A recent set of experiences at work has led me to ponder the question: can you move your intranet to the cloud?

The answer it would appear is that often given by consultants: "yes, but it depends!"  

So what does it depend on? Well, let's investigate some of the variables.

What and Why ?

The first thing to consider is what is your definition of "cloud"? I am not going to be purist about this. Whether it's a "true" multi-tenant public cloud, hosted managed services or even a corporate private cloud, what I am really looking for here is removing the technology stack from my data center / LAN and thus potentially supporting the stack, and even developing for it using staff who aren't on my organization's core payroll.

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This diagram is courtesy of Sam Johnston via Wikipedia (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike V3.0)

I will be a little more proscriptive in defining the technology stack. In essence, what I am looking for is a Web CMS for the core information publishing function on an intranet. Whether you prefer the term Digital Workplace, Intranet Ecosystem or some other label, when it comes down to it there are many cloud based solutions for content centric collaboration or social collaboration.

However, apparently there are far fewer alternatives for that good old fashioned core intranet use case of content publishing, or portal development and not every organization is culturally mature enough yet to move to a social platform (e.g. Jive) as their intranet solution.

Organizational Size

Oh yes, size does indeed appear to count! There are some excellent cloud-based or hosted intranet solutions that unfortunately just do not scale to 50,000 users. For example ThoughtFarmer is an excellent "social intranet" platform which can run on site or in the cloud, but either way, the ThoughtFarmer team doesn't recommend it for more than 5,000 users.

There are other alternatives, which may serve you in the Small to Medium Enterprise space, with many “intranet in a box” offerings moving to a cloud model, and even heavy duty intranet focused CMS platforms like Ektron are doing interesting things which can include hybrid models via their Cloud Manager product.

Organizational Readiness

So how mature is your organizational culture with respect to moving data into the cloud in general? Do you have standards in place? Or do your Info Sec and Enterprise Architecture colleagues have apoplexy when you mention moving content off your network and outside of your trusty firewall?

This is potentially where the variations of public versus private cloud, versus managed hosting services etc. come into play. Risk assessment is of course the broadly scoped answer to this conundrum, for which there are many corporate or public methodologies which are beyond the scope of this article.

Potential Paths to Investigate

If you're a SharePoint house for portal, WCM and other Intranet functionality, then you can investigate their cloud offering under the Office 365 brand. There will of course be plenty of potential partners to advise you on advantages and warn you of pitfalls, but I am no Office 365 expert, and I don't like SharePoint as a Web CMS !

At this “high end” of Web CMS offerings, traditional ECM Suite vendors such as IBM and OpenText offer their WCM products via a hosted managed services approach, either themselves (OpenText) or via partners.

At the other end of the spectrum, an original vendor and acknowledged leader in cloud services is SalesForce. Although their company name is linked to their original focus, with their increasing appetite for acquisitions, SalesForce offer far more now than “just” a cloud based CRM. Their Site.com offering is an online Web CMS focused more on rapid development of marketing web sites. However their core technology platform includes “portal” technology, which is how they provide the web interfaces to their various products.

SalesForce have followed the Microsoft model for developing partner relationships, and with their App Market you will find two interesting partners that would help in developing a SalesForce based intranet: Spring CM have been in the cloud space since their beginnings, and have a mature document management (ECM) focused suite that integrates into SalesForce. However they would admit they are not a Web CMS per se, and this is where STG and their OrchestraCMS comes in.

A native SalesForce application providing a good WCM foundation, OrchestraCMS only really lacks in Digital Asset Management (DAM) functionality, for your super pretty, graphically sublime intranet sites. However they do have links to other systems including Amazon Web Services which can fulfill this role, in fact if you did not mind adding another component, I would suggest Nuxeo-Cloud for your DAM requirements:

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Summary and Conclusion

So can it be done, can you move your intranet to the cloud? Yes absolutely, if you really want to !

As ever there are many caveats. After investigating the options, my own organization decided that now simply was not the right time. Many organizations, especially large enterprises, with some level of organizational inertia, or with big teams invested in supporting the current intranet platforms might not be able to go down this route, at least not right now.

Small to medium size enterprises might find it easier, particularly if they already use something like a hosted Jive environment or Huddle, instead of an on premises SharePoint infrastructure for collaboration, or if using a cloud based social platform like Yammer or SalesForce Chatter.

Finally, don’t forget, the answer to every business question is not the next shiny technology, but actually a good set of well understood business requirements -- when you know what problem your trying to solve, then you can do the appropriate level of cost benefit analysis and risk analysis.

Cloud services are no more a panacea than the last bright and shiny technology fad -- look hard at the costs before you leap -- but if you have already leapt, please leave a comment below, and tell us how things are working out for you.

Editor's Note: You may also be interested in reading the following by Jed:

-- The Cloud: No Panacea for Enterprise Content Management ... Yet