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Digital sobriety - how cloud economists can help wean data junkies off of their fix

Martin Banks Profile picture for user mbanks March 16, 2023
As a cloud services provider, Nutanix felt it needed to find a way to help its customers confront some of these issues and came up with a new job role – the cloud economist – someone to work with customers and get them beyond just thinking about the tech. I tracked one down to find out more


It is one of the stranger side issues of IT is that it is called IT – Information Technology – rather than, say IEFBA – Information Exploitation For Business Advantage. OK, IEFBA is a bit of a mouthful, but it does actually describe what it really going on. The real objective is to exploit the information available in order to get a business to align its skills and resources far better with what the available marketplace is seeking.

Yes, the technology is important, but in the end is still only of any value if it can operate as the servant of IEFBA. Yet for far too many vendors, it is the technology that is the star of the show. The bragging rights are nearly always led by some capability the technology can provide. What can be worse is that the bragging rights end up as the primary arbiters of acceptability for many users when it comes to specifying the business solutions to take them into the future. The results have often been found to be disappointing at best, and even damaging over the long  haul to a business system lifecycle.

Some technology vendors, regardless of their views on the excellence of their technical solutions, are starting to realise that continuing to focus promotion on that excellence is pushing users in the wrong direction for the wrong reasons. In something of a significant volte-face, they are starting to employ end-user economists, whose role is a mixture of educator and business analyst aimed at helping end users identify the wider business value of what they feel they would like to achieve and what is possible to achieve with the technology available.

One such vendor is Nutanix, and Steen Dalgas is one of a global team of 28 Cloud Economists the company has now built up to help customers see the business value wood despite the technology trees. Dalgas explains: 

What customers really needed was help understanding the business value. So could we explain that business value terms? Could we help them build a business case to take that business value, translate it into business case, and then structure deals around that? So that means deal structuring, and then also look to bring financing in.

This team is now working with around 70% of the business that Nutanix handles, and Dalgas sees the contribution it makes as not just customer hand-holding during a sales process, but as a means of demonstrating common business metrics such as ROI in a far deeper, more practical way than the normal juggling with spreadsheets and stats. Once involved with a customer the team goes back in to check on progress and to see what the return is in practical terms across the business: 

The customer can see the value they've got. We promised they're going to get these outcomes and this business case, and we'll go back and do the business case three years later. We'll rerun those numbers and we'll ask, `did we deliver what we said we were going to deliver’? And it's all about that we use this to help grow our presence with a customer. I think it's quite an honest way of doing business.

Sustainable business continuity

A curious side argument here is that a focus on technology as the main driver of any choice is that the choice of technology can often be quite subjective, and the continued success – or otherwise – of the decisions taken can then hinge on the continued presence or absence of the individuals that made the choice. This is often not least because they have chosen technologies that they themselves understand and know how to make work effectively.

Up to a point there is nothing wrong with that scenario, but should those individuals leave for any reason, then the continuity of understanding needed to maintain the existing systems will probably be lost. The obverse of this, of course, is that the champions of a certain technology will insist on its efficacy regardless of obvious deficiencies in meeting the needs of changed business objectives and requirements.   

Here, the role of the economist is to provide that continuity of connection between the company and its business objectives as they change, because there will then be a business-based track record of development and growth, rather than one based on technology. This helps both the user companies and the vendors that support them to work together over the long haul regardless of technology. The lingua franca in play becomes the business goals. Dalgas explains: 

Say, the people we sell to originally move on and new people are coming through. So you have to basically go back and demonstrate the value again. They won't know what was there before. They won't know you had your 20 racks of servers and how there are now only two racks, or what mess that you had before.

This approach has an impact when the key drivers for the future of a business are just a couple of key metrics, such as profit and loss, and business risk and resilience. But now a much wider range of factors are coming into play that must be accommodated, especially when it comes to any business operating in the cloud. 

The shift of sustainability from a 'nice to have, but...’ aspect, to what is now the primary goal that all businesses must meet, is adding a new tranche of KPIs and metrics to the management equation of every business. This also changes the dynamic of business management as it is no longer just about making a profit this year, but more about making the decisions and taking the actions that build a business case which ensures the organization will be in good operational health two or three years into the future.

Dalgas sees sustainability issues as making his job, in one way at least, easier. Users are likely to readily understand that there are now many issues in play that they don’t understand and do need help with – and while technologies will contribute to those issues they will no longer be center stage. This is unlike cloud services in his view:

With the cloud, I think a lot of people have had the impression that it's cheap, and you don't have to have any equipment. You can sell all the old stuff off, move everything to the cloud, and then almost forget about it. And as long as you keep paying your $100 or whatever the fee is, it'll work by magic somehow. They don't understand many of the issues, including even simple issues such as when you're not using an instance you should shut it down otherwise you'll pay him for it in perpetuity.

Data - stay sober, don’t binge it

The addition of sustainability into the business transformation issue makes planning for business value a good deal more complex. For example there is now the need to factor in new legislation and requirements, such as the European Union greenhouse gas protocols. Here, even if a business is 100% cloud-based, it will have to account to its customers for its energy consumption and carbon footprint, which will now be classed as 'raw materials' to customers.

These are metrics that will be driven by external factors over which they have little or no control except the ability to shop around for better service providers, or change/adapt internal business processes and operations to reduce energy consumption.  Dalgas comments:

It is about trying to get ahead of what it is our customers are going to need, and how can we be positioned to support them through this massive change in the business. From an IT perspective, we've got a fundamental challenge.

One of the key parts of that challenge now is to square the circle where the use of IT is growing the user community’s carbon footprint at around 10% a year, doubling carbon emissions by 2030, yet the United Nations objectives are to cut emissions by 45% in the same time period if a climate catastrophe is to be avoided.

Dalgas sees the cloud economist community as a key enabler to help businesses square the circle of continuing to growth while meeting the new pressures and requirements. But he also suggests it is important that they get their heads round to collective possibilities that come from three areas: continued technology innovation, operational efficiencies and what he terms digital sobriety.

Technology innovation is both predictable – in that something is almost bound to happen – and unpredictable – no one can be certain what.  Operational efficiencies come from helping users to understand  that, if the use an application it is going use an amount of CO2, and that their behaviour impacts what they pay for something, and what the carbon emissions are. Dalgas says: 

You'll get a bill for using public cloud, and you should get an emissions piece of paper telling you what your emissions are. And so you want to be able to do that for all forms of cloud as well, not just public clouds. If you can create that link, you can then basically get some behavioral changes.

One of the changes Dalgas is keen to introduce is that third factor, digital sobriety. It is an objective where he suggests the French already have a lead, to the point that President Macron is already talking about it as part of government thinking. In essence it is simple, it is about everyone taking responsibility for the way they use IT resources and accept their digital responsibilities. Underpinning this is the need to improve the way that data is quickly identified as useful or irrelevant, and the way in which useful data is organised so that it can be exploited as quickly as possible, adds Dalgas: 

Data is really important, but we don't know which data is important. We have just got too much of it and we're not very good at organising it in an efficient way.

My take

It's been the case that storing data was actually expensive because the technology was expensive and limited in capability. Now factors like storage capacity are almost limitless and the actual costs, especially in cloud environments, are at least obscured, if not hidden completely. But suddenly, with the increasing realisation that sustainability is now a serious and urgent issue, the cost of data is a primary target and target for far greater levels of sober consideration. Cloud economists are going to have their work cut out for them. 

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