CIO | Microsoft Mission Critical

  • Risk and Rewards: Is Cloud Computing Ready for Mission-Critical Apps?
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    For many companies, email has become a mission-critical application with all kinds of workflows and business logic integrated with it—and now many organizations are moving messaging to the cloud. So why the controversy over whether cloud computing is ready to host other mission-critical applications?

    “It typically has to do with security, compliance, and industry-specific apps where data has to be maintained and controlled more tightly,” explains Mark Bowker, a senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group. In addition, a lack of industry standards raises concerns about the governance, risk and compliance attributes of clouds, he says.

    Despite these risks, the infrastructure is fairly mature, and industry leaders are betting that more and more enterprises will adopt the software-as-a-service (SaaS) model. Significant business applications such as ERP and CRM delivered by SaaS providers bolster the reputation of cloud services, as well as cloud-based storage services.

    And the cloudscape is rapidly evolving. Hank Leingang, an IT strategy consultant and former CIO at Bechtel and Viacom, thinks clouds are ready for some mission-critical apps. “High-transaction financial [applications], with all the audits and checks and all the things that have to take place, you probably won’t [put in the cloud],” he says. “But on lots of other apps that are core to the operation—around business infrastructure, HR systems—those things are getting there.”

    Today, companies are starting to develop and host their own cloud infrastructures. In some cases, they are turning to third-party providers to do so—and that’s the rub for CIOs. It’s risk-transference: Will a cloud service provider guarantee uptime, security and performance? No board of directors cares whether you’re saving money for your organization if you can’t keep the lights on and key apps performing as expected.

    Microsoft’s Take

    Himanshu Kumar Singh, a senior product manager at Microsoft Azure and Middleware, believes that enterprises holding off on placing data in the cloud may have concerns that are “more psychological than tech-based. The kind of security and stability [CIOs] expect is available in the cloud as well.”

    Singh advises IT leaders to examine concerns about latency and security on a case-by-base basis, depending on the application’s architecture. “One of the big benefits of cloud is essentially scale. If you want a cloud solution, Microsoft Azure has centers all over the world. You can use those global centers and solve any latency problems.” Microsoft’s Windows Azure is a hosted environment that offers a migration path for IT leaders seeking a cloud computing solution.

    Leingang says Microsoft’s cloud offerings play to the company’s strengths in information sharing and other application development platforms. “From a strategic perspective, Microsoft continues to mature its offerings,” says Leingang.

    Companies: Get Ready

    IT and business leaders will benefit by testing the waters now to learn which applications are ideally suited for the cloud environment. Some mission-critical apps may need to be re-architected to maximize the cloud’s potential.

    The Associated Press, one of the world’s largest news organizations with bureaus in 97 countries, recently developed a plan to encourage its customers to incorporate AP content into their applications via the Breaking News API. AP chose to store its content in Windows Azure, a Microsoft-hosted cloud-based platform.

    “With the Windows Azure platform, we can scale up easily without worrying about the capacity planning we would have had to do with other providers,” says Jonathan Malek, AP’s chief architect and director of research.

    The Breaking News API represents a new business opportunity, and it can pave the way for other innovative, mission-critical services.

    There are several variables, such as network bandwidth to consider, when moving mission-critical applications to the cloud. “Cloud services can handle mission-critical workloads, things that differentiate you,” said Frank Gillett, vice president and principal analyst for cloud computing at Forrester Research. “In fact, that might only be possible if you do them [via] a service provider.”

    The economics and flexibility of cloud computing are undeniable. Leading companies are already moving there fast. Companies that have the ability to take some of the early risks will likely reap the rewards first. The bottom line is, in the interest of competitiveness, CIOs must get ready for the shift.