When Eric Schmidt popularised the term ‘cloud computing’ at a conference in 2006, few could have known the extensive impact the “emergent new model” would have. Not only has it transformed the way in which data services are conducted, it’s now reshaping the very fabric of business across manifold industries.
Over a decade later, and the tech powerhouses of this world – Google, Amazon, IBM – have taken the concept and run with it. By harnessing the potential of the public cloud, they supply companies with infinite compute and data resources – a genuine pay-as-you-go model that requires no physical infrastructure, provides cutting-edge technology on demand, and offers a system that is both robust and secure.
Over the past year or so, we’ve witnessed an expansion in the definition of the cloud. Previously, cloud technology was concentrated in the public sphere, offering computing services over the internet on either a free or pay-per-use basis. Today, however, the cloud encompasses a whole spectrum of services – from private infrastructures for individual enterprises to edge devices and the very far reaches of the Internet of Things (IoT).
It’s no longer a case of whether or not a company should adopt cloud: it’s a question of when, how and with whom
“I think enterprises are starting to look at a much wider landscape with regards to compute options, and whether we can maintain a common architecture across them,” said Steve Robinson, General Manager of Cloud Technical Engagement at IBM. “They’re also considering more fluidity in terms of where their applications and workloads run, and a much richer set of considerations than just simply, ‘how quickly can I get on a public cloud provider?’”
Enterprises are now exploring the ways in which they can take advantage of the cloud’s key benefits – whether that’s elasticity, flexibility, portability or simply being able to consume services within a certain ecosystem. “I think that leads to a whole load of interesting possibilities, especially in the sense of what workloads can be brought to cloud and what kind of transformation is needed – from designer architecture all the way to management and security,” said Bala Rajaraman, CTO and Fellow at IBM. “So we’re getting a much more varied conversation.”
Robinson drew parallels with the early days of the internet: “If you look back, we had intranet, extranet, public internet and then, all of a sudden, there was a rally around a set number of standards and it just became the internet. I think we’re seeing the same thing with the cloud as well, with rally points such as Linux, Docker and Kubernetes, which are now supported by most of the major vendors for the orchestration and management of containers. It is simply becoming one cloud.”
Aside from ‘born-on-the-cloud companies’, most organisations are faced with a choice. But it’s no longer a case of whether or not a company should adopt cloud: it’s a question of when, how and with whom. This transition – which inevitably requires enterprises to transform their business processes – doesn’t simply happen overnight. This is where hybrid cloud comes in.
A hybrid-cloud computing environment combines public and private cloud services with on-premise infrastructure, offering organisations an invaluable degree of flexibility. As a result, enterprises can benefit from the scalability and economies of scale of public cloud, as well as the security and customisation of private cloud, all the while preserving pre-existing IT infrastructures. Put simply, it allows users to get the best of both spheres, while ensuring workloads are treated as effectively
and economically as possible.
But despite these myriad benefits, challenges still exist. Robinson told The New Economy: “Most of the enterprises that we’re talking to view cloud as their North Star, but they’re starting to look at the transformational impact that it may have and it’s fairly broad – in fact, we have several firms calling it a ‘core transformation’.”
Rajaraman agreed: “These challenges touch on everything, including how you actually organise the process of transformation in terms of centres of competency, skills and architecture, so that you can converge the organisation around good patterns with building for the cloud.
“It also involves questions such as, how do I transform my existing estate? How do I manage and govern my data? And how do I build my new generation of service management? The moment you get into a hybrid world, you have a whole cluster of providers. Essentially, it takes a problem that is contained within a data centre and expands to a whole host of different players.” Organisations must then consider how best to deliver their service within such an environment, how to ensure it’s secure and how to manage the prospect of a variety of people owning different aspects of it.
When considering these challenges – and the plethora of questions that must be answered – the need to identify the right partner becomes clear for all to see. “This is where we get a tremendous resonance with our enterprise customers,” Rajaraman said. “We’re one of the few companies that understands what it takes to deliver all of the changes that need to happen to transition to hybrid cloud. And we have the assets to do it, too – be it transformation assets, management assets, security, data or the governance of data. That’s a big deal.”
The IBM approach
Although it does spend time with start-up communities that were born on the web, IBM’s methodology is finely tuned to deal with the level of complexity that can be found in global enterprises. “A lot of our cloud definition, as well as the features and functions of our portfolio, is shaped around supporting the enterprise client,” Robinson said. “We’ve typically observed that only around 15 to 20 percent of enterprise workloads have landed on the cloud.
As firms begin their cloud journey, they are met with the exciting prospects proffered by new technological advances, such as AI
“Now, these are very different to a born-on-the-cloud company that probably has all of its business functions residing on the public cloud; for an enterprise, there are limitations with regards to security, latency and performance, predictability of workload needs, and more. So we still think there’s 80 percent or more of workloads that have yet to begin on the cloud journey – that’s IBM’s sweet spot.”
While there are a few vendors in the market currently setting their sights on enterprise clients, many of them are simply trying to either replicate portions of their public cloud in the private space or develop applications to ease the movement of data towards their public model. “At IBM, even since the early days of our cloud, we’ve always envisioned it to resemble three islands closely bound together,” Robinson added. “These islands are private cloud, dedicated public cloud and multi-tenant public cloud.”
To ensure its architecture continues to function effectively, IBM takes a more holistic approach than most. “We’ve been very aggressive in modernising our middleware, containerising it and bringing it to all of those environments,” Rajaraman said. “And we’ve put a lot of focus in a common backplane across those three environments for management, integration and [application programming interface] connectivity, which again speeds up workloads moving in that direction.”
IBM has also started adapting its public cloud to this end. Aspects such as where it stores its data centres, how data is moved between those centres and the security around them are now more closely adapted to enterprises and how they move their workloads forward. “We’re beginning to see a common platform across private and public cloud, which has common architecture around it,” Robinson said. “There really is a focus on the full enterprise cloud journey.”
“I think we’re in a very unique position to ease that transition, meet them where they are, enhance what they’re doing and allow them to make some very logical and cohesive steps as they move out.”
As firms begin their cloud journey, they are met with the exciting prospects proffered by new technological advances, such as AI, blockchain and IoT. Rajaraman highlighted the ability of these services to further refine a business’ processes: “If you look at the healthcare or financial services industries, for example, these technologies complement their existing capabilities; they can change the user experience while also allowing more insights to be gleaned from various parts of the operation. Again, integration plays an important role.
“If you look at the continuum of cloud, it’s a lot more about how you change your business, how you change your processes and how you exploit your data, rather than just pure infrastructure or the choices of infrastructure. Infrastructure becomes a means to an end.”
It’s a case of taking an enterprise’s existing business processes and infusing higher-level services – and doing so securely. “You also need to ensure the insights and algorithms that you build belong to you as an enterprise, and that they are not shared with everybody else, including your competitors,” Rajaraman added. “All these elements of security, integration, connection and performance come together in terms of how we deliver solutions in this space.”
To this end, IBM has recently formed a series of key partnerships. In January 2018, for example, the firm revealed that it had started working with shipping giant Maersk to improve its business processes through the use of blockchain technology. In March, IBM established a joint venture with Mastercard: known as Truata, this Europe-based data trust allows firms to analyse their financial client information within the constructs of the General Data Protection Regulation.
“In this situation, we set up an independent trust, had it listed on the IBM Cloud and applied our research elements to help anonymise and pseudo-anonymise the data, so that we could quickly mask all the personal information associated with it,” Robinson told The New Economy. “Then, we brought in our data tools to allow you to continue to derive correlations as well.”
IBM is making headway in other markets, too: Watson, for example, has been integrated into Salesforce systems to deliver improved CRM solutions using the power of AI. Meanwhile, the Weather Company, which runs on IBM Cloud and handles billions of data feeds, is having a profound impact on a variety of industries.
Following recent hurricane activity in the US, the service received a record number of queries. And it’s not just individuals checking for rain, either: enterprises are now using this service against their insurance models. Elsewhere, it’s impacting aeroplane activity on runways and being usedto create predictive models.
On cloud nine
As these higher-value services continue to open up new opportunities, enterprises are turning to numerous vendors for their cloud needs. Multicloud – the use of computing and storage services across several cloud-hosting environments – provides an array of benefits for organisations in a wide range of industries.
For instance, it adds a measure of redundancy, ensuring that, even if downtime occurs from one provider, outages are avoided. Further, cloud diversification enables firms to position their providers closer to their users – a boon for global enterprises hoping to improve performance and reduce latency issues. The multicloud approach also prevents customer lock-in.
According to a study by the International Data Corporation, 86 percent of enterprises expect they will require a multicloud strategy to support their business goals within the next two years.
Given this expected rise in activity, Rajaraman was quick to outline three key dimensions that enterprises should consider before making the move to a multicloud system: “The first is, how are your applications built and how do they integrate across different clouds? Once that is established, you must consider how you intend to manage your data, move it, govern it and encrypt it. Finally, given that you have multiple clouds, you need to discern how you’re going to manage everything, from monitoring to picking the right cloud with the right cost points and the right capabilities.”
IBM is advantageously positioned in this respect. In terms of its product portfolio, it boasts a plethora of applications – from Java and WebSphere to databases – that can be made available across multiple clouds. What’s more, IBM’s data governance and security products can be supported on various clouds.
IBM has also recently announced a new cloud management platform. “[Our new platform] manages containers and clusters of containers wherever clients are, whether they’re on premise, on IBM Cloud or on other clouds,” Rajaraman explained.
“From a governance perspective, this ensures we have a view of all of the outlets across different clouds. It can also ensure that the configurations across these clouds are consistent, so that they can be governed, they can be used for [high availability and disaster recovery], and so on and so forth.”
Robinson added: “One of the things we continue to hear with multicloud is that many firms are a little fearful that it may amplify the complexity of the environment that they’re dealing with. We feel, however, that there’s a handful of very key emerging standards that we’re not only supporting with our products, but [we’re] also really helping to shape the open source communities around them. For almost every enterprise that we talk to, one of their primary concerns is vendor lock-in, so many of them want to have the flexibility of moving betweenone vendor [and] the next.”
Robinson has also encountered many enterprises that try to go down the open source route on their own, only to find they are quickly faced with a number of challenges. “Many times that’s when they come back to IBM to say, ‘Look, you’ve got officers on the board, you can sponsor projects yourself, you understand what we’re dealing with in terms of the complexities – can you help us drive this through as well?’ So this is maybe the reason that even though clients definitely want to be open and flexible, theyview IBM as a very safe haven.”
Transformation of any kind is tough. But with the right partner, the adoption of multicloud and hybrid cloud isn’t an arduous task: it’s an exciting step towards business processes that are more effective than previously imagined possible.