For learning and development teams, cloud is nothing new

What does the emergence of cloud computing really mean for your organization?

One expert says, despite the buzz word, cloud computing should be looked at as nothing new when it comes to learning and development (L&D).

Billy Biggs is director of learning strategies at General Physics Corporation and recently wrote a white paper about how L&D should handle cloud. He tells FCB more about why this really can be business as usual, but starts out by explaining that many are still wary because, well, the definition of cloud has been undefined for a relatively long period of time.

BB: I think the difficulty around trying to define what cloud computing [is because] it’s still evolving. The technology is still evolving and, up until late last year, you really had no authoritative body providing one specific definition.

Until NIST released its definition late last year, it became a little easier for folks to get their hands around it, but to complicate matters, I think that the different cloud offerings that are available to consumers — whether it’s software-as-a-service, infrastructure-as-a-service or platform-as-a-service — with all the complicated ecosystems of vendors and partners and approaches, really complicates things on what cloud computing means to a lot of different people.

FCB: In your paper, you talk about [being] behind the firewall and third party, externally hosted services. How is cloud different and is cloud even necessarily better?

BB: I’m not sure it’s necessarily better at this point, but it’s certainly different. I would kind of describe it as that shiny and new technology or toy that’s out there and available.

Behind the firewall and third party hosting models are now considered more traditional models, where there are usually constraints on user populations, data or content.

Cloud is a little bit different in that it’s more of a pay-as-you-go model. It’s sold on demand. There are really no restrictions on data or content consumption by users.

I like to use the example of buying a car, versus, perhaps, having a taxi available at your discretion. So, in a traditional hosting model, you would have a situation where you would make a purchase, just like going out to buy a car, and you could do anything you wanted to to that car — or that application, whether it’s customized or integrated with other systems.

Cloud’s completely different. You pay as you go. For example, if you use the application a great deal one month, your costs are going to be a lot higher, like a taxi would if you used it a couple of days a week, versus a couple of times a day. It’s kind of the same concept.

FCB: Let’s talk a little bit about whether deciding cloud is appropriate. Using email in the cloud — I think a lot of people have been doing that for years, but what about infrastructure-as-a-service, or some of these bigger moves? What questions should IT professionals be asking themselves before making the move to cloud?

BB: So, software-as-a-service, or email in the cloud, [has] been out for a couple of years now [and is] pretty easy to understand. Infrastructure-as-a-service is especially compelling when vendors who are at capacity in their private clouds are able to tap into additional public clouds for additional resources, whether it’s processing, storage, network or security resources. It’s those type of components that really fall under the infrastructure-as-a-service offering. As far as whether it’s appropriate or not, I think holistically you have to understand, just like any other technology, what business problems the cloud will ultimately solve.

If it’s SaaS or platform or infrastructure — what is the business problem, and is the cloud offering to solve that? I would suggest walking through any successful evaluation criteria or process that an organization has used in the past to evaluate whether an enterprise migration to a cloud offering is going to work, whether that starts with a business case or evaluating case studies, best practices and lessons learned.

The main questions I would ask as a potential vendor going to a cloud offering is, what does the support model look like from the cloud service provider? You’re changing the dynamics a little bit in that you’re not going to have the same administrative access to the application or infrastructure that you once did, thus you could be exposed to outages or other service interruptions.

At the end of it, I think that the best approach is to create a delta checklist, to walk through every aspect of the application or infrastructure, and understand exactly how different the cloud model is going to be from the traditional hosting model. The areas I would focus on are access, identity management, integration with other applications, and, obviously, security is always a big consideration.

FCB: I do a lot of interviews and people talk about why you should move to the cloud, but in your experience, is there ever an argument for not making the move?

BB: Yes, I definitely think, just as there are reasons to consider going to the cloud, there are reasons to consider not going or, at this point, holding off. There’s been concerns around the lack of customization in cloud solutions specifically related to SaaS, the lack of configurability of these applications — they’re more locked down, in some instances. A lot of folks don’t like to go with the forced upgrade or quarterly releases. So, that’s a consideration.

If you have a complex governance model, or change management process, quarterly releases may be just too much to keep up with. And then [there is] all the data integration. If you have a lot of other systems talking to each other, that presents specific challenges in a SaaS environment. Number one has got to be security, though.

There are still security concerns out there related to PII and sensitive data and where that data actually resides. Contingency planning and batch recovery options always come into play.

I think you’re going to have security concerns until NIST finishes its roadmap and standards on cloud computing, giving the cloud vendors some kind of chance to walk through some kind of certification or an accreditation process or program that will help ease security concerns with the community as a whole.

FCB: Final question about virtualization — what role has [it] played when it comes to cloud?

BB: Well, I think . . . without it, you’re not going to see the most mature models of cloud that exist now. The tools out there allow applications to become self-contained units. So, you’re kind of rolling the database or the operating system — all of that together to be self-contained. Therefore, applications and infrastructure are now considered independent of one another, which is a huge leap from traditional hosting models, now that you can have multiple applications run on VMs on the same physical server. Now IT departments and hosting providers can essentially provision new VMs as demand for system resources increase without significant hardware purchases, thus creating more IT agility, if you will.

FCB: Anything I missed that you might want to add?

BB: I think if you’ve been paying attention to what’s been going on at the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference, Microsoft’s message is essentially, they’re all in related to their cloud offering and pushing that out via their partner networks. So, I don’t think cloud is going anywhere. I think it’s here to stay. With that said, I think that organizations don’t need to be afraid to play a kind of wait-and-see attitude. If they’re pressured to go to cloud to reduce costs, a wait-and-see right now for the next six to 12 months is not necessarily a bad approach. I think there’s going to be a new variety of cloud offerings and hybrids available in the next few years.

If you are pushing to go to cloud, I would just suggest the organization . . . follow the same successful process that you’ve used to evaluate any major technology investments in the past.

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