A look at the pros and cons of cloud adoption for small businesses.
For large-enterprise CIOs, “hybrid IT” isn’t a buzzword, it’s a fact of life. They manage concurrent, interdependent headaches: data centers, multiple private and public clouds, and random acts of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), all while adopting DevOps. Meanwhile, their peers managing IT at local banks, regional manufacturing facilities, and local governments have listened to their war stories, grateful not to have responsibility over equally complex, conglomerated environments.
But now, even small- and medium-size businesses (SMBs) are confronting similar challenges. However, SMBs don’t have economy of scale to absorb operations knowledge gaps or unexpected ramp-up costs, and are thus discovering hybrid infrastructure can be disproportionally risky or expensive.
Bully for you, mega-bank
It’s tantalizing to watch sharp industry conference presenters talk about reimagining projects that get on-premises operations under control, shift compatible workloads to cloud, and accelerate new business opportunity, all while improving the bottom line. They’re senior executives from consumer brands we know and it’s natural to assume they must have big business challenges beyond anything most IT organizations face. At tech conferences, an ecosystem of vendors hawk sexy new technology that enables this transition. Their demos make it look easy, and as IT professionals, we’re already vulnerable to user interface fatigue. The promises of cloud are intoxicating, and sooner or later, we will all take the plunge.
Even if somehow, with resolute, empirical IT steadfastness, we try to operate as we have for decades, these technologies may be forced on us by the business anyway, largely bypassing our input. Against our will, we may end up with multiple public cloud infrastructures, non-WAN-optimized applications, and contractor-configured lift and shift. In 2017, 64% of North American organizations reported using multiple cloud providers, according to the SolarWinds IT Trends Report 2017: Portrait of a Hybrid IT Organization.
However mainstream hybrid IT has become, in the eyes of employees, local IT will still be accountable for end-user quality of experience. It doesn’t matter to them that IT has less administrative control over application components and platforms that are no longer inside our firewalls. And when -- as we saw again earlier this year with Amazon Web Services -- the cloud does break, who gets the help desk ticket? It’s still local IT, of course.
Hybrid’s disproportionate burden
What keynote tales of carefree implementation don’t always include are recommendations for absorbing costs and business risk. When the CIO of mega-bank casually mentions he reassigned 50 lead developers into his new Services Decomposition Team, he’s aware it’s not free, but out of 1,200 total developers, it’s merely a rounding error. That’s not a luxury shared by SMBs, who likely don’t have staff to dedicate from a small pool of skilled IT generalists or, for that matter, have developers in the first place. The team’s ability to quickly master all techniques needed to successfully operate hybrid IT resources is not an issue, it’s the issue. These new technologies are not difficult to learn, but training and development time is even harder for most SMBs to budget for than security, which is saying something.
Additionally, for some SMBs, each added public cloud platform essentially requires new headcount. They don’t usually have resources to free up or train existing staff and are forced to hire or contract. Worse, an AWS expert is not necessarily also expert in Azure, Bluemix, or Google, so adding additional vendors multiplies the penalty. Services delivery, monitoring, and management of more complex networks, virtual private cloud networks, and cloud firewalls adds new costs. At the same time, even the thought of IT carrying variable operational expenditure can be a problem. All of these factors and more can block, delay, or even roll back adoption of hybrid IT technologies, with IT reasonably preferring the relative safety of traditional data centers.
Paradoxically, however, IT migration away from the data center may actually benefit SMBs in ways it doesn’t for Global 2000 enterprises. First, large enterprises are often burdened with many custom applications that are hard to transform. Midsize enterprises more often choose packaged third-party applications, and many of those vendors now offer assistance with cloud migration or provide outright SaaS versions. Salesforce is just as useful to a company of 500 as it is to mega-bank and the per-user burden is essentially the same.
Second, SMBs are usually midpoint or later adopters and can start with the second or third generation of cloud-native technologies that are more powerful, and usually less expensive, than some of the bleeding-edge technology larger businesses adopted three or more years ago. Linux containers, anyone?
Last, even with the additional complexity of hybrid IT deployment, SMBs may be nimbler. Often, they are more able to rapidly transform operations and develop new lines of business based on new technology. For example, launching a new mobile-first service from the cloud is generally much easier than doing so on-premises.
By staying ahead of business owners, SMB IT management and administrators may offer their organizations the holy grail of cloud and SaaS adoption: better performance and decreased costs. To do so, they must recognize that these decisions will conjure hybrid IT into existence, and will increase complexity. But with planning, they may avoid the pitfalls, opaque control points, surprise costs, and other complications that block access to potentially transformative technology. Every organization deserves access to revolutionary IT.