Beyond infrastructure: Turning cloud computing into concrete, measurable benefits

It might seem odd to give advice on cloud adoption at this point in the hype cycle. After all, much of the industry considers public cloud a settled area with established practices and success stories. Surely there’s more than enough advice to help newcomers plan and execute their cloud transition?

Despite all the available information, I still see organizations struggling along the way on their cloud journey. Many well-intentioned cloud migration programs sputter and stall in their attempt to turn the promise of on-demand elastic compute into concrete, measurable benefits to their business.

Sure, we have shelves of literature describing how to architect cloud systems “well” and how to securely engineer complex compute environments and network topologies. But there’s still very little information on how to structure your organization, to employ operating models that embrace the potential of extreme virtualization. Finally, I see businesses busily ignoring the lessons of the past and creating fleets of assets that will be, at best, costly to maintain and at worst, unmaintainable.

In their haste to move to the cloud, organizations are accruing technical debt faster than they can pay it down. They’re creating one-off, hard-to-replicate environments and failing to implement even the most basic quality checks on those assets. In the long run, these assets will consume far more in maintenance costs than will ever be saved in moving from an on-premise data center to a public cloud provider.

In this article I’ll try to point out some of the common pitfalls I’ve seen companies make in their move to the cloud and then humbly offer an alternative.

Why is cloud success so elusive?

I’ve seen this pattern play out a number of times over the course of my career. A new technology comes along, it promises to be the future. Industry analysts draw quadrants and select winners and businesses assume that by going with a winner, they can avoid the hard work of learning a new discipline. They assume that by selecting the right IT outsourcing partner and managing the costs closely, the business benefits will naturally accrue. This has never been the case.

Businesses that succeed with new technology do so by adapting their organization, their operating model, and their engineering capabilities to the new paradigm. In many cases they also need to adapt their business model as well.

In the case of cloud, one way this fallacy manifests is in the belief that cloud is simply an alternate form of infrastructure. Cloud becomes the responsibility of the infrastructure or operations division who previously managed data centers and physical networks.

But cloud isn’t just a virtual form of hardware infrastructure. Rather, it’s 100% software.

The same businesses that hand over cloud implementation to an infrastructure or operations team would never dream of handing that same team a major, multi-year software development project. But that’s what cloud implementation is: a major, multidisciplinary, software delivery effort.

Another common pitfall that businesses encounter in their rush to move to the cloud — and which constrains their long-term success — is to become deeply and inextricably entangled with a single cloud vendor.

The three major vendors have achieved relative parity across a fundamental set of services and are competing fiercely to capture a larger portion of the market. Their pricing, the services they offer, and their business practices all encourage cloud customers to consume ever more services and to take greater advantage of the vendor’s unique, differentiating features. These proprietary features are inherently difficult to port from one vendor to another. And single-vendor entanglement also carries risk — primarily by moving control over IT decision-making away from the business and into the hands of the vendor.

The four dimensions of successful cloud adoption

I’ve noticed that the most successful cloud adoption strategies go beyond replatforming and instead incorporate a 360-degree approach to change. You might be lucky enough to lower costs by considering infrastructure alone but to see an impact on top-line revenue, market share, or innovation, your response must be broader. Shifting from on-premise infrastructure to cloud hosting is only the first step. Maximizing the business benefit from a move to cloud requires attention to the following four dimensions:

Technical excellence

Cloud is software and effectively leveraging cloud requires an investment in software engineering capability. Cloud-native engineering is more than simply leveraging a vendor’s services, it requires rethinking some common assumptions about resilience and application design. Infrastructure code demands the same attention to quality as you would apply to customer-facing systems. Successful software delivery efforts should deliver business value early and often. Cloud implementation is no different.

Autonomy with alignment

Moving from a world of physical resources — maintained by specialists and housed in a remote colocation facility — to software-defined network, compute, storage and support is a significant organizational disruption. Delivery teams are now responsible for defining and maintaining their own hosting environments. Security, compliance, strategic alignment, and support responsibilities all shift to the left.

Self-service platforms

Cloud vendors — through their APIs and broad education efforts — have democratized access to hosting environments. This ease of access must be passed along to corporate developers if corporations are expecting to see the step change in productivity that cloud affords. Internal, self-service cloud platforms should be optimized to roll out customer-centric digital products at an accelerating pace.

Vendor choice

Every business needs a multi-cloud strategy. That strategy might be to accept the risk of single-vendor dependency in exchange for developer productivity and favourable pricing. But this must be a deliberate choice rather than a series of unconscious actions. It also pays to be aware of the unique services each vendor offers so that you can choose from a palette of options, rather than being tied to a single vendor for all your needs.

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