Above the cloud ... from compute to function

In the last decade, nothing has changed the face of IT as much as cloud computing. I remember in 2006 writing an internal research paper on the subject, not really knowing where it was headed, other than it was going to be "big" and change how we viewed the world of "computing and infrastructure" and specifically, IT services.
Fast forward 8 years, we still talk about "cloud" and it's still a buzzword used to describe the computing model, but it has moved from being a means to utilize a raw material (compute and storage), to become a behemoth that actually does something valuable for both individuals and companies (big and small).

The problem with cloud as a compute platform...

Simply put, cloud compute takes a fairly technical product (or service) and scales it. That's not the classic definition, but I like simple. Cloud Computing took what most organizations could only dream of (i.e. large scale infrastructure and application deployments), and democratized it. Now even the smallest application developer could scale their application to support millions of users, or small companies could scale their own computing way beyond their "capital" budget with a press of a button.
That one thing - scaling - has broken down barriers of entry for millions of companies (and people) around the world. Add to that, the ability to overlay Open Source software (often at not cost) - and that boom you hear are all the people that just accelerated their business past the sound barrier - literally soaring above the clouds. Taking a capital (or high variable) cost with all its associated operational costs, to mere pennies.
BUT...compute is a raw material and even with all the various management tools available, it was still in the hands of smart technical professionals. They could do magic with it, they could optimize it, they were faster at scaling up and down - but it still required specialized knowledge. And, most people don’t have the inclination or the motivation to learn how to manage a cloud compute environment, they just want to do something with it.

Enter the functional cloud...

The key thing to remember about Cloud Computing, as with all raw materials, there will be really smart people taking them and creating something not seen before. Cloud Compute and Storage is no different - even in the first phases of the cloud phenomenon, some people saw possibilities, where others just saw something that was interesting. Those early visionaries were actually just being pragmatic - if they could utilize Amazon Web Services (AWS) instead of privately owned (or even virtually owned) servers/storage to deploy their really cool web (or mobile) app at a fraction of the cost - well, why not - it would save a ton of money that didn't really add a ton of value, and that money could be deployed someplace else (think enhancements, marketing, sales, partnership, etc.). Initially, it was all about dollars and cents.
Not anymore. Very few start-ups would even consider launching on anything other than a cloud platform. The barrier has been broken down so completely, the mere suggestion of an (old school) alternative would get you kicked of the room and immediately humiliated via every social media platform known to man.
But what Cloud Compute is to technology, functional applications are becoming to functional areas within a business. You don't have to look very far to see every size of company moving beyond the raw cloud and into the next level. Once again, it's a matter of economics (at least to begin with) ... why "manage and operate" a bunch of applications or code, with its associated update and release cycles, when you could just "access" a pre-built and ready-to-use world of business function specific applications.
One of the easiest ones to comprehend is Sales Force Automation and the 300-pound-gorilla that is Salesforce.com. They have taken what was a complex, multi-tiered management problem and provided a true functional solution. Even in the beginning - just taking away the expense of servers, storage and licensing was almost enough for most large companies to consider it - because none of those things added value - what you really want is the outcome (automating my sales force) – so why not just spend money getting what you want, instead of money on the things you don’t.
But the true value of Salesforce.com came as an after-effect of their decision to support a wider developer network. Taking cues from both commercial and open source communities, Salesforce.com created an ecosystem that turned the mere platform into fertile ground for thousands of "tools" and "integration" partnerships. They used the power of the platform, to scale exponentially - once again, without the associated "capital" costs. Not a new concept in the world of applications, what has changed is the ability to scale quickly (seemingly overnight), and topple giants that only a few years previously had seemed invincible.

Why build a spaceship, when you can just rent one

Every business function is ripe for a Salesforce.com revolution - there isn't one area of your business that doesn't have some Cloud-based, As A Service alternative (HR, Marketing, Logistics, Payroll, Accounting, Market Research, Product Development). Oh, there are lots of reasons why some have taken off and others are just idling at the starting gate, but I hazard a guess, most start-ups are utilizing as much of these functional components as possible - moving money from the non-value-added column to the value-added column in the process.
It used to be that "scale" was only available to those lucky enough with access to deep pockets. No more. Scale is available to anyone - regardless of your education, nationality, language, background, and almost any other "criteria" used in the past. Literally, anyone can scale to reach and support a global audience. We have taken what once was only available to a single digit percentage of the population, and thrown it out there for almost anyone. At the point where any business can purchase world-class technology to support a business function, it no longer is about "access", it become about "use".

Build vs Buy

We are quickly approaching a time when that question won't even be asked for most consumers of "cloud based computing" services. I don't have a clue how the electrical grid works - but I do know how to turn on a light switch. The same will be true within the majority of businesses across the world - they may not know how the underlying technology (or even the application) works - but they will know how to turn it on and make it work for them.

Creating a mosaic instead of a pile of bricks

When we use more and more functional (technology) tools, the key will be integration. The worst thing you can do is to isolate that function from every other function in your business. Sales force automation has much more value when its integrated within the full fabric of your company - there is value in just having it automated - but it is so much more valuable when integrated into your marketing, product sales, distribution, customer service, accounting, logistics, etc. The masters of the Cloud Computing world are those professionals able to navigate between and among the functional areas, multiplying the value across all functions. The value of everything increases as we "connect" and integrate.
As this brave new world of technology surpasses the old, giving rise to a new breed of "global" businesses, we will look to integration "technologists" and experts to architect our unique bundle of services, while supporting and adding value to our businesses and organizations.

Photo Credit: Ewan Roberts / Standing over the clouds / via Flickr

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