Optimizing the Cloud Opportunity in 2016

The cloud is surely a popular topic with the media and also with enterprises, but despite the agreement of these two groups that the cloud is interesting, they don’t agree much on what exactly is happening with the cloud.  Perhaps even more significant is the fact that they don’t agree about the future of the cloud either.

The number of “enterprises”, meaning multi-site businesses with at least ten thousand employees, who are not using the cloud is below the level of statistical significance in surveys.  However, cloud spending is still hovering at a couple percent of IT spending, and enterprises are still predicting that cloud spending won’t exceed 25% of total IT spending.  Based on this, it would be tempting to say that the cloud is radically over-hyped, but that’s a little too simple a conclusion.

The big problem we have with “the cloud” is the same as the one we have with other revolutionary technologies, like SDN or NFV or IoT.  It’s sometimes jokingly called the “groping the elephant” problem, relating to the old about trying to identify an elephant hidden behind a screen by feeling around.  Get a leg and it’s a tree; a trunk and it’s a snake, but it’s hard to grasp the totality.  So it is with the cloud, but the screen in the cloud case is the filter implicit in our presumptive model of IT.  We think in legacy terms, and legacy limitations are inherited.  The cloud won’t reach optimum penetration unless we think about it in cloud terms.

The current cloud successes have come largely by transforming web-related application processing.  Many companies have gone to cloud hosting of their web presence, and for enterprises this has reduced server spending by shifting that mission to a third party.  Remember, though, that for most enterprises web processes are front-ends to the core systems.  These systems remain almost entirely in-house, with the exception of some backup and capacity augmentation planning.  For the present at least very few enterprises see that changing much, if at all.

The interesting thing is that enterprises think their cloud spending will rise more than the potential transformation of web applications and cloudbursting could explain.  They can’t really rationalize this expectation, but at its core is the notion that there’s something the cloud could do that they are not doing now.

There is such a thing, mobility-based worker productivity enhancement.  If you survey the topic outside the context of the cloud, enterprises think that a spending bump of as much as 30% of current IT spending could be generated.  That’s a lot of money (ten times current cloud spending), but it’s not easy to harness.

Any cloud or IT product salesperson would tell you that an opportunity target like “mobility-based worker productivity enhancement” is an invitation to a sales cycle so long and with so small a chance of eventual success that they might as well just apply for unemployment.  In order to create realizable opportunity, that hazy business goal would have to be converted into something that could drive a project, and there we have the challenge not only for the cloud but for IT in general.

The cloud does not make workers more productive, but applications that run in it could do that.  Given that, what would have to be sold is first the applications that can (through mobility) further empower workers, and then the vision of hosting these apps in the cloud.  Whenever two things need to be done, both things tend to wait for the other.

Logically, the solution to cloud-based productivity enhancement should be presented as SaaS, which would make it consumable in a single step.  That sounds easy, but sit down yourself and try to diagram a cloud-based mobile-productivity application and define how it links with core business applications and repositories.  It’s hard to generalize something like that, and if there is no general solution then the project is a systems integration or software development project first, and a cloud project second.  We’re back to two sides watching each other.

The watching-face-off point is important because in a market where there’s a high barrier to early success created by implementation needs or buyer education needs (or both), every possible market-mover has to look at risk and reward.  Does a cloud provider want to step up and propose a total productivity solution?  Most would admit that’s beyond their capabilities.  But does an application provider want to propose a general strategy that would be suitable for cloud-hosting?  Could they hope to get all the money associated with their effort, or would they simply open a market that others would inevitably share and possibly even dominate?

Some market players might have enough pieces of the cloud/productivity pie to be able to move on it.  Microsoft and IBM are examples; they both have substantial application productivity experience and also cloud mindshare.  HPE, Oracle, and SAP are less obviously tied to all the pieces of the puzzle but could still create a formidable strategy from what they have.  Amazon and Google, of course, could always just buy some application smarts to drive things.  A lot of possibilities…

…all of which have been on the table all along.  The fast track option to what the cloud aficionados would call “hypergrowth” could have been taken this year, or last.  Since it wasn’t, you have to assume that there are barriers that are not clear or are considered too high for the moment at least.  That leaves us with a “slow-track” option.

Web front-ends to current applications are aimed either at those outside the company or at company workers.  In the latter case, the front-ends are obviously productivity tools, and the transformation of these tools to better suit mobile devices is a recognized requirement.  Could that be a starting-point for a more comprehensive vision of mobile productivity, suitable for cloud-hosting?  It sure could, and many companies have plans or even products in this area.

The timing is the question, because even this evolutionary approach apparently looks pretty revolutionary and scary to all the possible players.  You’d think it shouldn’t, because transformation to the cloud based on building new applications with new benefits would not erode current IT spending as moving current stuff to the cloud would.  But vendors tell me that their current initiatives toward mobile productivity are not designed for the cloud, though they hasten to say they could be hosted there.  That puts most vendors in the position of picking between an approach that sells traditional hardware and software or one that sells cloud services.  Historically we know how that goes.

What is probably going to happen is something in between our evolution and revolution choices.  Some vendor or operator is going to find a way to do enough to demonstrate compelling value, but not so much that cautious executives are driven to cover, and we might just see the signs of what and who in 2016.  It’s hard to handicap who’d do this, but my bet would be a player with both cloud and application skills.  They have the best chance of seeing that elephant behind the screen.