Everywhere you turn in the business world today, there is talk about cloud computing. It seems like suddenly everyone is on the bandwagon.
What does this mean for the business you work in? And more importantly, what does a Business Analyst need to know to prepare her for the new cloud computing paradigm?
Here are the five essential things you need to know.
1) What is cloud computing?
It’s important to know what cloud computing is, in the first place.
When many people think of cloud, they generally think of some 3rd party vendor (a Cloud Service Provider or CSP) managing your computer resources for you. But this is an oversimplification, and sometimes even flat out wrong. There is more to cloud than that.
For a better definition, we turn to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Special Publication 800-145. NIST has a very precise definition of what cloud computing means. NIST defines five essential characteristics that must be present for a computing platform to be “cloud.”
a) On-demand self-service
A business customer should be able to allocate the necessary computing resources he needs (storage, number of servers, etc.) with no intervention whatsoever by the service provider.
b) Broad network access
The service provider’s capabilities must be accessible through the Internet. The capabilities must also be accessible to a broad array of platforms including desktop, mobile, and tablets.
c) Resource pooling
Resources mean things like storage, computer memory, number of computer processors, or network bandwidth. A CSP usually has many customers, all of whom have varying resource needs. These customers also don’t always know where the CSP physically locates these resources. Cloud computing requires that the CSP be able to pool its various resources together and flexibly allocate them as each customer’s needs change. Resources are not “locked in” to individual customers, but ebb and flow as conditions and customers change.
d) Rapid elasticity
Customers’ needs can change suddenly. Think of a website that experiences a sudden spike in visitors because an article went viral on social media. When this happens, cloud computing must quickly (and usually automatically) add and remove resources to meet sudden demand. A customer therefore has exactly the resources he needs to meet current demand, and no more. This is also known as scalability–a customer’s usage can scale up and down as needed.
e) Measured service
A key feature of cloud computing is that the customer’s use of resources is metered. Think of how a utility measures your use of electricity or water. The more you use, the more you pay for. Sometimes you use more electricity and water, and sometimes less. A meter outside keeps track.
It’s the same thing for cloud computing. A CSP will keep track of how many resources a customer consumes, and periodically bill him based on that usage.
As you can see, there is no requirement that a CSP be a 3rd party vendor with computing assets maintained off-premises. However, that is usually the case. Well-known cloud vendors include Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure. Vendors like them providing cloud computing on their own platforms for millions of customers. But in situations where a business has particularly sensitive data or applications, it may instead set up a “private cloud” that works just like cloud but is set up on premises and with access only to internal users.
2) Why are businesses and organizations increasingly moving to cloud computing?
As you might suspect, the primary reason that businesses are moving to cloud computing is cost. Consider everything a business needs to pay for and maintain without cloud: data centers, servers, hard drives, network capacity, security, licenses, regular hardware and software upgrades, and much more. The business pays these costs regardless of whether these assets are being used or not at any particular time.
By contrast, with cloud you only pay for what you use. You also pay subscription fees for the ability to access the service. You have fewer or no IT assets to maintain and upgrade on a regular basis.
There may be other reasons for moving to cloud computing besides cost. For example, a business customer may need the scalability that cloud computing provides in a way that a homegrown IT shop cannot provide.
3) What cloud computing options exist for businesses to purchase?
There are three basic options that business customers can choose from when it comes to cloud computing. It all comes down to how much they want to “outsource” to the CSP. These options are collectively known as the “service model.”
Infrastructure As A Service (IAAS)
IAAS is bare-bones, just the “cold metal” of hardware. Think computer servers, hard drives, network switches, and the like. When a business buys IAAS, they replace their physical IT assets with the cloud. The vendor manages the hardware, and the business manages everything else that runs on top of it. Amazon Web Services is an example of IAAS.
Platform As A Service (PAAS)
PAAS provides both the infrastructure as well as the tools needed to run your software solutions. For example, PAAS may offer you databases or an operating system such as Windows. The vendor manages the infrastructure and the platform tools, and you manage the applications and data that employ the platform. This lets a business keep ownership of its solutions, which are often custom built, without worrying about the platforms and hardware they run on.
Software As A Service (SAAS)
SAAS essentially outsources EVERYTHING to the vendor: the infrastructure, the platform, and the software you’re using. Since the vendor typically provides the same software to you and many other people, it is typically difficult to fully customize the software and so a business must make do with the default offering. Some SAAS products come with a number of pre-configured options that a customer can select as a way to customize the software to an extent (and often at an additional cost.)
Gmail, Microsoft Office 365, and Dropbox are examples of SAAS that many people are familiar with.
If you have trouble keeping IAAS, PAAS, and SAAS straight, then think of a railroad as an analogy. The physical rails are IAAS, the locomotive and cars are PAAS, and the goods the train is transporting is SAAS!
4) What are the concerns businesses may have about cloud computing?
The concerns are primarily with security, data privacy, and continuity of operations in the event of a disaster.
Everyone has heard about the data breaches at Dropbox and Yahoo email–both of which are SAAS products. While a CSP can put many safeguards in place, it is always possible that a hack could expose customer data or knock out important business processes and solutions. On the other hand, those problems can also happen for assets that remain on premises, and you could make the argument that a dedicated CSP will have more expertise in addressing security than a business for which that is not a core competency.
There is also the concern that an outage at the CSP (say due to loss of power) could incapacitate a business that relies on a cloud computing platform. Since the business doesn’t control the cloud assets, it has relatively little influence to fix the problem quickly. CSP’s can help address this concern by ensuring redundancy–having backup assets in multiple locations in case of emergency. It’s also worth pointing out that disasters can also happen to assets businesses have on their own premises. Earthquakes, floods, and other emergencies can knock out access regardless of who controls the assets.
5) What is the Business Analyst’s role in the move to cloud computing?
The BA is at the center of the cloud computing storm. Whenever a business considers fundamentally changing how it does business (in this case, with IT assets), there is a key role for the Business Analyst to play. Consider the following:
- Since cloud computing charges a business with metered usage, it gets very expensive to move bloated and repetitive business processes to the cloud. The Business Process Re-engineering a Business Analyst does becomes more important than ever, since efficiency of processes will translate into lower costs for cloud.
- A BA plays a key role in helping a business decide which processes and assets should be moved to cloud, and in what sequence. She can also help decide which service model (SAAS, PAAS, IAAS) best fits the needs of the business.
- Once a decision is made to move a solution to cloud computing, the existing functions must be decommissioned. The BA must handle the requirements for that.
- A business is likely to have policies and requirements about the level of performance it expects from cloud. For example, there may be requirements about level of availability, quality of the service, amount of scalability, and more. These requirements translate into Service Level Agreements between businesses and cloud providers. BA’s are likely to play a key role in creating these policies and requirements, and ensuring they are enforced in the agreements.
- Once cloud is up and running, its performance must me continually measured to ensure a business gets what it pays for. A BA can expect to play an important role in collecting and presenting relevant analytics to stakeholders.
Knowing these five things will help you get started if and when your business decides to move to cloud computing!