“The cloud” is ever-present these days, backed by a huge marketing push from multiple vendors, including Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Apple. Backed by immense data centres located in (often) rural locations, “the cloud” will apparently transform our lives.
While it’s still early days for the cloud, it’s clear that it will ultimately have a big impact on the way we manage our information as consumers. It will also make substantial inroads into the enterprise space.
So with executives and IT alike talking about “the cloud”, what does the intranet team need to know?
1. The cloud means many things
With the cloud still heading up the Gartner hype curve, the marketers have started to apply “the cloud” label to many things, including what used to be called software-as-a-service (SaaS). These days, the cloud encompasses:
- Enterprise mail solutions such as Google’s GMail, with storage spread across countless machines globally.
- Classic software-as-a-service offerings, such as Salesforce and its associated services.
- Hosted-only products, such as Yammer.
- Online data storage and “elastic computing” services, such as Amazon’s S3 and AWS, or Microsoft’s Azure.
- Virtual hosting, providing server space on third-party infrastructure.
- Hybrid offerings, such as Microsoft’s hosted Windows and SharePoint infrastructure.
New products are springing up every day, and the lines between offerings are becoming increasingly blurred. At the heart of all of these solutions is a simple proposition: move software and infrastructure outside the enterprise, to third-party providers who can do a better job.
While intranet teams should know at least a little about all the services listed above, a general sense of the “what and why” is generally enough for business discussions.
2. Some services will definitely move to the cloud
There is great interest in the cloud, particularly from IT teams and CIO’s. There are many benefits on offer:
- better services that are updated more often
- lower “total cost of ownership”
- greater scalability
- more robustness
- greater agility
Most organisations will move at least one or two services to the cloud in the near future. For example, replacing an in-house CRM with Salesforce, or deploying a hosted project management solution. Most of these changes won’t be controversial, and will be the result of routine IT planning.
In some cases, organisations will move most (or all) of their infrastructure into the cloud. While this will be uncommon outside of small organisations for a while, there is some logic to the move.
Either way: expect to see cloud-based solutions popping up in organisations any day now.
3. Intranets will become a hybrid
While some services are a natural fit for the cloud, others will tend to remain in-house, particularly where integration is required with other business systems. Teams should therefore plan for a future where intranets are a mix of in-house and cloud-based solutions, each providing part of the overall solution.
4. Intranets themselves may move into the cloud
With the complexity of some intranet platforms, such as SharePoint, the cloud starts to become very attractive as a foundation for the whole intranet. Office 360, for example, offers a hosted version of SharePoint (plus Exchange, etc) that can be quicker and easier to deploy.
To a large extent, intranet teams need not be too concerned either way. Whether intranet infrastructure is in-house or in the cloud, the same questions remain:
- What functionality will be available?
- How will the intranet be managed?
- What are the limits of customisation and development?
- What technical resources will be available to the intranet team?
- What technical effort will be involved in launching or revamping the intranet?
5. The cloud presents intranet teams with an opportunity
Enterprise solutions have always moved much slower than the consumer world. Smartphones are ubiquitous for consumers, but staff are stuck with old corporate-approved devices. Home PCs run Windows 7 and Internet Explorer 9; offices provide staff with Windows XP and IE 6. Old versions of enterprise solutions abound.
Part of the problem arises from the complexity of testing, upgrading and deploying new software. There are also security, compatability and up-time challenges.
The growing acceptance of cloud-based solutions offers a way forward. New solutions can be deployed much more quickly, and rolled out to the entire organisations, particularly when they are web-based. Yammer provides a great example of how quickly a cloud-based solution can spread.
This can allow intranet teams to finally get access to technology options they have been requesting for some time. Roll on intranet 2.0!
6. The challenge is to connect the dots
Staff have always had one desire and dream: to have single, seamless environment that provides the tools and information they need to do their job. To date, we haven’t done a very good job at delivering this, with dozens of enterprise systems presenting a cacophony of different interfaces and experiences.
The danger is that the adoption of cloud-based solutions will only make this worse. There is often limited options for tailoring or customising cloud solutions, and single sign-on can be more complex to achieve.
Intranet teams should retain a focus on simplifying what’s delivered to staff, ensuring that the experience for staff is productive and usable.
This means looking at some core aspects, such as:
- Ensuring there is only one staff profile (in a single staff directory), and that all systems integrate with this.
- Achieving seamless single sign-on across all applications, whether in-house or in the the cloud.
- Exploring how new functionality, such as social or collaborative tools, can be integrated into the existing intranet.
While many of these are things for IT to address, the intranet team should be acting as the user advocate, asking key questions during the migration to the cloud.
In short: “the cloud” means many things in practice, but the lining is generally silver. Exploit the opportunities that arise, avoid the potential pitfalls, and deliver an even better intranet for staff.