Thursday, June 23, 2011

What the cloud really means for IT

I sat in on a google vision conference in Cambridge. It was very cool, in fact until then every time my boss mentioned moving email to the cloud I had to try not to roll my eyes. Hopefully I didn’t do it when he was looking, but our IT management team occasionally disagree and have good dialog around why each of us think what we think. At the end of the day we generally come to an agreement.

After the conference though I went from reluctantly saying I’d do it, after all work is not a democracy, to probably being the most pro-cloud one of the group. Partly this is because I started really using Google apps, and it’s pretty good. The user interface probably isn’t as polished as the Microsoft Office tools but frankly it does what I need it to do and aside from a few annoyances works well.

More importantly though was the Google vision of 100% web. It’s the idea that soon everything will be a web based application and the only thing you will need is a web browser to do your work. Frankly we aren’t that far away from that now. At Enterasys we use SAP,, Email, Office (for documents, spreadsheets, notes and presentations) Agile for engineering document control, and a host of smaller web applications for things like purchase requisitions, job requisitions, expense reports, time off reporting. In fact the only application on this list that we use a thick client for is SAP. They have a web gui now but we still use the client.

Up until this when we talked to “cloud people” they always tried to sell me on cost savings and “Opex versus Capex” discussions. Frankly the cost savings rarely panned out when we drilled into it. We run a very lean IT shop and if there were cost savings, once we threw in training and ramp up time, it was a wash at least for a few years. Saving $20,000 a year is great, but going to the cloud is a big change and doesn’t really warrant the career risk if it goes wrong.

Maybe opex is better than capex, I don’t claim to be a financial genius, but at the end of the day it’s all money the company is spending whether it’s all at once or spread into monthly payments. I tend to think of it like car shopping. It’s always better, for me at least, to buy the car than to lease it. I drive my cars around 50,000 miles a year and since most leases are for 12k a year that makes me a poor candidate for a lease, plus if something happens I have the option to keep the car longer at no additional cost. I tend to keep my cars longer than most so the up front cost makes sense.

When the economy went downhill we stretched our IT budget by delaying server upgrades for an extra year or more. This isn’t something you get to do when you are on a monthly subscription basis. Which means my options to reduce spending is reduced to cutting training, travel or headcount. Of course when I own the infrastructure reducing headcount by 5% also doesn’t reduce my costs by 5% like it would in the cloud.

So the financial side of it isn’t very interesting to me. The google approach was different though. They didn’t even mention costs or capex, well maybe they did but I was probably spacing out at that point thinking “Well this was an afternoon wasted”

As they walked through the 100% web idea though it suddenly hit me. It’s not about the money, it’s about the new role of IT. If we get everything to the cloud or at least web based, all of a sudden we really can get to a stateless client where any web client will allow people to work. I can use my Dell laptop running Windows 7, I can use my iPad or I can use my HTC Evo Android phone, and I can work from anywhere that has an Internet connection.

If you ask most people in the company what IT does you will probably get something along the lines of “They fix my computer”, “They run the servers”, or if you are really lucky “They support my application”. All of these answers revolve around running IT. That’s because something like 70-80% of IT is running IT, not adding new value. It’s no wonder that they think of us as “printer guys”. It’s what we have been doing.

I looked at what our IT department did and realized, though we are pretty good, we still spent over 50% of our IT resources on running systems and desktops. If we went to a 100% web environment I could easily change my staffs focus from running IT, to enabling the business. Just think...

Instead of iunstalling patches on laptops we can work on new integration tools
If we aren't building new servers we could be finding and testing new applications
If we didn't have to watch backups we would have time to talk to the business and help them be more efficient
Instead of testing disaster recovery we can redesign process to reduce costs

I think in the next 3-5 years this trend will continue, and we will spend less time on maintenance and even less on development and much more focus on training, which we are terrible at as an industry, and analysis. The chart shows what we expect to see as we implement more cloud and web services.

In summary we expect that by leveraging the cloud and moving to 100% web we will reduce the amount of time spent running IT and instead spend more time helping the rest of the business run better.

If you work in IT and are saying to yourself, “Well that’s great except I’m a server administrator. What do I do?” First don’t panic. Even if we go as fast as we could it will be three years or more before most companies don’t have local servers, plus servers don’t go away they move to cloud providers. So if you really like working with servers, you can always work for one of them.

But before you update your resume and plan to move to a large cloud provider, stop. Close your eyes and think for 30 seconds about what you would really like to be working on. Be honest. Now I’m going to go out on a limb and say very few people said “I really want to get paged at 2:00AM because of a hard drive failure”, or “I want to watch backup tapes spin”, but many of us have to do just that.

There are a few skills that everyone should work on though to prepare for this changing role of IT. The first is one that we should be doing better with now, soft skills. As a group we still tend to not listen well and get set in our ways. I catch myself doing this frequently and have to step back and think about what users are really asking for. It’s a skill that doesn’t come easy to everyone but it’s very important.

Learn to speak to people. It’s very easy to fire back an email response and avoid communicating, but it’s much more impactful when you actually go talk to someone. Plus many times you can spend much less time on a problem when you have instant dialog. I’ve seen people spend 5 hours sending emails back and forth and when they finally went over it took 10 minutes to solve.

Get in touch with your inner geek. It’s OK to spend time “playing around with” new stuff. Google actually tells people 20% of their time should be working on something that they are passionate about. I’m not quite sure I can have everyone spend a day a week on something interesting, but I like the idea.

I actually spent a few days last week working on “AppInventor”. It’s a cool little cloud based applications that lets you build applications for an android phone. Now that really has nothing to do with what I do, but it was fun and got me thinking of a way to leverage that to get Enterasys some marketing. We are working on building a practice test for network engineers working on their Enterasys certifications. Was this time well spent? I guess we will see, but I think so.

If everyone had time to talk to their peers in the rest of the business and could work on a pet project that may add brand recognition or revenue to the company, wouldn’t it be a better place?

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