Someone on Quora recently asked “How can IT departments become better innovators (using the cloud)?”
I was compelled to answer. I started with the idea that the main challenge IT departments face in terms of innovation is that IT is hard and it’s not getting any easier. IT is increasing in scope in almost every organization and it is becoming more complex every day. IT departments are under-resourced because they are thought of as a necessary expense to run the business, but not an engine for innovation.
The increased business needs for IT infrastructure with limited resources results in a backlog of tasks that IT has to perform; but it can’t. IT is prevented from helping the business move at the speed that it needs to. An example is a marketing department that needs a new content management platform to launch a new product, or a sales department that needs a better collaboration and learning platform to increase sales effectiveness. IT is struggling to keep up with these business needs; which are imperative to the business’ overall success.
Some stats show most IT departments spend as much as 80 percent of their time and resources just keeping the lights on. IT in a medium-sized company might manage hundreds of applications and each one needs monitoring, patching, updating, maintenance, etc.
The cloud can help inject innovation into IT in two major ways:
1. Infrastructure Efficiency
By making infrastructure virtual and based on pools of resources, the cloud adds agility and improves resource utilization.
Historically, if a business unit needed for an application that required a few servers, there was a great deal of red tape to wade through: it had to work with finance to approve the spend; then with procurement; then it had to wait for the equipment to arrive; find space in the datacenter; ensure there is cabling, networking and power; set up the servers; then set up the application. (Phew! Are we done yet? Not even close!)
Once all that was taken care of, one of two things happened: Either the servers were not powerful enough to handle the number of users for the application, resulting in a bad user (or customer) experience; or the number of users was lower than the number of users supported by this server, resulting in unused capacity.
With the cloud the whole process of acquiring and setting up a server can be reduced to minutes. Even installing and configuring applications can be done swiftly. For example, a business that needs a collaboration portal can go to the Rackspace Cloud, create a Cloud Server with a SharePoint image and have the site up and running in an hour.
Because the cloud is elastic, the server can be resized as needed (larger or smaller depending on the use). Once the application is no longer needed, it can be turned off, and the meter stops running.
For more complex applications, Cloud Monitoring can alert an administrator when a server is not responding fast enough. With more advanced monitoring, admins can be notified when a server is reaching CPU or memory usage thresholds. The user can make the server larger, or can create additional servers that could join a web server cluster via a load balancer, for example. All this can be done within minutes from a mobile device, a tablet or other web-enabled device.
Ultimately, by using more agile and efficient infrastructure, IT can turn its attention away from simply keeping the lights on and focus on spurring innovation within the business.
2. Skills Effectiveness
Every IT department is working with fewer resources than it needs. Finding skilled talent is incredibly difficult, probably harder than buying servers. Maintaining a complex web application may require a database administrator, a security expert, a network administrator and a systems administrator. Hiring a team like this can take months and can require a massive chunk of payroll.
And that is if you can find the talent. According to an IBM report, in Canada alone the IT industry will be more than 100,000 workers short by 2016 thanks to growing skills shortages that affect as many as 60 percent of all businesses.
One solution to that problem is the outsourcing of some of the infrastructure management. While many cloud infrastructure providers offer just basic infrastructure, others like Rackspace provide a wide breadth of managed services.
For example, at Rackspace we have teams of specialists that can help design, plan, implement, manage and maintain infrastructure for our customers. Taking advantage of managed services means there is a team of people monitoring your infrastructure, installing updates, proactively tuning it, troubleshooting and taking care of other administrative tasks, like this recent blog post illustrates. There is someone making sure your application works 24x7x365.
For customers running business-critical applications, Rackspace also offers Critical Application Services that include a 100 percent uptime SLA guarantee for the application platform or for specific applications such as Adobe CQ for content management.
Outsourcing repetitive tasks and infrastructure management allows an IT department to spend less time on maintenance, hardware infrastructure and management tasks, freeing up more time to innovate.
The model has proven across large IT environments, SaaS companies and online retailers. Chris Le, Lead Developer at Seer Interactive explained it in very practical terms: “Managed Cloud really allows us to focus specifically on our app, and not all the IT stuff around it. Not that we can’t do it, but I have code to write.”
The value of taking advantage of both infrastructure and skills efficiency in the cloud is probably more evident in startups, some of which have no IT department at all.
In a post titled “Servers are cheap, talent is expensive,” Lydia Leong, Gartner’s leading cloud analyst, explains: “If you can outsource a capability that doesn’t generate competitive advantage for you, then you can free your best people to work on the things that do generate competitive advantage.”