General Technology

Cloud computing’s fear factor: acknowledge, reduce, move on

In my 20 years providing IT services to organizations, I’ve never seen a technology that is so equally transformational and feared as cloud computing. I am hard pressed to find anything comparable in the past, bar perhaps the Internet itself, which has the power to positively re-engineer the manner that technology supports organizational goals. But possibly by a combination of issues such as negative pundit messaging and well-founded suspicion of wide-scale technology and organizational readiness, cloud computing appears to be the most feared of the big technology innovations.

There continues to be plenty of disagreement on a definition of cloud computing. There’s no doubt that for some it means something quite conservative, such as low-cost data storage at an external provider, and for others it’s as grand as the enablement of completely new business opportunities. Any time the definition of a domain is so broadly spread, you know it’s in the very early phase of its maturity. In time, I anticipate we’ll get sub-categories that will help to clarify the space.

To me, cloud computing today means organizations have the opportunity to redefine what and how technology value is provided internally versus what can be sourced externally. It’s an existential question, and that’s why it’s so incredibly important. Do it right and CIOs have the ability to transform IT from a back-office provider to a real business partner. Since that’s clearly where the C-suite wants IT to play, the value of cloud couldn’t be any more self-evident.

But why then, if cloud computing is so potentially important and valuable, is it so feared?

Given its existential property, perhaps IT leaders feel obligated to a self-preservation reaction. While this may be true in some instances, it’s clearly temporal. In this case resistance is futile. If you’re not proactively addressing a cloud computing strategy, my bet is that in the not-too-distant future the CFO or COO will force you to be reactive.

Much of the fear is based on issues that are warranted. Clearly we must recognize the relative immaturity of some of the technologies involved (but also acknowledge that limitations today go away over time). If you’re going to move a major business function such as email or a productivity suite into the cloud, you need up-time guarantees and confidence in being able to easily liberate your data should you decide to move vendors. You need recourse if your cloud provider goes under. That’s not a trivial issue. As more providers emerge, more will fail (sadly that’s the marketplace), and so the risk to an organizational function is greater.

You also need to be aware and mitigate your security concerns. It’s possible the security risk is over-stated. Most of us do personal online banking don’t we? And aren’t huge components of our infrastructure such as energy, financial markets, and the military already large consumers of the cloud? (Little consolation, I agree, when there is a breach — but a fact on the ground you can’t deny). I argue that in the short-term these issues are about deliberate and diligent organizational planning and in the long-term it’s simply about normal business continuity design. When something innovative becomes widely adopted, it just becomes business as normal.

These fears are sensible concerns, but some of the anxiety of cloud computing is wrongly perpetuated. While there is intense innovation taking place from start-ups to big established technology providers with its attendant marketing, there continues to be strong messaging taking place that suggests cloud is still only for limited use. Most often we hear that the cloud is a place where you can test applications or rent temporary storage. It’s time for us to move beyond that message. The evidence couldn’t be any stronger. Major organizations are successfully moving large functions to the cloud and analysis shows that IT budgets will commit increasing amounts to implementation over the next five years.

What’s the point here? What I’m trying to say is that there are legitimate reasons to approach cloud computing with care and planning, but we should be aware that many of us are being too conservative by continuing to be consumed by irrational fear. Until some of our legitimate fears are addressed and we can also overcome our misconceptions, the great promise of cloud computing to our organizations will be limited.

The cloud computing fear factor can’t be overstated. It’s time to acknowledge it, reduce it, and move on.

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