Changing clouds in a shifting landscape

The cloud market is evolving rapidly and the pressure is on businesses to keep up. Ian Campbell talks to some of the many providers who are ready to help

2nd September, 2018
Declan Hussey, cloud solutions director, DNA IT Solutions

According to IDG’s 2018 Cloud Computing survey, nine out of ten companies will have some part of their applications or infrastructure in the cloud by 2019 and the rest expect to follow by 2021. While this confirms that cloud is now an integral part of every organisation’s IT strategy, the survey of 550 IT decision-makers also revealed that 52 per cent of IT environments are still non-cloud. So discussions about how and what to migrate are as relevant as ever.

The discussion is core to almost every engagement that DNA IT has with customers, although Declan Hussey, chief executive and principal cloud solutions director, never starts with a binary debate on cloud or no-cloud. “Before we get to the cloud conversation, our first objective is to tease through the tactical approach that a business wants,” he said. “Cloud or on-premise? We don’t care. Our only agenda is to put a solution in place that fits the business need. It’s about the business leading IT, not IT leading the business.”

The company carries out a tried-and-tested process that starts with discovery, working out exactly what is needed before a cost-modelling exercise determines if cloud or on-premise is the best fit. A business benefits review will inform this — a private cloud with built-in compliance, for example, may be reason enough for a financial services company to move to the cloud.

Building an environment in IBM’s private cloud is DNA IT’s primary cloud proposition, one that Hussey claims is second to none in the Irish marketplace, but it always comes back to making a business case. “If you’ve got ageing architecture that isn’t very resilient you can put a huge amount of value on going to the cloud to remove risk,” he said. “On the other hand, there may be technical challenges with moving legacy applications so you’ll have to have a tiered migration.”

He sees many business drivers where the cloud makes sense for organisations: helping disparate teams collaborate; consolidating multiple data centres managed by different third parties; looking for next-generation IT to replace legacy systems.

While Hussey will always weigh up the pros and cons of cloud with clients, he has no doubt about where the market is heading. “You will never build an on-premise environment with the same capacity, complexity and maturity of design as a cloud service. That’s the truth of it,” he said.

At this stage, he’s talking to organisations that may be on a second or third iteration of using cloud for some part of the business so conversations are more mature and informed. It gives Hussey a chance to demonstrate how his company differentiates. “We have an agenda with the customer. First and foremost we are a managed IT partner where it’s all about making a business case for adopting new technologies,” he said.

Mistakes made

The maturity of the market means that organisations have had good and bad cloud experiences at this stage. Mistakes have been made with some organisations stepping back from their cloud strategies. “We’ve seen businesses who have perhaps been overly ambitious in their cloud services adoption,” said Steve Blanche, chief technology officer at Ergo.

He warned of “poorly designed migration strategies” and gave the example of companies moving all of their data to the cloud. “We’ve intervened to stop customers from dumping all their data from SharePoint on premise to SharePoint online because you’ll find there’s data in there that nobody’s used for donkey’s years. It’s not a good use for consumption-based resource like the cloud and can work out quite expensive.”

Ergo works with internal business units and starts by reviewing data silos. The objective is to only move active data that is useful, whether it’s to help align with data retention requirements or to optimise business intelligence (BI) processes, where the goal is to turn data into useful insights.

Igor Toma managing director, Nuacom

While Blanche said the prevailing trend continues to be hybrid, where organisations take their IT from a combination of public and private clouds as well as on premise, the right place for some services is now beyond debate. He cites email, web services, disaster recovery (DR) and office productivity tools as examples of applications that should definitely be in the cloud at this stage.

“There are workloads where it’s easy to resolve the ‘to cloud or not to cloud’ debate. A bigger challenge is getting the business to understand what cloud and digital platforms can bring in terms of commercial advantages, using information insights to grow market presence, for example,” he said. “The cloud is still seen as being an IT solution rather than a business enabler. Our challenge is to get customers to see that business and IT strategies should align.”

Blanche argued that the true value of cloud is all about providing seamless access to business functions and data, leveraging the digital world to better engage with customers, partners and suppliers, and improve go-to-market techniques. “It’s very easy to quickly realise the business benefits, something the business is not used to seeing from IT,” he said.

Customer profiling, buying patterns, seasonal targeting are all much easier to leverage if a business is using cloud services, according to Blanche. “You have the potential to access things like high-performance computing which wouldn’t happen with traditional IT infrastructure services. It’s about leveraging that type of functionality and growing a business,” he said.

Cloud services may be evolving and becoming more sophisticated, but not all organisations are equipped to make the most of them. Fabio Douek, head of cloud architecture at Singlepoint, puts it down to organisations struggling to shed an older IT mindset. They have rightly identified the applications that work best in the cloud, but don’t always know how to manage them when they get there.

“If you have specific workloads, like eCommerce applications that spike at specific times of the day or year, it doesn’t make sense to keep the service running at full 24/7 capacity. But that’s what some companies are doing and they are getting ‘bill shock’,” Douek said.

He gave the example of Black Friday where workloads can multiply by ten or 15 times. It’s a prime example of where online retailers should use cloud elasticity to “flex” their compute power up or down to meet changing demands. “The problem is that many of them are afraid to change their systems and they run up enormous bills,” said Douek. “The point about the cloud is that active monitoring and fine tuning gives you the information you need to adjust workloads rather than guess the capacity, which is what used to happen.”

Another element of cloud that takes businesses by surprise is the speed of change. Providers can alter the terms of their services in ways that can have a detrimental impact on a company’s business model. Douek gave the example of Oracle in 2017 when it doubled the cost of its Amazon Web Services licences to encourage people to use its own cloud platform.

An even bigger challenge is that any notion of best practice becomes a moveable feast. “There is always a new service and a new way of doing things. You have to constantly update or risk missing out,” said Douek. “As part of our digital acceleration programme, we provide a framework to carry out regular reviews for clients and help them make changes more quickly.”

He was adamant that none of this should deter people from their cloud strategies because the benefits easily outweigh the difficulties. “The main benefit is agility, a business being able to move faster by leveraging cloud provider services,” he said. “The second is innovation. You can access cutting-edge services — like image and video recognition, for example — in a way that would have been impossible before. And the third, if services are applied correctly, is cost reduction.”

Business value

The issue of cost and value is a core focus for Sungard AS. “If customers ‘lift and shift’ applications to public clouds and consume virtual services the same way they did on premise then they won’t see any cost benefits,” warned Meg Ramsey, vice-president of cloud applications. “You won’t be using the public cloud in the way that it’s meant to be used, which means you won’t be able to consume any of the higher level services that speed up business processes and give you some kind of advantage.”

Engaging with Sungard will help avoid such pitfalls as well as address fundamentals on whether a public or private cloud is the best fit. The recommendation is usually based on security and GDPR concerns and the way the application needs to be consumed by its users.

“One of the benefits of the public cloud is autoscaling. In the old world, companies had to overprovision all of their infrastructure so they could support their applications during peak traffic,” she said. “Now you can provision a public cloud instance based on your standard watermark and use and dynamically scale your services to handle the extra traffic when you need it. That’s when you’ll see the savings.”

Meg Ramsey, vice-president of cloud applications, Sungard AS

Sungard shows customers how best to utilise the cloud, deploying on smaller instances if the infrastructure is underutilised to save money, or establishing a baseline that factors in what they will need in the next year to grow. They can then avoid expensive “on-demand pricing” by buying compute power in advance. “If organisations are not consuming the cloud correctly or they’re unwilling to refactor their applications, they are not going to see clear cut cost savings,” Ramsey said.

Once they have the fundamentals right, they can start to innovate and try out new services in a way that was unimaginable in the old IT world. “They can build new applications and provide more business value. Something that used to take a month and a lot of capital investment can now be done in a week sprint. Agility and speed are the biggest benefits of the cloud,” she said.

While Meg Ramsey would agree that the cloud turns infrastructure into a utility, she believes it makes a stronger case for strategic IT. “You hear a lot about chief information officers being elevated to a more senior level, reporting directly to the chief executive. We can help them because the consumption of our services delivers even more business value,” she said.

Alwin Stephen, senior cloud consultant at Logicalis Ireland, took a similar view. “The fact that IT can now be consumed as a utility should not eradicate the opportunity that cloud services, including hybrid cloud, offer a business,” he said. “Technology plays a pivotal role in all strategic decisions and its importance will only increase. As a result, how IT is consumed is much less important than the impact it provides in driving a business forward.”

He argued that companies will always need the kind of high-quality, cutting-edge solutions Logicalis provides to drive digital transformation, enabling them to excel within their industry. Like others provider, the firm has also seen a fair share of organisations that miss the nuances behind the different cloud offerings.

“This created difficulties,” he said. “Not only was there a lack of understanding and practical knowledge among internal IT teams regarding cloud technologies, there were also shortcomings when it came to aligning migration strategies with business objectives. Poor planning and implementation, caused by inexperience, was also a factor. Cloud strategies need to be evaluated and adapted all the time in order to keep them current and make them effective.”

Maturing strategies

Logicalis partners numerous vendors including IBM, Microsoft and VMware, and does a lot of work around phased migrations to SaaS (Software-as-a-Service), PaaS (Platform-as-a-Service) and IaaS (Infrastructure-as-a-Service) platforms, or deploying hyper converged infrastructure to capitalise on hybrid cloud models. There’s also a wave of more innovative services coming on stream.

“A business that is relatively mature in terms of cloud adoption will undertake more projects involving methodologies focused around BI, analytics, serverless architectures and DevOps,” said Alwin Stephen. “The aim here is usually to streamline business processes with agile and multi-cloud solutions. Beyond this, advanced services around IoT, AI, and machine learning are typically sector-driven and are augmented by previously successful mature cloud projects.”

Brian Smyth is cloud platform practice lead at Codec, where there’s a similar focus on delivering increasingly sophisticated solutions. Microsoft’s Azure Function is all about serverless architecture. “You can focus on building great apps and not worry about provisioning and maintaining servers. It can scale and do things that used to cost thousands a month for €40-50,” he explained. “And when its not being used there’s no cost at all.”

Another solution is Azure Service Fabric. Network-connected virtual or physical machines allow microservices to be deployed and managed across different locations. “You can build out cloud scale applications using containers that will fit natively up in Azure. If you want resilience to Azure, another cloud, or on premise, it allows you to be present in both locations,” said Smyth.

Daniel Wiley, head of incident response at Check Point Software Technologies

Codec has also set up an analytics division and is helping create cognitive services for customers. “We’re doing things around sentiment analysis and providing machine learning tools so they can develop their own projects,” said Smyth. “The main challenge is skillsets within organisations and having a culture that is willing to embrace new ways of working.”

From an IT perspective, it’s about using DevOps and containers, making small investments that allow for more experimentation and innovation, according to Smyth.

“You can enable a feature set, do full end-to-end testing and then analyse it to see if it’s popular. If it is, you can start to build upon it. If it isn’t, just take it back out again. It’s a new approach to development that lets you fail fast.”

The other big change that companies are only starting to grasp is the way pricing structures have evolved. Organisations were telling Codec that they thought the cloud was too expensive. Because they were running systems 24/7, they ended up paying the same as when their infrastructure was on premise.

“It used to be a purely pay-as-you-go model, but now there are options to lock in the costs,” said Smyth. “We can take a look at licensing which will offset some of it, or we can pre-purchase services and bring costs down by as much as 60-70 per cent. You pre-purchase the base server requirement for one to three years, and use pay-as-you-go for the usage spikes.”

This higher-end activity is why IT providers like Codec see a long-term role for themselves. “When the cloud first came along I wondered if it would eventually take away our jobs, but what it does is take away all the repetitive work. It lets us focus on delivering more value to IT and the business going forward. And it allows you to be much more efficient.”

Knowledge gaps

Irish IT distributor MicroWarehouse is still seeing a lot of cloud activity through its reseller channels, as Microsoft partners encourage their customers to move up the value chain, particularly around SaaS. Office 365 has been big for us for five years and it’s continuing to grow. We’re seeing businesses look for more out of their productivity solutions; they’re moving their CRM and ERP solutions into the cloud as well,” said Aidan Finn, IT Lead.

He said Ireland is “one of the hot areas for cloud in western Europe” and claimed MircroWarehouse’s growth figures might be exceeding Microsoft’s. Fuelling it is a new wave of technology that businesses are looking to leverage as part of their digital transformation journeys.

“We work with one partner who’s bringing IoT [Internet of Things] to traditional physical manufacturing environments. They are making legacy equipment smart by taking data into the cloud and providing machine learning analytics,” he said. “We’re working with StatSports who are gathering data from the athletes in the field and bringing it into the cloud to analyse before presenting it back to the managers and the coaches.”

What all businesses are relishing, according to Finn, is the ability to scale and share data securely across different employees or remote offices. The cloud has allowed them to be more business focused and liberated from the mundane task around traditional IT delivery.

“Some businesses had found themselves becoming accidental IT companies. Running everything out of a critical room in the corner of the building or in the basement was a risk and a distraction, and every five years there were upgrades that were going to disrupt the business. That’s all gone with the cloud,” he said.

Such a monumental change doesn’t happen without challenges. One of them is having the knowledge and expertise to keep up with such a fast-changing industry. The reason that the MicroWarehouse is running Cloud Camp — a Microsoft conference in the Dublin Conference Centre on October 17 — is to help fill some of the knowledge gaps.

“People understand they can group machine more effectively in the cloud, but they are not sure how to go beyond it to really achieve digital transformation, to do things differently to the way they did ten years ago,” said Finn. “You can reduce costs greatly by going through digital transformation rather than just doing a simple ‘lift and shift’, but a lot of people don’t understand that at the moment. So there are certainly still gaps in designing those solutions and selling those solutions.”

Enabling cloud journeys

Antonio Pogliani, chief technology officer at Viatel, sees the cloud as synonymous with digital transformation and an increasing maturity in the way it is being used. “Although innovations introduced by the big cloud players have been, and still are, a real game changer, companies have got to a point where the challenge is to manage the complexity of a multi-cloud environment. They are trying to match their cloud strategy with their business objectives,” he said.

Antonio Pogliani, chief technology officer at Viatel

This plays to Viatel’s strengths, according to Pogliani, because the company provides the network fundamentals for securely connecting to clouds, before layering on additional services. “We‘re not trying compete with cloud platforms like Azure; we’re all about listening to customers and shaping infrastructure in a flexible way to meet changing needs,” he said.

Multi-cloud requirements have become more pressing as hybrid becomes standard and organisations start to consume IT from different providers, public and private. “Originally everyone moved to a single cloud service, but people increasingly want hybrid — taking something from Azure and something else from Amazon Web Services,” said Pogliani. “Running different workloads in different clouds is something we can help with because of our network capabilities.”

Viatel has a range of service bundles that offer diverse connectivity with software-defined WAN capabilities. Supplementing this are cloud infrastructure solutions that were launched around 18 months ago. These include business continuity services which have been transformed by the convenience of the cloud. Backup-as-a-service, DR-as-a-Service and a managed security proposition are all now available to its customers.

“We are also working on a business analytics platform to be consumed as-a-service for customers storing data in our cloud. And we’re just starting to use artificial intelligence with a primary focus on security threat analytics,” he said.

Cloud security still an obstacle

Cloud computing ranks as the top risk concern for executives in risk, audit, finance and compliance, according to a security survey that came out last month from Gartner. And with good reason, according to Daniel Wiley, head of incident response at Check Point Software Technologies.

“When you were a child your parents told you not to put shiny objects in your mouth when you didn’t know what they were. That’s the cloud,” he said. “It’s shiny object syndrome and it sometimes comes with peril.”

A bit like Groundhog Day, Check Point has been observing the same cloud behaviour for many years. It starts with companies rushing to the cloud because they think it will make them more secure. After three to six months they find they have exactly the same problems they had in their data centres. “Maybe they’re even amplified,” said Wiley. “Shiny object syndrome starts to wear off and people realise they have razor blades in their hands instead of gems.”

Joe Roche, head of communications, Blueface

When organisations trust their IT to cloud providers, there’s a tendency for demarcation lines to become blurred and it’s unclear where responsibilities lie. “You really need to read the terms and conditions. You’ve handed over the keys, but you need to retain the same control and visibility you had within your corporate environment. You may be expecting some level of security that may not exist, or, more importantly, does exist for an upcharge,” he warned.

The irony is that cost often drives cloud migration, but the cost consideration for security is usually a second or third conversation, said Wiley. By that time the money has been spent on infrastructure and there’s nothing left.

Even SaaS come with risk. “We’ve worked on a lot of cases around Office 365 where hundred of millions of dollars have been stolen though phishing attacks, credential harvesting or even ‘shoulder surfing’, someone watching someone type in a password,” he said. “If you don’t have multifactor authentication you’re really asking for a bad experience.”

Wiley explained how cybercriminals infiltrate Office 365, understand whose credentials they’ve stolen and their role, then use that information to gain trust in the environment.

And it’s usually part of a bigger problem that only serves to make organisations even more vulnerable.

“What’s changed is that all the data is concentrated in single pockets whereas once it was disparate. Having it in a million places is one reason why everyone moved to the cloud, but once you concentrate it in one place, cybercriminals are going to go after it,” he said. “While Microsoft and Amazon security teams do great work, the sticking point is that they will never have the full understanding of a company’s environment. There is always an angle they will miss, and that’s your company’s DNA.”

He has one last tip: “Get your lawyers involved early, understand the SLAs you are signing up for and make sure you fully grasp what you are doing when you give your data to someone.”

Daniel Wiley is speaking at the Secure Computer Forum on September 20, at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin

Voice of the people

In the ever-competitive VoIP and telephony space, the customer is spoilt for choice with regards to who to choose and why.

It means that for those offering said services, newer features and improved services will always be important, yet for JP Crilly, the sales director at Welltel, the three main drivers companies look at when making a decision are the traditional ones.

“Price, functionality and reliability drive decision-making,” he said. “The order of importance varying depending on the size of the business and the industry they operate in.”

In the case of Welltel, it’s been working on developing its own services to help deal with the expectations customers bring when making the leap. For example, in its own cloud platform, it uses Powered by IP Office to offer a range of features that can help open up new avenues to its customers.

“It’s a great example of the democratisation of the cloud, as now businesses with ten agents can get the same level of interaction with their customers that were previously only available to nationwide banks,” said Crilly.

“The entry price to deploy these types of solutions has now moved from six figures [sums] to the early single thousands. This opens up a whole range of features previously unavailable to Irish businesses.”

How it separates itself from its competitors is through the choice of systems it offers within its platform. It can recommend the most suitable system from its portfolio depending on the customers’ needs. The three options it can offer are Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise, Avaya Powered by IP Office and ThreeSixty by Welltel which come with their own strengths.

“All have mobile, desktop and desk phone options, but each system has advantages depending on the deployment method, software integrations and the industry-specific functionality required,” he said.

Its other strength is that it can deliver a high-quality service to customers thanks to it being able to manage the service installation and support from desktop right through to the public phone networks.

Voice and other cloud apps

Nuacom made its name as VoIP provider, one of a new breed of communication companies, coming from the internet, that turned voice into another application that can be run out of the cloud. The way organisations communicate has changed radically since the company started in 2010, but managing director, Igor Toma, said its core service offering is still business critical for many.

“Everyone knows that businesses are using different channels and that telephone services are not as important as they used to be, but there will always be business value in being able to talk to someone. It strengthens relationships, especially in sales and customer service, where speaking to each other is still critical.”

Another change since Nuacom started are the drivers for VoIP adoption. “It was all about cost savings during the recession. Now, as business is picking up, companies are looking for faster speed of deployment, greater flexibility, more functionality and integration across other services that streamline business operations. We can help with all of that,” said Toma.

Operating at the leading edge, Nuacom’s richer features and functionality struck a chord with a new generation of start-ups that had no ties to old-style legacy telephony. These same people are now the target for a new wave of apps and solutions that Toma and his team are developing. “Our strategy is to be a player in the ‘API economy’. We’ve already developed a widget that sits in Salesforce and gives users instant access to call reports and call recordings. And there’s much more to come,” he said.

Plans are under way for an app that integrates multiple communication channels, bringing them together in a single feed so that users can have all their social media messages in one place. Contact centres that have always been an important segment for Nuacom are now being targeted with new services and chatbots.

“We’re always looking to stay one step ahead,” said Toma, “identifying things that people don’t even know they need.”

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