Thursday August 6, 2020

Cloud traffic through the roof in pandemic

Before the pandemic, virtualisation and remote access were luxuries for many companies but now all that has changed. Alex Meehan reports

7th June, 2020
5

When faced with an emergency, growth stops and maintaining the status quo becomes everything. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, many projects and expansion plans expansion plans have been placed on hold, while the business of staying in business has become top priority.

Enabling remote access, virtualising applications, and keeping an eye on security at the same time have kept IT teams occupied in recent weeks.

“Initially all anyone was concerned about from a business point of view in this pandemic was business continuity and keeping the lights on. People were trying to figure out how employees would access technology at home via laptops or other devices. Then there was an immediate focus on virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), facilitating remote access and the scaling up and flexibility that this required,” said Maeve Culloty, managing director of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Ireland.

“Some companies already had an idea about how to do these things and how to get from here to there, but others just didn’t know how.”

Companies that depended on on-premise infrastructure needed to know quickly how to use VDI as a service, using hyper converged solutions. Some companies, said Culloty, just didn’t have the knowledge and expertise to be able to scale that out.

“From an HPE point of view, we had many digital transformation projects stop cold as companies in sectors such as retail, construction and others just stopped. Those workloads were replaced by companies that needed to accelerate their virtual desktop infrastructure deployment,” she said.

“It could be Office 365 or whatever solution they were going with, but regardless they had to start making decisions about where that would sit. Would it sit on-premise and if so what infrastructure was required? Most did that on site, but some scaled into the public cloud as well.”

Maeve Culloty, managing director, HPE Ireland

Those that scaled using their own on-premises solutions with HPE were able to make use of the company’s Greenlake VDI Lighthouse programme, a pay as you go system that allows users to control costs by paying per seat per month.

“We had to deal with a lot of customers who wanted that sort of functionality immediately, not in several weeks’ time but now. They also needed their systems to be secure and reliable, to be able to take their office desktops off physical machines and make them accessible from anywhere, at a rate that was acceptable given the levels of connectivity and broadband that people had,” said Culloty.

Prior to this, remote access was an add-on to many company’s IT infrastructure, something that people could use if they weren’t in the office or were working from the road. While it was useful, it wasn’t considered an essential service. That changed overnight – suddenly there was a huge remote access issue and security became a big issue.

“Companies needed to get access sorted but there is risk at a time like this that when a company moves quickly to certain new services, it can then find itself locked into a significant ongoing cost to deal with a short term problem,” Culloty said.

John McCleverty, enterprise sales manager for Rubrik

At a practical level, companies that are able to help others manage the disruption that has been caused by the pandemic have rarely been busier. According to Marc O’Regan, chief technology officer for Dell Technologies, few in that organisation have experienced a more busy time.

It has spent a significant amount of its time and resources helping its customers to reposition themselves to be able to deal with the challenges of having a remotely distributed workforce.

“To begin with, everyone is using Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Skype as their communication and collaboration tools and internally, they’ve allowed us to work and communicate at a global level. Lots of other companies are doing the same thing and tools like these have really helped in the pandemic because a lot the meetings we would normally have face to face just haven’t been possible,” he said.

“Using these remote collaboration tools, we’ve been able to educate our teams and help them adapt to the situations we’re all dealing with. It’s not as good as being face to face in a workshop environment, where eye-to-eye contact and thinking can spark magic, but it’s a lot better than nothing.”

Loman McCaffrey, head of practices at Logicalis

Dell Technologies has used these tools to create collaborative spaces where employees can build what it calls ‘bootcamps’ and give its customers one-to-one experiences.

“Outside of our own internal experience, in wider industry we’re seeing a huge rate of some workloads going onto public cloud platforms, and a real cry for other workloads and services to be very quickly spun up and built on private or hybrid cloud platforms,” said O’Regan.

“Interestingly we have also recently seen a massive spike in people heading for the public cloud for simple virtual machine utilisation. A big issue for many of the service providers is that some weren’t able to cope with the strain of this.”

Cloud providers offer users the ability to scale their resources up and down as they need them. However if everyone tries to increase their capacity at the same time, that can place serious pressure on a provider.

“It’s like a run on the banks. Banking works fine as an idea unless everyone turns up at the same time looking for their money. Public cloud has been sold to the industry as this infinite pool of resources that can be just fired up in response to demand. All you have to do is hit the button and you’re good to go,” said O’Regan.

“But there was a percentage increase into the hundreds because of the pandemic and that really put that idea to the test. It’s pretty widely known across the industry that the capability to do this for everyone at the same time just wasn’t there. That was very interesting to see happen in real time.”

For O’Regan this was a real test case for the scalability of public cloud platforms and what happened as a result was that a lot of potential public cloud consumers were forced down other routes.

“They were forced back into their own data centres or to those of partners to help them build these platforms themselves. Public cloud is extraordinarily powerful and useful, but nonetheless it was an interesting observation to see the system stress tested,” he said.

According to Seamus Dunne, managing director of data centre specialist Interxion Ireland, many cloud-related projects have been shelved at the moment, but he anticipates a major pick up later in the year.

“After the emergency phase is over, towards the end of the summer and into autumn I believe we’ll see acceleration in change in IT. When it comes to things like digital transformation and prioritising digital projects, I think companies have now got it. The need for anything around digital transformation – by which I mean application consolidation, cloud migration, data centre consolidation and infrastructure projects – all the IT projects which are being driven in businesses will power ahead,” he said.

“There is absolute clarity now that these projects need to work and progress. In the short term, a lot of activity for companies is about maintaining things, avoiding disruption and doubling down on supporting what they’ve got.”

Dunne foresees a gearing up for the second half of the year and expects to see an acceleration of action into 2021.

“There are three different levels of cloud – infrastructure, platform and software as a service – and most businesses in Ireland are still on a cloud journey. Only about 4 per cent of industry workloads are actually in the cloud, the rest are still on-premise and in people’s data centres,” he said.

“There are plenty of migration strategies out there but what’s happened is that IT workloads and capacities during the Covid-19 pandemic have really expanded, hugely, driven by things like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. It’s that sort of network traffic that accounts for most of it and it’s gone through the roof.”

Marc O’Regan, chief technology officer for Dell Technologies

However larger cloud projects have slowed down for now. In the face of an emergency, preserving the status quo is more important than powering growth.

“Many projects have been shelved until people can be deployed into data centres and can make changes manually. I believe what we’ll see is that in the second half of the year, a lot of digital transformation projects which are very much centred on migration to the cloud will accelerate,” he said.

“It’s all paused at the moment though. Things right now are about maintaining the IT that’s there, not letting it go down and supporting network traffic. Our customers are asking us to maintain everything and help make sure nothing goes down.”

According to Dunne, the cloud industry will be forever changed by the pandemic. It has accelerated adoption and changed perceptions.

“Businesses understand that they’re in a digital economy now. Cloud has delivered a new economic model and it’s not just one built around lower cost. Yes, going to the cloud is a better financial proposition but the real benefits are speed, flexibility and agility for every business through IT,” he said.

“The cloud facilitates faster deployment of new applications to run your business and being able to scale them up and down, facilitated things like dev ops and containerisation. Look at operators like N26 and Revolut arriving in Ireland and the struggle that the banks are having to compete with them.”

Similar genre-busting examples exist in all industries, as a general shift in perception is taking place. IT is not just considered a cost of doing business anymore, it’s considered a mechanism for growing a business. It can be a revenue generating centre rather than a cost centre.

“It’s a hard time to be a chief information officer because increasingly people in those roles are being asked to do more but without getting a bigger budget to make that happen. CIOs have to be able to move faster, be that by deploying apps or upgrading capabilities and applications are typically needed now, not in six months’ time,” said Dunne.

Companies with a significant amount of infrastructure in a data centre can find that efforts to find a work-around to deal with the pandemic have hit significant problems due to lack of access. While a huge amount can be done remotely, for some things you really need a person to make manual adjustments.

This is where companies like Rubrik come in, offering advice on how to help those struggling to manage their data across a spread of private and public cloud.

“That’s something we’re seeing a lot of at the moment and we’ve worked with a few customers that didn’t have access to their own data centre or offices because of lock down. We were able to help by removing the need to manually intervene in the management of data,” said John McCleverty, enterprise sales manager for Rubrik.

“At the same time, we’re seeing a lot more requests for cloud native capabilities. There is big growth in customers that were previously running on-premise infrastructure and are now moving to the cloud. And there’s no mystery why. The current challenges around the lockdown and Covid-19 pandemic faced by organisations have highlighted the importance of automation.”

According to McCleverty, companies across Ireland have reported to him that they struggle to manage data spread across private cloud, public cloud and remote locations.

“They don’t want something like this to happen again. They want to future proof themselves to mitigate being hit as hard in future. As we come out of Covid, the big focus will be on planning for such events again and looking at issues like business continuity,” he said.

“It’s still very early to predict what is going to happen in the market but Ireland is well placed. Customer confidence just needs to follow.”

Rubrik stores its customer’s data in an immutable format, meaning that cyber attackers can’t alter any of your backups.

“This is an issue that many people have with regard to storing data in the cloud. We’ve built our systems to reduce the risk of downtime, optimize cost, achieve operational efficiency and realize cloud modernisation,” said McCleverty.

Lasting change or temporary swerve?

Companies of all different sizes have done their best to deal with the ongoing challenges presented by the pandemic, and for some that meant moving from having little to no online activities to depending entirely on an online offering.

“Some companies we deal with that had very little online presence discovered quickly that the only way they could survive and get money in the door was by reinventing themselves at least partially or even fully online,” said Michele Neylon of Blacknight Solutions.

“Take Velvet Cloud, a client of ours. It makes fantastic sheeps’ milk products but its business was primarily working with distribution channels that focused on getting product to supermarkets and wholesalers – it didn’t sell direct to the public But then the pandemic hit and it had to reinvent itself really quickly as an online seller. We’ve seen a lot of that over the last couple of months.”

According to Neylon, there has been a large surge in internet traffic in general as more people are doing more communicating and shopping online. Those companies which have embraced that new reality have been able to better weather what’s going on.

“We’ve seen a massive surge in people registering domain names and some of that is people looking for temporary solutions to allow them to deal with the lockdown, and some of it is people looking for ways to pivot and help other companies redesign their shops and offices to deal with social distancing,” he said.

“I can’t see all this progress being lost. I don’t think we’re going to see people going back to being as offline as they used to be. I think the pendulum has swung and people on both sides of the supply and demand equation are now comfortable with the technology.”

According to Neylon, many companies that have traditionally been risk-averse when it comes to trying new ways of doing business have had their hands forced by the pandemic.

“They basically thought things are fine as they are, and yeah, maybe we could do something online but could we be bothered? They’ve now had to embrace online and there’s no going back from that. When the world returns to normal, they’ll still have that capacity and they’ll be dealing with a consumer market that will have grown used to the convenience,” he said.

Cost savings not a significant factor in cloud adoption rates

One of the enduring ideas surrounding cloud adoption rates is that companies primarily do it to save money, to pay for infrastructure, platform or software using the as-a-service model.

The ability to shift costs from the capital expenditure column to the operating expenditure column of the balance sheet has often been cited as a major motivator powering cloud adoption. However it might be time to leave that idea in the past, according to Loman McCaffrey, head of practices at Logicalis.

His company recently carried out some research and among its findings was that of the 110 companies that responded, 43 per cent engage a technology partner to manage their cloud services because it simplifies management for them. Some 39 per cent do it to overcome a lack of in-house skills and only 18 per cent do so to achieve greater cost effectiveness.

“Anecdotally this tallies with our experience, but as we all know it’s dangerous to form opinions based on what you think your customers’ priorities are so this research is really helpful,” said McCaffrey.

“So it’s our opinion that cost isn’t really a motivating factor to people. A bigger barrier to adopting the cloud is that while companies do it, they typically don’t wind down the on-premise infrastructure they already have and they end up managing both on and off premise solutions. The result is that complexity becomes a problem.”

Moving workloads to the cloud multiplies complexity and that makes people wary of making big changes.

“People don’t live in a world where their in-house environment is everything they want it to be. It’s not always as well patched as it could be, as resilient as it could be and so on. The vast majority of people running IT systems spend at least some of their time putting out fires,” said McCaffrey.

“If people can get a managed offering, getting access to the so-called -ilities, the flexibility, the agility, the scalability and so on – but without increasing the complexity, that’s great. That will overcome some of their concerns.”

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