Cloud computing: much like the term 'Big Data' and the 'Internet of Things', a current technology trend that has become a buzzword, appearing everywhere these days. "Move your business to the cloud!" media outlets scream, as the term increasingly crops up in conferences, discussions, articles and lists of business must-haves. To be clear, cloud computing is revolutionary: the ability for providers to offer their software, document storage space or other media access through the web to our devices in real-time has changed how many of us access information. Instead of paying to download music song by song and buy more hardware storage for more music, we pay a fee to access our entire playlist on a monthly basis, depending on how much music we have. Software in the cloud permits subscription-based access to costly programs in a more affordable manner, and storage space online means access to family photos no matter where we are.
For businesses however moving to the cloud is an investment that offers significant returns, but potentially costly drawbacks. For the best return on investment, consider the full picture upfront, and be prepared for the challenges you may face in order to gain the greatest rewards. Before your business moves its information & data resources into a cloud computing environment, ask your team the following questions:
1. Are there things you can't move to the cloud?
Some information is perfect for cloud servers... and some is not. In general, most information can be saved on the cloud securely, where providers often have access to and provide better encryption than in-house server solutions. High on the 'not' list however, is particularly sensitive information, which depending on the content, cannot always be stored by a server on foreign soil, or in extreme cases, should not be accessible via network to begin with. If your business collects personally identifiable information on Canadians, for example, beware: under Canada law certain types of information, including financial and health records, must be stored on servers that reside in Canadian soil, and very few cloud providers reside in Canada. This is a protective measure over the digital selves of Canadian citizens, by keeping records subject to Canada's jurisdiction. In extreme cases, if breach of the information in question could cause physical injury, loss of life or severe consequences, security professionals recommend using secure terminals and encrypted USB, requiring both physical location and identification confirmation for access.
If your business is still interested in moving to the cloud, but has sensitive information that cannot be transferred, consider looking at a hybrid model, with information & data governance standards dictating where different types of information should be stored. A hybrid model permits the use of cloud computing for non-sensitive or less regulated information, while still meeting legal requirements for information that must remain outside the cloud.
2. You pay for what you use, so be sure you’re actually using everything you pay for.
Here's s the catch-22 of cloud computing costs: in theory, you pay less than the cost of a server by making small payments only on the amount of storage you use, as oppose to upfront server costs. Cloud computing can reduce costs because your business isn't paying for larger storage costs until you know you have the information storage needs. The catch is, like the garage that's never cleaned, filled with both family heirlooms and items of decreasing value, unless you have an inventory or use what you're storing, is it really worth holding on to at all? This is where Information Governance (the strategy) and Information Management (the execution of the strategy) are critical. If you cannot determine valuable information from junk, you're paying, regularly, for an expensive garbage holding.
3. Building a data centre or purchasing the disk space: how much do you pay for data storage & access now?
While the low monthly fee of cloud storage might sound like a bargain, if your business isn't careful about current and future needs, the yearly fees add up: how many months / years would it take your business to fully pay off a networked drive, or are you moving to the cloud from running or renting a full data centre? Does your business have enough information that a long-term cloud plan is more cost-efficient, or would a single, but expensive server purchase be more economical in the long run? Combining maintenance, equipment, energy use and real estate, the costs of running a full data centre add up quickly, where switching to third-party cloud-based service might offset some of the expenses transferring it to the provider. On the other hand, a benefit of owning your own data centre is that it gives you more control: third-party cloud providers absorb the running costs, but require more risk-assessment and careful contracts on information access, storage, disposal and liability.
4. Why do you want to make the move?
Are you moving because cloud computing is the 'new thing' or will it genuinely make improvements to your business processes? What is the current flow and lifecycle of information in your organization? What, if any, changes will moving from current servers to the cloud bring? Will you require new software or hardware to be compatible with the cloud service of interest, and to access your information resources once transferred? Cloud computing can increase productivity by allowing your employees to access information from more location than ever, promote collaboration on the same documents and inspire sharing of information between departments, developing new business opportunities and a staff savvy on organizational goings-on. With any technology upgrade however, the goals of efficiency, productivity and quality should still be observed: once all is in place with the cloud, do you have evidence that it will improve the product or experience to customers, or will it simply make the process different, with no intent on measuring the benefits?
The cost of moving from one system to another is not insubstantial; if you have no intention of changing how you do business, or take advantage what cloud computing can do, why bother?
5. What else will change for your business?
Look beyond the immediate and think change: aside from the processes directly effected, is there anything else that needs to be taken into account. More training? Should you anticipate a cultural shift in what actions staff now need to take to accomplish regular business actives? What will be the changes in information storage, access and security, and what other business processes will need to be modified because you’ve changed how information is handled? How tech-savvy is your staff: will they be keen on a new tool, or will it be an uphill battle to get all hands on deck? Think of going to the cloud like switching a color of paint on your business pallet: what else will look different, once the lines of green are now bright blue? Will you need to adjust the pattern to keep the picture clear?
When moving to the cloud, buy-in, both at the managerial and staff level, are critical: staff won't use a cloud solution if it proves less convenient than current systems, and managers who do not take up or promote the cloud through active use will have these they report to wondering why bother. The benefits of the cloud, including document collaboration, may require changes to other business activities. The cloud often promotes information sharing, but fair warning: not all departments will be ready to break down the business silos just yet.
There’s no question if your business hasn’t yet considered cloud computing it should start doing so: as more and more developers use the cloud to deliver software, the cloud is here to stay. Be weary however, of the plug & go mindset that cloud storage for business, like cloud storage for individual customers, is as easy as signing up to Google or getting a dropbox account. Personal users of the cloud are only responsible for their own information & data, taking on less responsibility for mismanagement, and lower costs if they decide it’s not what they want. As a business, moving to the cloud comes with no small price tag: you’re responsible for all of the information you store, whether it belongs to internal operations, clients or consumers, and want to use it in a way that gets the most bang for your buck.
Before fitting your information with wings and sending it up high, make sure it’s really ready to fly.