Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Looking forward or backward? Cloud makes you decide what IT wants to be known for

Cloud computing is all about choice. I’ve heard that a lot. What most people mean when they say this is that there are suddenly a whole bunch of places to run your IT workloads. At Amazon using EC2 or at Rackspace? At ScaleMatrix or Layered Tech? Or inside your own data center on a private cloud you’ve created yourself?

But there are some more fundamental choices that cloud seems to present as well. These choices are about what IT is going to be when it grows up. Or at least what it’s going to morph into next.

Here are 3 big decisions that I see that cloud computing forces IT to make, all of which add up to one, big, fundamental question: will IT define itself as an organization that looks toward the future or back into the past? Before you scoff, read on: the answer, even for those eagerly embracing the cloud, may not be as clear as you think.

The business folks’ litmus test for IT: Cloud v. No Clouds

First off, the business people in big organizations are using the rise of cloud computing, even after setbacks like the recent Amazon outage, to test whether IT departments are about looking forward or backward. When the business folks come to IT and describe what they are looking for, they now expect cloud-type reaction times, flexibility, infinite options, and pay-as-you-go approaches. At that point, IT is forced to pick sides. Will they acknowledge that cloud is an option? Will IT help make that option possible, if that’s the right choice for the business? Or will they desperately hold onto the past?

Embracing cloud options in some way, shape, or form puts IT on the path to being known as the forward-looking masters of the latest and greatest way of delivering on what the business needs. Rejecting consideration of the cloud paints IT as a cabal of stodgy naysayers who are trying their darnedest to keep from having to do anything differently.

John Treadway tweeted a great quote from Cloud Connect guru Alistair Croll on this same topic: "The cloud genie is out of the bottle. Stop looking for the cork and start thinking [about] what to wish for."

The business folks know this. They will use IT’s initial reaction to these options as a guide for future interactions. Pick incorrectly, and the business isn’t likely to ask again. They’ll do their own thing. That path leads to less and less of IT work being run by IT.

OK. Say IT decides to embrace the cloud as an option. The hard choices don’t stop there.

A decision about the IT role: Factory Manager v. Supply Chain Orchestrator

Starting to make use of cloud computing in real, live situations puts IT on a path to evaluate what the role of IT actually evolves into. Existing IT is about running the “IT factory,” making the technology work, doing what one CIO I heard recently called “making sure the lights don’t flicker.” This is IT’s current comfort zone.

However, as you start using software, platforms, and infrastructure as-a-service, IT finds itself doing less of the day-to-day techie work. IT becomes more of an overseer and less of the people on the ground wiring things together.

I’ve talked about this role before as a supply chain orchestrator, directing and composing how the business receives its IT service, and not necessarily providing all that service from a company’s own data centers. You can make a good case that this evolution of IT will give it a more strategic seat at the table with the business users.

But, even if you decide you want to consider cloud-based options and you’re all in favor of changing the role of IT itself, there’s still another question that will have a big effect on the perception – and eventual responsibilities – of IT.

The problem with sending the new stuff cloud: Building IT expertise in Legacy v. Cutting Edge

Everyone who has made the choice to use cloud computing is next faced with the logical follow-on question: so, what do I move to the cloud? And, then, what do I keep in-house to run myself?
And that’s where I think things get tricky. In many cases, the easiest thing to do is to consider using the cloud for new applications – the latest and greatest. This lets you keep the legacy systems that are already working as they are – running undisturbed as the Golden Rules of IT and a certain 110-year-old light bulb suggest (“if it’s working, don’t touch it!”).

But that choice might have the unintended effect of pigeonholing your IT staff as the caretakers of creaky technology that is not at the forefront of innovation. You push the new, more interesting apps off elsewhere – into the cloud. In trying to make a smart move and leverage the cloud, IT misses its chance to show itself as a team that is at (and can handle) the leading edge.

Maybe I’m painting this too black and white, especially in IT shops where they are working to build up a private cloud internally. And maybe I’m glossing over situations where IT actually does choose to embrace change in its own role. In those situations, there will be a “factory” role, alongside an “orchestrator” role. But that “factory” manager role will be trimmed back to crucial, core applications – and though they are important, they are also the ones least in need of modernization.

Either way, isn’t the result still this?: IT’s innovation skills get lost over time if they don’t take a more fundamental look at how they are running all of their IT systems, environment, and how they look at their own roles.

The problem I see is that big enterprises aren’t going to suddenly reassess everything they have on the first day they begin to venture into the cloud. However, maybe they should. For the good of the skills and capability and success of their IT teams, a broader view should be on the table.

Short-term and long-term answers

So, as you approach each of these questions, be sure to look not only at the immediate answer, but also at the message you’re sending to those doing the asking. Your answers today will have a big impact on all future questions.

All of this, I think, points out how much of a serious, fundamental shift cloud computing brings. The cloud is going to affect who IT is and how it’s viewed from now on. Take the opportunity to be the one proactively making that decision in your organization. And if you send things outside your four walls, or in a private cloud internally, make sure you know why – and the impact these decisions will have on IT’s perception with your users.

Since cloud computing is all about choice, it’s probably a smart idea to make sure you’re the one doing the choosing.