Surprisingly, a couple years after "the cloud" first arrived on the IT scene I am still hearing IT leaders speak about it with breathless reverence. Even non-IT executives will proudly announce "Oh, we'll just put that in the cloud" when any technology-related topic appears in a staff meeting. The fact of the matter is that the cloud is just another boring make vs. buy decision, and the sooner those in IT management realize this, the less likely they are to build potentially career-ending plans based on clouds and rainbows.
So, what is "the cloud"?
Definitions of cloud computing abound, but they overly complicate thing. Essentially, the cloud is little more than "stuff outside your company." That "stuff" could be processing power, storage, networks, applications or any other bit of technical wizardry. When the CIO says she'll "put that in the cloud," all she is really saying is she will take something that was done in-house, and do it with someone else's "stuff." You might put any aspect of your internal "stuff" into the cloud, from raw data that you store on another party's storage systems, to an internal application you run on someone else's' hardware. Often, the cloud refers to a third party's applications, analogous to the enterprise equivalent of gmail or hotmail to employees.
The non-IT reader who is now thinking "Hey, this sounds exactly like what companies have been doing for over 100 years" gets a gold star. Conceptually, all the fancy cloud talk could be applied to anything a company does outside its walls. The toilet paper you purchase from an outside vendor effectively comes "from the cloud," and the same decision making process that you would use to choose that vendor applies to cloud computing.
Going into the cloud is nothing more than a make vs. buy decision
A frightening part of the over-hyping of the cloud is that it has obfuscated the decision-making process for determining if the cloud is appropriate for a particular IT function. Mysticism seems to creep into any cloud-related discussion, obscuring the fact that deciding to move something into the cloud is a simple make vs. buy calculation. If you are considering moving email into the cloud, tally up the costs of the various servers, software and support, divide by the number of users, and compare that to the per-seat fees from various cloud vendors. If you want to get fancy, include factors that denote reliability, security and support of the vendor.
Unsurprisingly, this process sounds very similar to the process that your COO and his or her staff go through when selecting vendors for critical components and parts. Assuming your company produces physical products, the supply chain and purchasing groups are likely loaded with people that can help you make an exceptionally thorough analysis of the various cloud vendors, and apply appropriate rigor to the process. While those in IT may quip that those buying physical commodities could never understand the subtle nuances of the cloud. However, the supply chain deals with production and design secrets all the time, and reliability is obviously a central concern since a critical vendor could hamper the company's ability to actually produce products.
If you can present the cloud in these terms, not only can you get internal purchasing expertise onboard to help you make better decisions, but you can have more realistic discussions with your peers. Rather than the cloud offering a voodoo-like panacea to every internal problem, other executives can approach it as a way to cut maintenance and administrative costs, or a way to allow IT to focus on more valuable activities than maintaining email servers or commodity functions and applications.
While the cloud currently has near-magical properties with many, like most emerging technologies these will soon wear thin, and will only serve to build mistrust and skepticism of IT and the CIO if they are sold as magical cure-alls. When you can take a rational look at cloud-based services, and analyze the decision to utilize them just as you would any other third party vendor, the cloud becomes far less hazy and much more practical.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at email@example.com, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.