Cloud computing is changing the way we do business but as Zachary Ochieng finds out, it is the first baptism of fire for a number of CIOs.
The transition from the mainframe to the client-server in the early 1980s has heralded a paradigm shift to Cloud computing, an Internet-based computing, whereby shared resources, software and information are provided to computers and other devices on demand. While the Cloud computing arena still presents challenges to a number of CIOs, its benefits cannot be gainsaid. For one, Cloud computing users avoid capital expenditure (CapEx) on hardware, software and services when they pay a provider only for what they use.
CLOUD COMPUTING IS A JOURNEY
Delano Kiilu Longwe is the Business Manager, Data Centre and Application Infrastructure at Seven Seas Technologies (SST), a leading provider of integrated business and technology solutions across Africa in the Financial, Telecom, Real Estate, Service Industries and Government. Says he: "Cloud computing is a journey. It is not a destination. At SST we think every organisation will be able to leapfrog a lot of those steps by having the right people they are talking to or simply using the right cloud services."
According to Longwe, with Cloud computing, businesses stand to benefit because they no longer have to spend CapEx on technology in order to gain a competitive advantage.
"It is the technology that gives you a competitive advantage. There is a journey to public cloud in East Africa. It means that an organisation which already has a huge compute, storage and software platform, can decide to provide access to external users to leverage off those facilities at a cost. This will become very easy with the current bandwidth we have in Kenya", says Longwe.
NO NEED TO INVEST IN CAPEX
The upshot is that initially large and mid enterprise organisations will benefit because they no longer need to invest CapEx in order to have a business advantage in the market. Such organisations will be able to use their operational expenditure ( OpEx) and leverage off the latest in technology and go to the market and immediately have a competitive advantage within the market by use of technology.
According to Collin Mamdoo, Chief Operations Officer, Internet Solutions, the leading converged communications provider, Cloud computing allows businesses to grow and become agile as staff and other costs are reduced.
"The other advantage offered by Cloud computing is space reduction. If you have multiple servers, they consume a lot of electricity. But moving them to a virtualised environment results into cost reduction", says Mamdoo.
OUTSOURCE NON-CORE BUSINESS
He advises that organisations should now outsource non- core business as is the case in most African countries.
"Apart from financial benefits, your business starts to grow."
In a nutshell, organisations that have embraced the cloud enjoy economies of scale. "The reality is that many organisations want to embrace new technologies and new information systems so that they can either get ahead or keep up with their competitors. The major challenge they face is the enormous cost and time delay that is associated with the implementation of such systems", says Roger Purdie, Managing Director, Quintica Kenya, a solution innovation company.
Quintica has invested in major hardware and software platforms, in its state of the art data centre facility and has deployed virtualisation and multi-tenant solutions to securely manage several businesses in one system.
"Whether you need to ensure that your critical business data is backed up secure and encrypted, if you need access to professional email systems, access to mass storage or even your own "virtual server" to load your own application, the cloud is ready to deliver", says Purdie.
While technology has been changing rapidly, the cost of IT remains high. And therein lies the benefit of Cloud computing. Banks, for instance, need a platform, i.e a core banking infrastructure. But this means that after a period of time, there will be a proliferation of servers.
BRINGING INFRASTRUCTURE INTO A COMMOM POOL
"Cloud computing changes all that by bringing the infrastructure into a common pool. By pooling and sharing, you are reducing costs and getting a higher return on investment (ROI)", says George Murage, Line of Business Manager, Data Centre Solutions, Dimension Data East Africa, a specialist IT services and solutions provider.
Since Cloud computing is a service provided on demand, the speed of provisioning IT services increases tremendously.
Jude Kikuyu, Chief Technology Officer, Alliance Technologies, a Kenyan-based software engineering company, says that besides saving on costs, Cloud computing allows accessibility of data from wherever one is.
"Other benefits would be availability of tools or software that you need for developing your application. Like if you want to develop a CRM, there is a tool you can use", says Kikuyu.
CLOUD COMPUTING ENHANCES E-COMMERCE
There is no doubt that Cloud computing also enhances e-commerce. Kenya has a thriving intellectual base of up and coming "Information Technology Visionairies". These (typically young) people have embraced technology from an early age and are now seeing how computer systems and access devices can be applied to everyday activities.
With this talent, organisations are now able to quickly and easily gain access to literally hundreds of thousands of new customers that want to shop, but may not have the access or time on their hands. Quintica, for instance, is currently working on a project that is set to revolutionise the shopping industry in Kenya.
Perhaps the most widely known example of cloud computing asssisting e-commerce is the ability for businesses to gain access to online merchant facilities. These facilities can be integrated into an organisational web site so that people can browse through a virtual store and then purchase goods and services using a credit card, Paypal or even a cheque. Other cloud based systems that have been around for years are Salesforce.com, Google and Amazon. Such systems are pervasive and people's concern about online buying is rapidly evaporating.
Kiilu Longwe is optimistic that with very many bright minds in the region, Cloud computing is soon going to start acting as a catalyst to e-commerce, as the primary driver of e-commerce is the correct type of infrastructure.
CORRECT TYPE OF INFRASTRUCTURE
"Whereas previously many individuals and firms were not able to leverage off the correct type of infrastructure, Cloud computing is going to make this happen", says Longwe.
Still, one cannot talk about Cloud computing without virtualisation. In server virtualisation for instance, we are looking at server consolidation which basically means getting majority of the physical servers and consolidating them into one and their applications used in a virtual server environment.
"From a cost persepective, we are reducing power and cooling needs, and from a management perspective, we are reducing the number of people required to manage all these servers. The cost in terms of real estate is also saved. By moving to a virtual environment, you are getting uptime", says Hardeep Sound, Business Productivity Solutions Specialist, Microsoft East & Southern Africa.
In a desktop environment, with virtualisation, the applications do not reside on a desktop. Instead, they reside on a central server. Whenever end users need an pplication, they simply request it from the server.
But despite the benefits offered by Cloud computing, a number of CIOs are still reluctant to venture into the cloud owing to the fears and challenges associated with it. According to Kikuyu, it is expensive to set up cloud services, not to mention that people are very suspicious of their data sitting outside.
NO STANDARDS IN PLACE
"With no standards in place, it takes time to convince people that they can actually store their data remotely. It is also a catch 22 situation for vendors who don't want to release information on their infrastructure lest a prospective client opts not to use their services", says Kikuyu.
The reality is that a lot of people have traditionally felt that if they are paying for something, they need to see the actual evidence of the product, instead of accepting the value of the service. But Quintica's Mr Purdie sees this changing soon.
"I am, however, very pleased to report that the tide is turning and business managers and Information Technology managers are now realising that it is a better choice to take advantage of services; and not to have to worry about how they are delivered", says Purdie.
According to Mamdoo, the issue of uptime also remains crucial, given the power situation in the region.
SECURITY BIGGEST CONCERN
But in the words of SST's Mr Longwe, the first biggest and primary fear is security. "We live in a market where if somebody captures your idea and they go to the market first, then they have beaten you to the business. So, I think security is the biggest concern for anybody moving into the cloud." Organisations are afraid that their information may be tampered with by their competitors.
Dimension Data's Mr Murage concurs: "The fact that you are pooling resources brings a lot of security concerns. For silos it is easy to separate them by putting firewalls. But cloud infrastructure allows you to move your computing resources from one geographic location to another. A cloud user is never sure whether using shared infrastructure is secure", Murage observes, adding that if no disaster recovery measure is put in place, the failure rate becomes very high, with many applications running on a single server.
LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL
But there is certainly some light at the end of the tunnel, with a few organisations already coming up to address security concerns. One such organisation is Adnet, that focuses on IP security, besides offering tailormade enterprise solutions that works for its customers.
"Obviously we realise that the landing of cables at the Kenyan coast has really opened up the region in terms of metro, Internet and WAN. The whole region is opening up to what we call parallel access to content in terms of voice, video and data. The whole idea of Cloud computing is to find more effective ways of managing this content in a safer, less expensive way", says Norman Mwaura, Adnet's General Manager.
According to Mwaura, security is actually a strategy and not a product. "Every organisation needs IT security, not just a firewall.
You need an end -to -end enterprise wide solution. In that way, the organisation will be able to secure data and also to minimise threats."
Ultimately, the onus is on the CIO to choose the best loud service provider. So what should CIOs look for?
"Because you are a CIO, your first and primary concern is going to be security; you need to ensure that the levels of encryption technology that are being provided by your cloud service provider are adequate. They should meet global standards for security with in the cloud", says Longwe.
CIOs should also ensure that the cloud service providers they engage have all the necessary facilities to enable them maintain and sustain operations.
ASSESS YOUR CLOUD SERVICE PROVIDER
"It is important to go through the normal business matrix of assesing or evaluating the company that is going to provide you with the cloud. You need to run the necessary checks; who are the directors of
this organisation? Are they sustainable financially? What do their bankers say about them? You also need to get one or two references in the industry."
Longwe adds: "Apart from the basic checks, you also need to assess that this cloud service is operating according to industry best practice. That will seal your job. As a CIO, you are employed to ensure that the organisation's information is secure at all times and that the organisation will be able to run its affairs continuously without being tampered with."
Quintica's Mr Purdie advises: "When it comes to the technology component, look for redundancy, resilience and process. With regard to redundancy, your vendor needs to be able to show you evidence of fail over systems, and third party support contracts that support your actual needs. Finally, for resilience ask about the security framework that the vendor has in place. If they cannot show you 5 levels of security then walk away."
MARKET IS READY
The challenges notwithstanding, the East African market is certainly ready for Cloud computing.
"We are 100 per cent ready. I would say this because we have generated so much intellectual capacity in nterms of technology-Facebook, Twitter, all the web 2.0 applications that are being utilised even by our own very young people who have just graduated from universities . The only problem is the platform on which to develop some of these applications but Cloud computing will now make this easy", says Longwe.
With the East African integration and the recent coming into effect of the Common Market Protocol, the region couldn't be more ready. The arrival of the undersea cables has enhanced communications as the high Internet connectivity will enable even those living in rural areas to access powerful compute and storage platforms.