False Clouds & Acid Tests: How "Cloudy" Do You Have to Be?
Real end users don't base their cloud decisions on technology dogma; they base them on business considerations.
As we'd expected going in, talk of the cloud dominated much of last week's Enterprise Connect discussions. But it didn't always go the way we might have anticipated.
For example, when my colleague Beth Schultz sat down with five enterprise executives to talk cloud (and other topics) during the Enterprise Summit, the "aha!" moment (at least for me) was supplied by Jason Galanter, unified communications architect at Airbnb. Jason described how Airbnb approached its communications needs exactly as you'd expect a hot Silicon Valley startup to do: It went with the cloud. Then it found that as its deployment scaled and its business needs diversified, it needed to bring some functions in house.
Turns out, real end users don't base their cloud decisions on technology dogma; they base them on business considerations. The salient fact about Airbnb wasn't that it was all the cool things you always hear about: a mobile-native app, a hospitality company that owns no facilities, and so on. Instead, from the communications perspective, the most salient fact about Airbnb when it started out was that it was small. That meant cloud communications could supply all its needs. Then as it grew, the salient fact was that it was no longer small; it was big. Which meant it had different needs, which the cloud couldn't fully satisfy. And for business reasons, those needs had to be met.
We'd had a different sort of cloud-related exchange the day before, when I co-moderated our UC Summit session with Jim Burton of CT-Link and BC Strategies. In that session, Rowan Trollope, SVP and GM of Cisco's IoT and Collaboration Technology Group, coined the phrase "false cloud," and used it as a pejorative against a cloud vision that doesn't meet what he called the "acid test" of a true cloud: "Are you [meaning the provider, e.g., Cisco] fully multitenant, and are you operating this infrastructure?" Anything less, and you're a false cloud, he said.
"So whenever I hear about folks in the industry talking about cloud, you've gotta really go and say: Did you really go to a true multitenant, operator-hosted and -managed service, are you delivering updates every week, are you really cloudy?" Rowan said. "Or is it a false cloud?"
I have to question whether enterprises really need or want an acid test to determine whether a provider they're considering has a cloud that's "true" or "false," or sufficiently "cloudy." You've got requirements, and if no cloud provider can meet them, you'll do what Jason and his team at AirBnB did, and you'll bring at least some of your communications in-house (with Cisco, it so happened in Airbnb's case).
Rowan conceded that many enterprise decision-makers struggle with the idea that his vision of the cloud maybe offers a little too much choice and flexibility to the end users: Some IT managers who look at Cisco Spark, for instance, "don't want updates pushed to their mobile app every week," he said. "They say that's great that I can get this cool thing and it's cheaper, and it has great features, but I don't want any updates without me approving them, for example."
Well, I asked Rowan, if I as an IT manager don't want updates every week because I have a business reason, why should I have to have them?
Rowan replied that earlier versions of hosted communications -- essentially PBXs-in-the-cloud, like Cisco's own Hosted Communications Services (HCS) -- weren't truly software: "That's just hosted managed services," he said. "That's 10 years ago. What's truly transformational is you [Cisco] basically take an architecture in which you can deliver the same experience to millions of people, and you can iterate [features] quickly."
This idea of frequent updates and improvements pushed directly to end users who are (presumably) grateful for them does indeed comport with the model for consumer communications -- and thus is increasingly the model for much of business communications.
Which is why Rowan responded to my objections -- that this scenario is what IT people mean when they say that the cloud robs them of control that they legitimately need -- by asserting: "And then users hate you for it."
Which maybe they do. Tension between what end users want to do and what IT will "let" them do is as old as computers in the workplace. And Rowan is right that IT managers who disregard end users' preferences do so at their own peril.
At the same time, he wound up acknowledging that many enterprises need a middle ground between the absolute control that CPE provides and the more freewheeling environment he'd been describing. "We are doing this with WebEx today," he said. "There are essentially two versions. There's the locked-down version that you can choose to be on, or you can be on the latest. That's what Salesforce does too, and I think that's one of the approaches."
I'd call that approach hybrid, and that's a very large middle ground that I think we'll see filling in as enterprises move forward in engaging with the cloud.