If you ask me, we hear too much from those who sell technology and too little from those who use it. They certainly get the opportunities at numerous closed-doors corporate meetings, where the people selling do all the listening (and then convincing). But to find good and reliable public opinions about business technologies not coloured by sales targets is still a rarity.
So, when I got to sit in at a recent Oracle roundtable with two of its customers, Eskom and Tiger Brands, I couldn’t help grilling them a little. The answers ranged from the obvious to interesting, so here are some of the takeaways from the conversation.
(Just one caveat: you may notice I don’t say who I spoke to at either company. Their names weren’t withheld by Oracle; I chose not to make it about any specific people, since I can appreciate that executives are generally not comfortable sticking their necks out in this fashion.)
Tier-one apps are cloud gateways
Tiger Brands started its cloud journey (to use some well-worn jargon) a year ago and appears to be happy with the progress. But there is a catch: it has been running on Oracle since 2009. Tier-one business applications and their ecosystems are clearly a catalyst for adopting cloud technologies, so be sure your choice is on that bandwagon. If your critical business application vendor is not presenting cloud-based solutions and leaning towards cloud native apps (applications that take advantage of the power and scaling of virtualised data centre systems), start asking hard questions.
Public, private or hybrid may not be your choice
There are three flavours of cloud: public (your data resides with a third-party stack), private (your data resides on your stack) and hybrid (you use both). How you use these might not be up to you. For example, Eskom must maintain quite a large private cloud due to regulations and the sensitivities of its business. Financial institutions also favour private clouds for control — and because they have the funds to maintain that. What we often call “on-premise” technology is now becoming “private cloud” technology. If you rely heavily on on-premise tech, public cloud may not be an option for your industry. Not yet, at least.
There are many ways to ‘own’ a data centre
As mentioned above, Eskom needs to control a lot of its cloud infrastructure, which basically means it controls its own data centres. Remember, cloud is nothing more than data centres with virtual machines and high-speed networks. Other companies, usually start-ups and firms with little technology legacy, prefer simply paying for a service. That means they own none of the data centre stack and just pay for what the data centre generates. If you use Office 365 or Salesforce.com, that’s what you likely are doing (some cloud services can also be deployed as private cloud applications). This is captured in the acronyms IaaS, PaaS and SaaS (infrastructure-, platform- and software-as-a-service). But Tiger Brands revealed a third option: it outsources its data centre, so it actually doesn’t own any of it. I wasn’t able to pick away at this, but it didn’t sound as if Tiger Brands was just paying for services. Instead it may be “leasing” hardware and deploying its technologies on top of that. As converged hardware becomes more popular, this trend will increase.
You, too, can be a service provider
Eskom noted the big advantage to controlling the data centre stack as opposed to just paying for services. A suitably large organisation will find it more effective to build services and then treat the rest of the company as its clients. I know Altron does this to service the 40-plus companies in its conglomerate. Vodacom Business also treats the rest of the Vodacom empire as its clients. This is particularly useful when mergers and acquisitions happen, because it helps reduce the fracturing of many applications all doing essentially the same thing (resulting in different data sets and many expensive licences). Also, being able to use this model gives a company the muscle to negotiate costs around bulk licences.
Cloud security is a red herring
The Tiger Brands representative was remarkably congenial considering my badgering him on this point. Isn’t moving to the cloud and engaging third parties a security risk? In short, everything is a security risk, so the question is how much risk are you willing to handle. By handle, I mean: do you have the cash and people to really stay on top of things? It is actually less risky to put a lot of your eggs with third-party providers, since their bread and butter is keeping your stuff safe. Your business is not insulated: if a staff member’s stupidity causes your third-party cloud to be breached, that same stupidity can as easily cause your internal data centre to be breached. The difference is that the third-party guys are likely to respond quicker and with better remedies.
Protect your ass
Another area I grilled both representatives on is the question of accountability. The cloud market is a bit notorious for this: it’s all sunshine when things go right, but fingers quickly start pointing when things go wrong. It is a bit too easy to receive great assurances in the glaring headlights of a looming sale, but those can evaporate in moments of crisis. Eskom made this clear: your head as the technologist will always be on the block. If something goes wrong, don’t expect to shift the blame, even if you are simply paying for services. But you are not caught entirely naked in the storm. Tiger Brands underlined the importance of getting your service-level agreements done properly and to go with a technology partner you can trust and with which you communicate. But do not assume they have your back. Like everything in life, get it in writing. And adopt an attitude of “when, not if”. Prevention is great, but response is as important.
Yes, the agility hype is true
Cloud sales people love this: you must have cloud or you will stop innovating! You can’t pivot! You have no agility! Your coffee will suck! Fearmongering? Yes, a little. I find it a tad rich that technologists essentially lecture businesses on business. But there is truth here as well. The ability to respond is quite crucial. Both companies spoke about this, but I quite like Tiger Brands’ example.
The looming sugar tax is going to have real consequences for its bottom line, but the nature of this is still uncertain. All Tiger Brands knows is that it will likely happen. So, the role of technologies such as cloud is to make sure the company can make those sharp turns when the time comes. Eskom echoed this, saying that it’s not about innovation, but whether the technology allows people in the business to act more quickly. That obviously translates into some type of innovation. Yet the point is not to innovate, but readiness to innovate. It’s a subtle yet crucial difference to guide your thinking around why you would need certain cloud technologies.
- James Francis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in several local and international publications