Costly data center infrastructure and the headaches of application management have driven some companies, almost inevitably, toward a cloud strategy.
More than three years ago, Watertown, Mass.-based Harvard Business Publishing (HBP) revised its approach to IT services. A costly server hardware upgrade -- the new boxes cost in excess of $2 million -- became the tipping point for rethinking its in-house IT infrastructure and applications.
"We drew a line in the sand: We would migrate applications to the cloud before we would update our hardware again," said Ken Griffin, the director of IT services and operations at HBP. "Applications, data migrations or content solutions we put in place are either already in the cloud or easily [migrated] to the cloud."
Strategic IT and the cloud
For companies like Harvard Business Publishing, the decision to develop a cloud strategy involves cost reduction. But cloud computing enables HBP to focus more resources on its core business: publishing.
All of these systems take a lot of time to maintain.
Harvard Business Publishing
Like many other enterprises today, HBP wants to get away from managing IT infrastructure, which doesn't drive business value. Cloud computing and other outsourcing models "get companies out of the data center business and into delivering business results that differentiate them," said Lauren E. Nelson, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.
Cloud computing allows Griffin to redeploy system administrators so the IT department can focus on improving service-level agreements and driving business initiatives rather than tending to servers. "All of these systems take a lot of time to maintain," Griffin said. "I am looking at the future of the technology and saying, 'How can I get better ROI from people's time and deliver better service?'"
Griffin and his team have led the charge to the cloud, all the while working closely with department heads and other stakeholders across the company to assess the best ways to proceed. The group decides the ideal place for individual applications and data sets to reside -- either the cloud or in-house. And Griffin strives to keep colleagues, both business unit leaders and IT professionals, informed so they feel comfortable about changes along the way.
Griffin has been an evangelist for cloud computing and hosted services, persuading his IT staff to understand the importance of being a strategic enabler for the business rather than remaining mired in operational tasks.
"We have made people believe that what we said three years ago is the truth," Griffin said. "We will not be buying more hardware. So come with us, and come with us faster than you might have thought … you don't want to get left behind."
Application hosting and migration
Griffin's team has already moved several systems to hosted services or the cloud, starting with the migration of many of its servers to Amazon Web Services. The company is also using hosted services for video streaming and data warehousing.
It is difficult to get the same kind of performance from applications residing in a cloud environment.
Lauren E. Nelson,
Forrester Research Inc.
HBP's websites handle a fair amount of video and other rich media. Those files were becoming a bandwidth hog and straining network resources. Video posted to HBP sites was also suffering from loading and other performance issues. By moving to a hosted service, which Griffin declined to name, the sites now feature faster load times but also improved efficiency and scalability. "It reduces a lot of the effort on our part. We are offloading the concern and management about what kind of browser the viewer is using and so forth," Griffin said.
The data warehousing project enabled HBP to reduce some of its storage costs and shift many time-consuming business intelligence reporting tasks to a provider. "What our service provider is doing would have taken 12 months [for us to do]," Griffin said. "We can now run different types of reports on customers."
"It's a much more efficient way to process that data and a cheaper way of storing it," Forrester's Nelson said. "It gives you a faster result as well; you can have an answer in a matter of minutes."
HBP has recently begun another initiative designed to help it better accommodate mobile devices and an increasingly global marketplace. The project involves moving a legacy product information system database to a hosting provider.
The project came about because the process of updating HBP's database with product and pricing information for various devices and regions of the world was quickly becoming unwieldy. "Traditionally we would produce a paper product, and once it left the warehouse our work was done," Griffin said. "Now we deliver a digital product that is consumed on whatever mobile device the customer chooses to use. There is a lot more work from a technology perspective, and it changes with every new device that comes out. So HBP is considering cloud services to manage apps and for quality assurance. "It makes for a complicated system," he said. Instead of retooling the application for all this new information, Griffin says, HBP wants to buy "net new. Why would we reinvent the wheel?"
For more on migrating applications to the cloud:
Resolving cloud application migration challenges
What’s your cloud strategy
Lessons learned from HBP's hybrid cloud
Snags in ROI of application migration to the cloud
The company is also moving to Microsoft Office 365 -- the cloud-based version of the Microsoft Office personal productivity suite -- and reducing its dependence on on-premises applications like Microsoft's email server, Exchange.
For Griffin, the move is a "no-brainer." Keeping email up and running "is a lot of work right now," he said. "It takes a lot of background maintenance just to keep the lights on," he said. By moving to cloud-based Office 365, Griffin can refocus his Exchange administrator on new tasks and provide better service. It also provides additional storage with Microsoft's storage service, SkyDrive, and collaboration services such as Web conferencing and chat with Microsoft’s Lync. "Plus, it's quite cost-effective for a nonprofit," he said.
HBP's mix of cloud and hosting strategies also addresses some of the technological hurdles that application migration to the cloud can pose. "Most apps aren't built to work in a cloud, and it is difficult to get the same kind of performance from applications residing in a cloud environment given the architecture," Forrester's Nelson said.
The ambassador of change
Griffin says that getting support, or "buy-in," from both business leaders and IT professionals is critical for a cloud computing project. "I had to sell this," Griffin said. "I had to sell it every day." Part of creating that buy-in comes through collaboration with business units. "It's not like IT rolls this thing out and users say, "'I don't like it.' It's a joint decision."
He also emphasized that the best way to carry out a cloud computing initiative is through collaboration and recommendation, not by simply dictating IT policy.
"In many cases we are stewards of the application, we manage it, and are responsible for its uptime and performance, but we don’t own it," Griffin said. So working closely with business units is critical.
"We don't tell people what to do," Griffin said. "We make suggestions and make sure you have the right tools, but at the end of the day, it's a collaborative decision."