A key benefit often discussed about cloud computing is how it enables agility. This benefit is real and powerful. However, the term agility is used to describe two different kinds of benefit; both are real, but one of them will, ultimately, be seen as offering the greatest impact. This post will discuss the two types of agility and provide some examples of how compelling the second type is.
What does cloud agility mean? It's tied to the rapid provisioning of computer resources. Cloud environments can usually provide new compute instances or storage in minutes, a far cry from the very common weeks (or months, in some organizations) the same provisioning process can take in typical IT shops.
As one could imagine, the dramatic shortening of the provisioning timeframe enables work to commence much more quickly. No more submitting a request for computing resources and then anxiously watching e-mail for a fulfillment response. As agility may be defined as "the power of moving quickly and easily; nimbleness" it's easy to see how this rapid provisioning is referred to advancing agility.
But here is where the definition gets a bit muddled. People conflate two different things under the term agility: engineering resource availability, and business response to changing conditions or opportunity.
Both types of agility are useful, but the latter type will ultimately prove to be the more compelling and will come to be seen as the real agility associated with cloud computing.
The problem with delivering compute resources to engineers more quickly is it is a local optimization — it makes a portion of internal IT processes more agile, but doesn't necessarily shorten the overall application supply chain, which stretches from initial prototype to production rollout.
In fact, it's all too common for cloud agility to enable developers and QA to get started on their work more quickly, but for the overall delivery time to remain completely unchanged, stretched by slow handover to operations, extended shakedown time in the new production environment, and poor coordination with release to the business units.
Moreover, if cloud computing comes to be seen as an internal IT optimization with little effect on how quickly compute capability rolls out into mainline business processes, the potential exists for IT to never receive the business unit support it requires to fund the shift to cloud computing. It may be that cloud computing will end up like virtualization, which in many organizations is stuck at 20 percent or 30 percent penetration, unable to garner the funding necessary to support wider implementation. If the move to cloud computing is presented as "helps our programmers program faster," necessary funding will probably never materialize.
The second type of agility — that which affects how quickly business units can roll out new offerings — suffers no such problems. If business units can see a direct correlation between cloud computing and stealing a march on the competition, funding will not be an issue. It never is when the business benefit is clear.
How about some examples of the kind of business agility fostered by cloud computing? Glad you asked. Here are three examples, drawn from the world of journalism:
1. The Daily Telegraph (which I discussed last week) broke the story of major scandal regarding Members of Parliament expenses. The story was a huge cause celebre, complete with vastly entertaining examples of MPs putting in for reimbursement of their moat cleaning expenses and for building a duck house. The number of expense forms was, as might be imagined, huge, and overtaxed the resources of the Telegraph available to review and analyze them. So the Telegraph loaded the documents up in Google Docs and allowed readers to sort through them on their own. Toby Wright, CIO of the Telegraph Media Group, mentioned this example in his presentation at the Cloud Computing World Forum, and noted that it was fascinating to see several hundred people clicking through the spreadsheets simultaneously.
2. Not to be outdone, the Guardian had its own response to the expenses scandal. It quickly wrote an application to let people examine individual claims and identify ones that should be looked at more closely. This crowdsourcing allowed more questionable claims to be turned up more quickly and kept the heat on the situation (thanks to James Governor of RedMonk for the referral to the Guardian's application). With regard to the agility cloud computing offers, Simon Willison of the Guardian noted that "I am working at the Guardian because I am interested in the opportunity to build rapid prototypes that go live: apps that live for two or three days." In other words, the agility of cloud computing enables quick rollout of short-lived applications to support the Guardian's core business: delivery of news and insight (by the way, Simon, congratulations on your recent marriage — well done!).
3. Finally, turning to the United States, the Washington Post took static pdf files of former First Lady Hillary Clinton's schedule and used Amazon Web Services to transform them into a searchable document format. Furthermore, it then placed the documents into a database and put a simple graphic interface in place to allow members of the public to search through them as well — again, crowdsourcing the analysis of documents to accelerate analysis.
One might argue that these examples don't prove the overall point of how cloud computing improves business agility; after all, these are media businesses that deal with immaterial bytes, not "real" businesses that deal with physical objects and can't be satisfied with a centralized publication site.
That misses the mark, though. Modern economies are shifting to become more IT-infused (aka moving to ubiquitous computing) and digital data is become a key part of every business offering — and the ability to turn out applications associated with the foundation business offering will be a critical differentiator in tomorrow's economy.
The ability to surround a physical product or service with supporting applications offers more value to customers and provides competitive advantage to the vendor. And knowing how to take advantage of cloud computing to speed delivery of complementary applications into the marketplace is crucial to win in the future. Failing to optimize the application delivery supply chain will hamper companies as they battle it out in the marketplace.
We have prepared an agility checklist to help companies assess if they are suffering from an agility barrier. If you'd like to assess your own organization, you may download the checklist here (registration required).
It is a huge mistake to view cloud computing as a technology that helps IT do its job faster. Internal IT agility is necessary but not sufficient for the future. More important will be to tie the application of cloud computing to business agility, speeding business innovation to the marketplace. Both kinds of agility are good, but the latter is profound and should be the aim of your cloud computing efforts.
Bernard Golden is CEO of consulting firm HyperStratus, which specializes in virtualization, cloud computing and related issues. He is also the author of "Virtualization for Dummies," the best-selling book on virtualization to date.