The cloud is here to stay. But, like any major infrastructural shift, the road to broad adoption has its twists and turns, fits and starts. Just in the past year or so, we've seen a distinct uptick in enterprise use of private, public, and hybrid clouds. But many are still sitting on the fence, especially when it comes to mission-critical applications. What's holding them back? And what will it take to tip them off the fence?
I see a few distinct barriers that are holding enterprises back from enthusiastically embracing the cloud as a key driver of business growth.
The SLA challenge
The first barrier has to do with the fact that enterprise IT shops run on service-level agreements (SLAs). That's how they structure their priorities, and how they are evaluated (and compensated). But it's difficult to achieve good SLAs in the cloud, whether it's public or private. Sure, public and outsourced clouds offer SLAs. But take a closer look and you'll see some gaping holes.
While many services claim 100% or five nines availability, down in the the fine print you may find that the penalties for missing the SLA may be very small, have complex conditions that must be met to qualify, or the events counted as downtime may not meet your expectations. Some services only count downtime events of longer than 10 minutes -- so nine minutes of downtime, five times a day would still be considered 100% availability!
SLAs are challenging in private clouds, too. That's because the distributed, dynamic nature of cloud technology makes it difficult to monitor and manage using traditional means. The tools to do this are evolving -- including next-generation, software-defined availability products specifically designed for enterprise clouds. Still, many IT leaders are taking a "wait and see" approach until they're confident of rigorous SLA support.
Building the ROI case
Another barrier revolves around perceived ROI. Building an enterprise-class private cloud requires a significant investment, and many IT leaders are trying to determine where the ROI will come from. For those who have already optimized their environments to the max through virtualization, the ROI for cloud won't come in the form of system consolidation.
The real payback will be in the cloud's ability to dramatically increase agility and enable transformative applications -- apps they could never deliver in their existing environment. But for large enterprises heavily reliant on legacy, mission-critical apps, the ROI picture for moving to the cloud may not be clear yet.
The cloud skills gap
Talent is yet another barrier holding companies back. Most enterprise IT organizations are fairly siloed. Assembling the skill sets required to achieve the maximum benefit from cloud technology will, in many cases, require some retooling of skills and teams. That kind of change is never easy.
Finally, some IT leaders are waiting until they see a critical mass of cloud implementations done successfully at enterprise scale. What they've seen to date are relatively limited deployments -- an app or two, not the mission-critical, enterprise-wide, global applications that will really make CIOs and CTOs sit up and take notice (especially when it's their major competitor making the leap).
Lessons from early adopters
Of course, these barriers aren't holding everyone back. A growing number of forward-looking enterprises have leaped off the fence and embraced the cloud. And the pattern for successful enterprise cloud implementations is instructive.
Moving to the cloud has not been a "forklift" shift. Like many previous technology migrations, the process has been incremental. It typically starts with one app. If that app is successful, it leads to another, which may lead to another. By the time four or five successful cloud apps have been deployed, people across the enterprise begin to notice. This, in turn, will spark a groundswell of support to take on something big.
The key is creating an app that truly realizes the transformative potential of the cloud. Once IT and line of business leaders see the impact the right cloud app can have on their organizations and on the enterprise, you'll begin to see a lot of barriers fall by the wayside. Right now, there are a lot of organizations either planning, creating, or launching those first crucial apps.
The transformative few
So who are these early cloud adopters? Like early adopters of any cool, new technology, they are willing to pay a premium in the short term for the latest and greatest. Because of this, they are focusing on cloud apps that do things in ways they never could in legacy infrastructure.
From enterprise collaboration and sales automation apps, to supply chain and inventory management apps, early adopters are leveraging the inherent, dynamic agility of the cloud to transform a range of distributed processes. They're focusing on revenue-generating applications that would be difficult or impossible to achieve in a legacy environment.
What's next? The crucial step for mainstream cloud adoption will be scaling across the enterprise to achieve bottom-line impact. To truly overcome the barriers discussed earlier -- maintaining SLAs, delivering clear ROI, and breaking down silos -- requires standardization across the enterprise and robust governance. And that means IT must play a central role in helping drive not only the technical transformation to the cloud but the cultural transformation, as well.
Protecting your assets
Key to that cultural transformation is changing the way IT leaders think about what the cloud does for their enterprises. The fact is, embracing the cloud helps protect your assets. It enables progressive lines of business to deliver next-generation apps -- without resorting to shadow IT.
It also enables you to recruit and cultivate the next generation of technology talent, the people who will help fuel your competitive advantage for the next decade. And it helps protect your financial assets over the long term by driving down the cost of innovating new capabilities.
A year from now, we could be looking at a very different state of the cloud. Indeed, many of the pieces are now in place to address key barriers to cloud adoption: the rise of open source solutions like OpenStack and KVM (Kernel-based Virtual Machine), the development of software-defined availability and dynamic cloud orchestration solutions, and a growing sense that the cloud is "ready for prime time," to name just a few.
In the meantime, the enterprises that take those first, incremental steps into the cloud today will be at a distinct advantage further down the road. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.