2014-25-April-Pop-Quiz.jpgPop quiz time.

Take out your #2 pencil and select the best answer that completes the following sentence.

Cloud services will revolutionize ______________.

  • A. the way software gets delivered.
  • B. the way software is licensed, by becoming a "pay as you go" option.
  • C. the way workers access services.
  • D. IT implementation, support and infrastructure costs.
  • E. the way business gets done, by letting mobile workers access information anytime, anywhere.
  • F. All of the above.

Unless you have been hiding out in a fallout shelter for the last five years, you probably picked “F. All of the above.” And if you did, you would be correct.

But the potential of the cloud is even bigger, because the cloud can empower organizations to "mix and match" the most suitable services for their needs from a broad range of suppliers, while departments and individuals can fill in the gaps by subscribing to their own specialized cloud services. In fact, this is already happening.

A September 2013 uSamp market survey found that 41 percent of workers had subscribed to document cloud storage services within the last six months -- without the approval of their organization’s IT departments -- despite the fact that the organization already had a document storage solution. In the world of the cloud, all you need is a credit card and you’re in business.

Sounds great, but let’s take a closer look.

Caveat Nimbus

An old adage says that “if it’s too good to be true, then it is,” so let’s read the fine print. Because while the cloud will solve many problems, it will also create new ones. These problems will affect organizations, workers and society. Seeing the whole picture will help you weigh the pros and cons, so you can make the right decision ... before it’s too late.

When moving to the cloud, you should weigh the following considerations: user experience, information overload, freedom of vendor choice and data leakage/privacy risks. Let’s examine each one of these in turn:

User Experience

The number of active apps you will need to use increases in direct proportion to the number of available cloud services. For example, you may use one app to upload or download a document in Box, another to search for contact information in Salesforce and a third to send an instant message to a colleague using Lync/Office 365. This simplicity is intentional.

Single-purpose apps make simple tasks easy to complete, but they become problematic when a work process spans several cloud services. A simple example demonstrates the difficulty: uploading a document received as an email attachment to a cloud storage location and then editing the document entails the use of at least three separate apps -- an email app to download the document to the device, a cloud storage app to upload the document to a cloud location and a third to edit the document. Studies have shown that a poor user experience created by the need to toggle between apps (i.e. context-switching), makes it difficult to focus on the task at hand, which results in decreased productivity. Eventually, users abandon the apps and look for something simpler … like Dropbox, which may introduce security risks.

Information Overload

The need to toggle between different apps inflicts more than just cognitive strain. The fact that disjointed information is pouring in through multiple channels makes it difficult to complete the underlying work process. And if you think that today’s email deluge is a problem, multiply that experience by the total number of new work apps and you will see just how challenging our work environment is sure to become.

Vendor Lock-in

It is becoming abundantly clear that dealing with large numbers of disparate cloud services is not practical for most organizations. Each cloud maintains its own identity store, its own data scheme and its own proprietary set of services, so trying to manage the business across multiple clouds is difficult, if not impossible.

To address this challenge, large cloud service providers are building proprietary ecosystems through which it will be possible to aggregate information feeds from multiple clouds. Examples of such enterprise cloud service provider ecosystems include Salesforce (Salesforce1), Microsoft (Office 365) and IBM (IBM SmartCloud Application Services) and more, such as Box, are on the way.

Each of these ecosystems purports to offer open APIs for federating information from multiple cloud services. But this "openness" is established by adopting the ecosystem’s identity store, security model and data infrastructure. By employing custom extensions to additional services, users can receive an aggregated view of organizational information. However, rather than solving the problem of heterogeneity, these vendors are driving users toward "siloed vendor lock-in," because once an organization adopts the ecosystem’s identity, security and data models, they are forever beholden to the ecosystem provider to display and manipulate data, regardless of the origin of the cloud service.

Data Leakage and Privacy Risks

When an organization adopts one of the large vendor’s ecosystems or otherwise federates business-critical data in the cloud, they expose themselves and their employees to an added danger of data leakage. The aggregation of the data into a single logical cloud makes it particularly alluring to the snooping eyes of unauthorized parties -- competitors, hackers, and governments alike.

And beyond the obvious business liabilities, it’s clear that government is getting serious about holding organizations responsible for leakages. The recent federal ruling on the FTC action against Wyndham shows that government is clearly keen on taking a role in enforcing information security for society. Organizations need to take heed.

The Bottom Line

The cloud revolution is clearly in its early days. Over time, standards will emerge and services will become truly interchangeable. This adoption of standards will be enable two new technologies to truly deliver on the promise of the cloud -- cloud aggregation (or federation) and context.

Aggregation will allow organizations to create a single-screen experience out of many cloud services, and context will eliminate the information overload associated with the aggregation of multiple data streams. Context can be as simple as using location or time to filter the most interesting information to display, or it can be quite complex. For example, a context might be based on a user-selected combination of social connections and topics of interest. The one remaining issue is data leakage and privacy. Leakage can also be addressed using new federation technology, but that is the topic for another post. Stay tuned.