There is a lot of hype around 'cloud computing' and this month's theme at CMSWire is all things cloud, so maybe we will be able to figure out whether those clouds are stormy, rain filled, or basically sat at each end of a rainbow (with the associated pot of gold, of course…).
The Cloud as We Know It
Although the term 'cloud computing' has been around for a while describing Software as a Service (SaaS) offerings, it is relatively new, and I bet most people think of Box.net when they think of cloud content management. However if you think about it, website hosting companies have been offering hosted web content management for a long time. Before Google docs there was SpringCM, and unlike some of the newer start ups (or up starts?) SpringCM markets itself as full ECM, not just cloud based content storage.
On the other hand, companies you may never have heard of, for example Symcor, have offered Line of Business specific services that include content management, in the form of images of scanned documents (such as cheques) for a long time. These niche companies have long understood the requirements of heavily regulated industries, such as encryption of data at rest on servers, and not just in transit over the wire, that the newcomers are now dealing with as they get more popular.
What Do You Want From the Cloud?
Now all is not gloom and doom -- as with everything in IT, not just content management, whether some type of solution can be made to work for you, depends on what you want in the first place. Salesforce.com would not be where it is today if it did not meet its customers’ requirements! However let's be clear, it does not currently meet all of the requirements of all of its customers, that is why it has just acquired one of its encryption and security partners.
So let’s go back to your requirements. Google Docs or Box.net might do fine, if you have good internet connectivity and bandwidth, are not too worried about heavy encryption, are satisfied by their service level agreements, integration features and APIs, and of course the small print of their terms and conditions, particularly where it comes to security and access. My company, by the way, is not okay with a lot of this, but we are a conservative financial institution, so we are at one extreme end of the spectrum. At the other end why wouldn't a small to medium business leveraging "Google Apps for my domain" be satisfied with Google Docs as their “document management” solution?
You could definitely have a fully cloud-based business with mail, content management, collaboration, CRM and ERP apps all provided via the cloud. You might even have some custom business apps up on Amazon's EC2 services. Last year my good friend Laurence Hart (Word Of Pie) started developing his vision of Omnipresent Content Management (OCM) as a challenger to the accepted definitions of ECM. In our discussions, and in his presentation at last years AIIM conference, Laurence noted that cloud-based content management services could be instrumental in delivering OCM, but that the main hurdle to this could actually be the lack of progress in applying open standards to federated identity and access management. Similarly whether you’re an individual concerned about privacy, a small business in a country like Canada or Germany with strong privacy laws, or if like my employer, you are in a highly regulated industry, seamless and transparent encryption has yet to catch up.
The Hybrid Model?
At the Microsoft SharePoint conference last month there was a lot of discussion about Microsoft’s take on the “hybrid” model -- connecting SharePoint in the cloud (Office 365) to Exchange, SharePoint or other apps in on premises data centres. Many cloud services providers in the social, collaboration and content spaces offer integrations between their products, with your on premises SharePoint installations. So perhaps you need to think more about the hybrid model before you discount cloud completely.
Gartner, Forrester, et all will provide you with white papers and plenty of information describing the benefits of cloud computing to the enterprise in the form of reduced capital and ongoing investment in infrastructure, reduced operational and ongoing overhead costs (less sys admins, because someone else is looking after the patching and upgrades), to the point where you might think that it really is just cloud = cheap. But you need to look beyond the potential for cutting costs, and examining the increased flexibility enabled by some of these services. If you add that flexibility to your particular operating model, there maybe potential for increased revenue as well as decreased costs.
However at the moment there is definitely an element of caveat emptor -- don’t leap into cloud because you have bought into the hype, fly into it with both eyes open, looking for the potential for competitive advantage, but as ever make sure that your absolutely certain of your business and technical requirements; make sure your really comfortable with what it is your wan to achieve, and make the vendor work hard to prove that you can actually achieve those goals.
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