Content management systems (CMS) are heading into the cloud, with promises of being faster, better, cheaper. But how can you assess if the cloud is right for your content management needs and how can you make the most of cloud capabilities should you choose to move? 

To Cloud or Not to Cloud

Business users tend to fit into two camps: those already won over by the cloud and those who can’t yet see themselves using a cloud-hosted CMS. 

Those who have embraced some form of cloud had these reasons:

  • The cloud allowed them to scale capacity to meet extra traffic as needed
  • They no longer wished to manage servers
  • It was cheaper and easier to guarantee high availability in the cloud.

Some people fell in between, who used a hybrid approach of both cloud and on-premises. For instance, hosting their main website on secure, private, on-premises systems and their microsites quickly deployed on a separate infrastructure.

Those who could not, or simply did not, use the cloud cited these reasons:

  • They were in a heavily regulated industry with tight rules around what and where they could host
  • They saw the cloud as slow and unstable and preferred to stay with an on-premises solution that allowed them to make changes whenever, whatever
  • They needed too many integrations to legacy software, or hadn’t learnt to customize in another way.

Cloud Eases Customizations and Integrations

Some people may miss the real promise of the cloud: that essential customizations can be done outside the deployment of the CMS. You write your customizations in a different piece of code or technology, hosted somewhere in the cloud as well (or even on premises), and then use the APIs provided by your cloud CMS to hook into the system and customize as needed.

Imagine you want to customize black coffee into “milk coffee.” Before the days when coffee machines came with fancy gadgets, you would hack into the machine to produce milk coffee. The good thing with this is you have that capability all in one place. But because you customized the machine, updates become cumbersome. If the manufacturer decided to upgrade the machine with different connectors, your milk add-on might become obsolete.

Enter the new world: you leave the coffee machine as it is. Instead, you put a milk mixer next to it and create a nozzle that takes the milk from the mixer and the coffee from the machine to brew the perfect blend. The benefit is you can now deal with these two parts independently, replacing either at any point in time, as long as you have “APIs” to access them.

Cloud environments make it possible to customize and integrate in a comparable fashion. Instead of running your custom code inside a CMS, you deploy an independent piece of code that connects the different services together, each of which you basically treat as a black box, accessed only through public APIs. 

Finally, you connect from your front-end (e.g. webpage or mobile app) to this independent piece of code to provide you with the data you need — via representational state transfer (REST), delivering JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) — and using Javascript to create the experience you want. Or do the same using the templating mechanisms your CMS provides.

The Difference Between Cloud Models 

People mean different things when they talk about the cloud. CMSs come in different cloud flavors. Here’s a rough breakdown in an evolving landscape:

There is the classic, managed hosting model. You still buy the license and the vendor provides support. It’s some form of single tenancy, but with a high degree of support, such that you get the benefits of customization and accessibility. This is still traditional software running in the cloud environment, not a fully refactored native cloud solution.

Next, there are platform as a service (PaaS) models. They are natively built for cloud and make more heavy refactoring possible, because you can allocate workloads, specific instances or stand-by environments as single or multi-tenant as appropriate. For example, if your authoring environment and asset management repository are multi-tenant, but your production environment is single-tenant, you could start to split that out by workloads to optimize individual workflows.

Then there is software as a service (SaaS), also known as "software on demand." In this case everything is to a certain extent locked down and the CMS is basically built to have a low degree of customization. There may be certain elements, such as database structure and search indexing capabilities, that you can’t customize because that would affect the ability to manage that multi-tenant environment. This model tends to be rigidly tied to the single cloud.

My take on this rather cloud(y) state of things is that you should bring different levels of expectations when looking at cloud services. You should not expect the same level of customization. But old habits die hard, especially if your current digital ecosystem backs it up and is based on point-to-point custom integrations.

Making the Most of Your Cloud Deployment

If you choose the cloud, you'll have to answer these questions: how do you adapt the new extensibility environment, and how do you change and makeover your legacy applications and extensions you've built for on-premises deployment? 

Learning Opportunities

Answering these question help you leverage the cloud so you're not just adopting a new tool, but tapping the benefits it brings in new ways.

Simply moving a traditional CMS to the cloud is short-sighted. A CMS as a service managed by a vendor in the cloud offers limited utility and you end up leaving value on the table. We need to scrutinize the cloud environment and re-engineer the extensions into a new model.

If you were to write a CMS from scratch for the cloud, what could you do differently? One strategy is to build operational processes into software. In other words, take the pain points your employees had with traditional CMSes and solve them with cloud capabilities, such as rapid deployment, dynamic scaling and automatic updates.

Automated backups and continuous delivery help simplify migrations and updates. No more waiting for the next release, you'll always be on the latest security update and the latest version with new functionality. Better still, you can choose when to update and even roll-back to a previous version if you prefer.

Work with live content in separate, yet synchronized environments for development, authoring and testing. Avoid bottlenecks where different teams have to wait for code and content to be copied from one environment to another. Parallel working saves time and effort. Multiple teams can work effectively without getting in each other’s way or breaking things.

Find a balance between flexibility and functionality. Be ready to trade off and accept less flexibility on cloud to gain, for instance, publishing speed and easier upgrades. Or have the best of both worlds and isolate use cases by scenario. For example, your CMS might have an integration with a CRM and other in-house systems, but you could still adopt an e-commerce tool in the cloud. 

Think of your on-premises deployment as the diesel-motored SUV that can carry loads — not the fastest and most agile, but very utilitarian and robust. The cloud model is your electric-powered, nimble racer.

A Cloud Checklist to Help Your Decision 

When deciding how to take your CMS into the cloud, think about the expertise your enterprise has in running cloud applications, and the amount of infrastructure and investment you currently have. Data protection concerns, i.e. can your enterprise go into the cloud legally and logistically, will become increasingly important in this age of re-regulations and compliance. 

Finally, are you ready to re-think and re-engineer your business processes to make the best out of the new cloud models? If your enterprise is used to a lot of heavy customization and strict workflows, you could tweak some of those processes if more best practice operations came out-of-the-box with your content management.

Try this checklist: Ask yourself why you would move to the cloud. Is it cost savings, speed of innovation, more robust operations and riding on infrastructural resources? Have you covered the ground regarding security, legal implications and lack of certainty in a rapidly changing environment? How could you win in terms of ROI and time to market? 

The cloud holds a lot of promise — look closely into your processes and the people involved to better understand how your business can truly win value from it.

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