Although it is sometimes hard to believe, less than two decades ago Amazon, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Yahoo were not yet household names. The internet played the role of the great equalizer by providing broad and easy access to customers. The internet also leveled the playing field for new companies to enter the market and not only compete, but win big. The cloud has had a similar impact by providing a new generation of software companies easy access to computing power and bandwidth.
While in the past, the required investment in infrastructure acted as a deterrent for small companies entering the market, the cloud changed all of that by making computing accessible and affordable. Innovative companies can leverage the cloud to take on the old guard, just like the Internet did for the companies that came before. By most historical reference points, the cloud market is still in its infancy, which means major posturing and hype is to be expected on the part of market leaders, resulting in much confusion about the cloud. But now we are entering the next chapter of cloud adoption, and what has not changed from the early days is that users across enterprises of all sizes want easy and affordable access to their applications and data.
It is quite common to hear IT experts assert that cloud-based apps are less adaptable to meet the needs of individual businesses, so dedicated enterprise applications, running on servers owned and operated by the companies, will continue to dominate the world of enterprise software. Enterprise apps moving off-premise to a third-party hosted environment doesn’t change that situation. Hosted enterprise apps are the same as the apps that run on enterprise-owned servers.
In general, it may be true that enterprise software has the edge over cloud-based applications, but that’s today. After all, once upon a time a chunk of software could be “customized” only by rewriting the code. That didn’t last too long before we realized that not all users were the same, and so we made it easier for certain persistent parameters and characteristics to be defined by expert users — not just by software coders. Software vendors began providing dialogs, wizards, and editable tables for users to make this development possible. Users then took for granted that they could edit field names and labels, reword process steps, and write their own user help scripts, and the vendors recognized that the inevitable evolution path, driven by user demand, was in the direction of user-driven configuration and away from heroic interventions by coders. The next level of user empowerment is already with us for new enterprise applications: using tools that can manipulate metadata and general XML scripts, customers can readily adjust process flows and create new processes, fields, and decision criteria to determine the way an application can be used to support the business.
In the same way, the sentiment that cloud applications cannot meet highly complex business needs is based on yesterday’s reality, not today’s. Yesterday’s reality was that changing an application to meet a wide range of various and sometimes contradictory needs could only be accomplished by coding and specialist scripting, essentially creating a new application.
Today, forward-thinking software vendors pay as much attention to developing powerful and user-friendly tools for configuration and adaptation as they do to instantiating the basic business operations processes. In fact, enabling the user to adapt the software through configuration tools will reduce the problem of trying to define restricted sets of business processes that meet some needs of most users, while meeting all the needs of just a few.
The current fashion is to create deliberately light versions of enterprise applications for use as cloud or software as a service (SaaS) offerings. Limiting both the offered features and the flexibility to configure is one way in which total user self-service can be promised, but this often leads to disappointed users. However, as enterprise applications themselves move in the direction of user configuration, we will see some of them doing double duty as a new generation of highly functional, feature-rich, and flexible cloud apps. At that point, the ability of enterprise business users to adapt a SaaS environment will not be discernibly different from their ability to adapt a traditional in-house application to their specific needs.
And if you are an enterprise, a completely public or completely private cloud environment is not an option. Even the Web 2.0 companies that started out with public cloud are looking at a hybrid model as they grow up and their requirements change. Enterprises need the flexibility to optimize based on where applications ideally belong. This evolution to a hybrid model has not gone unnoticed by the original cloud giants; most cloud providers are now offering a hybrid cloud solution.
Although the cloud is for everyone, it is not for every application. The public cloud is a good place to host non-mission critical workloads — the data that isn’t proprietary and crucial to a business — or compute-intensive applications that need massive infrastructure for short periods of time, such as quality assurance and DevOps. While a public cloud provides virtually limitless commodity capacity, if there are regulatory or compliance restrictions around data security or privacy, certain applications will never move out of the data center. But a public cloud can be useful for performance and availability purposes, such as by offering high availability and business continuity backup.
The private cloud is ideal for mission-critical workloads and sensitive data that a business needs to keep under cyberlock and key. IT teams need to balance performance, compliance, cost, interoperability, and compatibility to decide which enterprise applications make sense for which model. Private clouds provide customization, control and optimization, and certain applications require this. Many companies also do not know the steady state demand for an application when they start. But once you have the experience with long-running, well-known workloads, you want to achieve the highest possible cost optimization — this means using a private cloud. If you have interactive applications reliant on certain networks or Internet performance, these also may not be suited to a public cloud.
The majority of large enterprises start out using a private cloud because it offers greater privacy and control over data. By adding a public cloud for certain aspects of the business and infrastructure, companies have the ability to optimize based on price, policy and performance. If you have already invested large amounts of money and resources in your own infrastructure, you’re not likely to move everything to the public cloud as you look to preserve that investment. A hybrid model supports the requirements and service-level agreements for a variety of applications and users. The hybrid approach is also a nice hedge against vendor lock-in and provides greater risk mitigation.
The co-existence model will result in a common cloud management layer, irrespective of whether it is public or private cloud. Data integration does not happen magically; customers need common semantics, and then a process for synchronizing the data. In a private cloud, you’re talking directly to a database to get your data, but in a public cloud you’re communicating through an API. A particular public cloud will be selected if it uses the same operating systems and application stacks as those in the internal environment. But integration and management will get much easier as platforms wrap up the underlying proprietary APIs and the link between the two becomes more seamless, providing a common control panel for IT.
What can we expect in the future? The cloud is too rich of an opportunity for only a select few providers to benefit. New companies, new alliances and even new industries will emerge to take on the original players, offering vertical solutions specific to their own markets that will benefit enterprises and expand the cloud market even further.
Esmeralda Swartz has spent 15 years as a marketing, product management, and business development technology executive bringing disruptive technologies and companies to market. As chief marketing officer of MetraTech, Swartz is responsible for go-to-market strategy and execution, product marketing, product management, business development, and partner programs.