Is Moving To The Cloud Becoming Too Complex?

by | Aug 12, 2017 | Azure, BoardRoom, Microsoft

(Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash)

Recent financial data (see here) from Microsoft is suggesting that the shift of Microsoft customers away from traditional on-premises usage of products towards the Microsoft cloud is gathering momentum.

Despite the misgivings held by technology leaders within many customer organizations, the data is suggesting that the move of business productivity workloads to the cloud is well and truly underway, inferring that the historical concerns around, for instance, security (when organizational data is in the cloud), are diminishing.

Now that the cloud is established as an IT delivery paradigm and becoming increasingly mature in terms what what can be delivered and pervasive in its presence, I’m hearing increasing murmur around different concerns now that security and risk are better understood by decision makers.

Now that IT leaders are beyond the concerns that held many of them back from early adopting the cloud, consideration is being given to issues other than security that may inhibit adoption. What is emerging in my experience is the vexing of IT leaders around two subjects; complexity and user pushback.

Overcoming Obstacles

As counter-intuitive as it may seem, I’m coming across organizational obstacles that are driving the necessity to increase complexity, not simplicity.

Recent conversations with IT leaders in the context of my latest venture, extaCloud, have identified a number of common challenges being faced, such as:

  • Convincing the Boardroom of medium sized and Enterprise class organizations that they don’t need to maintain on-premises mailboxes for high-level executives, key operational personnel or staffers engaged in ‘sensitive’ activities (e.g. R&D). The inherent uncertainty held around cloud usage for ‘important’, ‘confidential’ or ‘sensitive’ information remains and this results in a belief that a percentage of the user community require an on-premises Exchange implementation. This on-prem Exchange estate in turn requires hybrid infrastructure to support in-house messaging interop between the on-prem and cloud community.
  • Organizations that base their value in intellectual property or other types of industrial advantage are reluctant to enable cloud-only collaboration (or messaging) capability. They’re preferring to maintain on-premises SharePoint capability, and all of it’s associated hybrid plumbing. In the collaboration space this not only increases complexity but exacerbates the feature atrophy issue discussed below bi-laterally as well as continuing to give oxygen to the ‘silo’ challenges that inherently exists when ‘cross-collaboration’ is required.
  • IT leaders that have bought into the pre-Cloud Microsoft vision of products as platforms (SharePoint, Dynamics, BizTalk, etc.) are reluctant to turn their backs on project investments they worked hard to secure and deliver. Some are concerned about return on investment, others have more visceral fear over their reputation. This creates the analysis paralysis problem that has bobbed along hand-in-hand with SharePoint for a while now.

The challenges associated to these obstacles become exacerbated once the user voice gets swirled into the mix. The advance of user-empowered technology resulting in a more sophisticated user community which is then bolted onto the emergence and increasing prevalence of Shadow IT (when was the last time you met somebody that didn’t use DropBox?) means that today’s IT leaders who yesterday could bamboozle users with jargon now have no choice but to listen their users and react accordingly.

The user voice is now loud and powerful, gone are the days when IT could simply dictate to the business what would be in the datacentre and on the desktop.

Increasing Complexity

With the exception of required infrastructure (network, security, directory integration, etc.) it was previously expected that overall complexity in the IT estate should reduce when organizations moved to the cloud.

If you’re in the cloud, it was assumed that there would no longer be necessity to continue to deliver and maintain complex productivity deliveries plus all the upstream infrastructure needed to operate them.

It turns out that this hoped for reduction in complexity just isn’t happening for many. The IT leaders’ vision of being in the cloud thus being empowered to focus on productivity and application workloads is seemingly being realized at a superficial level only.

In estates where organizations hoped to no longer predominantly focus on the delivery of productivity applications and infrastructure to support their needs, the necessity to operate in hybrid scenarios is actually having the opposite effect; complexity is increasing.

When the cloud was new, the notion of operating in a hybrid state was pitched as being a stepping stone towards operational totality in the cloud. In reality, hybrid is being realized by all but the smallest of organizations as being a necessary steady state of operation so that requirements and risk can be balanced.

The Feature Atrophy Problem

What I call the ‘Feature Atrophy Problem’ manifests within organizations as post-migration pain felt by the now powerful users (and in some cases by ‘the business’ in a wider context) in several ways, such as:

  • Not being able to do something they could previously do (e.g. no full trust code in SharePoint Online resulting in the removal of something they had on-premises)
  • Technical limitations within the products that force the change of established behaviors (e.g. configuration and operational restrictions in Exchange Online that are not present in on-prem Exchange)
  • Desire to move away from the homologous environment of being a Microsoft only shop (e.g. the ‘DropBox is better than OneDrive’ challenge)

The core of the Feature Atrophy Problem is that organizations are struggling to understand how they can drive the necessary changes in user behavior when seeking to benefit from the cloud whilst introducing what the users often perceive as a step backwards in functionality.

Businesses have invested heavily in the on-premises server editions of Microsoft technologies. Their users have become familiar with, and in many cases quite adept at, leveraging the platforms for the benefit of themselves and the wider business and they don’t want to give that up.

In an effort to maximize their return on these investments, many organizations have heavily customized their on-premises Microsoft server estate, especially where ‘platform’ products such as SharePoint, BizTalk and Dynamics CRM are part of the technology mix.

Before the cloud (or more specifically, Software-as-a-Service productivity such as Office 365), users saw contextually specific fruits of the investment made by their organization. Users saw ‘features’ within the technology services delivered to them that improved how they worked. They saw business applications (project management, expenses management, document management, customer relationship management, etc.) that were relevant to how they worked and have become familiar with the benefits they reap from these features at personal, team and organizational levels.

The reality in today’s Enterprise is that where the delivery of on-premises Microsoft technologies has been successfully adopted, the users are invested. Big time.

If you take heavily customized in-house deliveries, strip them back to their core components (as an extreme example, think customized workflow driven document lifecycle management in on-prem SharePoint 2013 becoming document libraries within SharePoint Online sites stitched together with Microsoft Flow to provide ‘life cycle automation’ in SharePoint Online) and deliver that to the users proclaiming ‘progress!’ they are going to push back.

Users resist change at the best of times, if you fuel that resistance by taking away the tools that they say make their lives easier, a successful user adoption outcome is fairly unlikely.

Driving Change

Without full support of their user community, IT leaders are finding it challenging to drive change within their organizations. The hoped for benefits of shifting operations to the cloud are not being realized because lack of user support to go ‘all-in’ is driving the need for hybrid state which, in turn, drives up complexity.

In the world of IT, another way of saying ‘complexity’ is ‘cost’. Complexity in technology equals an increase in cost.

When IT leaders and the boardroom were beginning to buy into the cloud, they were buying into increased simplicity. After all; in IT, simplicity generally equals reduction in cost.

I’m not saying that deriving cost benefit from the cloud is either impossible or the only game in town. In fact, I’m saying quite the opposite. Thousands of businesses are definitely spending fewer hard earned dollars on IT so they can spend on things that directly matter to them and these organizations are also benefiting from the other plus points of being in the cloud such as agility (within themselves), elasticity (of consumption) and ubiquity (of access and delivery of IT).

Every day I see examples of how businesses increase their simplicity and benefit strategically, operationally and commercially from being in the cloud.

That being said, I am starting to notice that they tend to be a specific type, shape or size of business with some common characteristics oft including some or all the following:

  • being small or medium in size (often less than 1000 users)
  • software being ‘out-of-the-box’ (few, if any, project delivered customization)
  • users of a single specialist system (core use of industry or task specific, non-Microsoft software)
  • only interacting externally via email or through their specialist software (limited external integration need)

The organizations that are finding it more challenging to seek and benefit from the opportunity of being in the cloud are the ones finding that to reap benefit they need to increase complexity, thus losing ground on the commercial benefits.

Is this a losing battle? I don’t believe so. It’s a patience game. To quote Sun Tzu:

‘If you wait by the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies will float by’

There are two facets to the waiting game required, one internal and the other external.

Internally, organizations need to chip away at the issues and insecurities that are driving the additional complexity caused by the fear of introduction of the cloud.

Executive stakeholders need to be convinced of the high secure, low risk capabilities of the today’s cloud. Users needs to be educated in how their old working practices, although ingrained, can be improved if the desire to improve is there. Support staff need to be shown how the cloud does not threaten their jobs, it presents an opportunity for them to grow. The chipping away list goes on.

Externally, cloud service providers (such as Microsoft) are evolving their offerings constantly. Improvements in the capabilities of their hybrid state offerings which reduce the complexity of hybrid implementations are coming out of their hangers almost daily. Clearly, when complexity is reduced the amount of investment required to move operations to the cloud will naturally reduce; less hybrid = less complexity = less cost.

When To Jump?

Answering this question is at the forefront of many-a-CIO’s mind. As with any waiting game; knowing, estimating or even guessing the right time to wait before invoking the change requires courage, instinct and more than a little patience.

The quota of patience required by many organizations is tricky to gauge. It’s a personal measure; each organization will be different and each CIO will have to rely on their own knowledge and instinct to know when to hold and when to charge.

Even the most risk averse CIO will recognize that the cloud paradigm is the future and that in the vast majority of cases, public cloud offerings hold the greatest opportunity and benefits to empower their organization, but only the patient will get the timing right.

The internal and external facets cited above are on an intercept course and knowing when the most effective point of intersection will occur probably requires some kind of CIO crystal ball to get spot on — and this is the fundamental challenge. In the face of the compromise and trade off, knowing when the right time to move to the cloud is to maximize benefit is the task in hand for those CIOs on the fence.

Who would want to be a CIO in today’s landscape, huh?