications area.

This is may well prove to be something of a salvation for a number of businesses, but in my view it will only prove to be temporary. Major Cloud Service Providers – the likes of Amazon, Microsoft Azure, Alibaba and Google, along with the smaller, more specialised players such as Rackspace -  are all finding that the need to add value to their offerings not only makes good sense but is now essential. Simply using resources on a data center is now a simple cost and materials sum (and only for the more important applications does it need to be multiplied by SLA restrictions and latency issues). Taken in isolation, this means that the cheapest wins.

The real costs for the users are in areas such as service contract management, implementation and demand management (over- or under-specifying requirements can lead to large cost over-runs, both of which can be driven by not understanding the real relationship between the business process required and the technology needed to deliver it).

These do sound like areas for which the MSP community would appear to be the perfect answer. But to date there is not much sign that they get it either. Most seem content to remain managing the affairs of their half-dozen or so clients. While sensible in the short-term, it is likely that, when those clients next get to an end-of-life/contract renewal they will be looking beyond their status quo, if only because they are bound to have at least one competitor that is getting good traction from being more adventurous.

To this specific point, the IDG survey indicated that outsourcing is now starting to be seen by businesses as a good option when growing into new markets and territories, as well as a way to quickly handle the changes that are brought by new regulations.

What is more likely is that the traditional MSPs will be replaced by an updated version of the generation of Value-Added Resellers that emerged when PCs became really viable business tools – at least, the ones that understood that the word `value’ meant a good deal more than just shifting boxes.

These are likely to be specialists – both broad-based and far more specialised, niche players – who can piggyback their business expertise on the increasingly rich infrastructure that the main Cloud Service Providers already have available. So they will be SaaS offerings, and the real skill for the CIO will likely change to become the Chief Integration Officer, the person with the capabilities to manage the third party managers and service providers in order to produce the focused, tightly targeted business solutions their employers need today.

That will mean they will also need to be able to change that focus – identify new services and manage their integration – as the business requirements change.

That is certainly the way one of the mainstream SaaS providers, Zoho, is starting to look. Speaking with Sridhar Iyengar, who heads up the European business at Zoho, suggested the company is now starting to work with channel partners that have specialised, niche market opportunities, but lack the breadth of more generalised business applications that are needed to support their specific offering in production environments.

The company has also now introduced a low-code toolset to help such companies build their own applications together with Zoho’s range of business management applications. This could help these channel partners provide end user CIOs with granular, tightly focused business solutions that could go a long way to combining the `pre-assembled business sub-systems’ and the specific niche specialisations they will require for their businesses.

My take

Years ago, when Service Oriented Architecture was seen as the bleeding edge of tech development, the notion of IT services as a utility was first kicked around. It has taken longer to get there than many hoped, but in the timescale that some of the older wiser heads (not mine) suggested was more likely. And now we can see the real start of it.

Yet there are also real signs that the tech vendors are moving against it – not because they will be cut out of the market (quite the opposite) but because they will no longer be front line brand names any more. Their tech will still lie at the heart of it all, but in much the same way that I bet few can name a steam turbine maker despite the fact they will still be at the heart of nuclear fusion power stations if they ever get going, few will care what brand name is on the servers or the racks.

So it will go with cloud services. And for what it is worth I say the sooner the better. The sooner users are focusing on what they want to achieve with it all, rather than struggling to translate those needs into tech terms – each with a dozen options to pick from – the sooner the next big step forward in business can begin.

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