In a previous article, we spoke about getting past the “it’s not compliant” argument. Now it’s time to face off against some others. How do I prove the value of cloud is actually not an argument but an opportunity. The real question is “how do I make the needed changes” which takes more ingenuity and élan.

I need to show value from adopting a cloud

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Just tot up the pro’s and con’s, show the cost savings, and everyone will be on board. Sadly, while you can save a lot using the cloud, there are setup costs to consider and it can be really hard to evaluate what the savings will be. Making it worse, the real savings come from changing your IT to be more focussed on your organisation, and less on “generic” infrastructure skills. Benefits like “you are far more likely to get what you want” and “we can solve problems much faster” don’t show up on most accounting lines.

Four States of IT

One approach to finding value in the cloud is to look at the position an existing IT department is in and to look at where they want to be. In each state, they are splitting the time of the whole team between 4 activities (firefighting, operating, planning and extending into new or better services). I have drawn up a couple of graphs to help explain this.

 State 1 – In Crisis

Resolving production issues is eating about half of the time of the department. Statements and questions like “oh no the backups didn’t run”, “has the mail service stopped working?” “Oops, the SQL server ran out of log space and a key service is down.” are common.

This is a high stress, reactive working mode that eats time and focus from engineers and managers alike. When something has gone wrong, everyone who has worked in operations or infrastructure will understand the need to fix it. Unfortunately, the fixes are usually of the sticking plaster variety – the need to extinguish fires rather than stop them recurring is driving the teams thinking.

Needless to say, the constant lurching from problem to problem reduces time to spend getting ahead of issues, creating more issues in a vicious circle. All too soon staff burn out and leave or adapt to a working pattern predicated on constant crisis. The IT departments customers perceive poor service, frequent outages and a lack of support and are highly critical of attempts to spend more money in IT – exacerbating the issues.

Examples of a typical day would be such phrases as: “the online payments system was only down for 45 minutes today” or “we all worked hard and did 5 hours overtime each to fix everything and will be back tomorrow for more” and the classic “I was busy fixing the outage, did anyone change the backup tapes?”

State 2 – Just Managing

Managing the day to day work of an IT department consumes much of the time. Work such as building new servers and end user devices, packaging and deploying software, applying service packs and fixes, monitoring the services for faults consumes a lot of effort, as does managing periodic issues. While some planning and preparation is done, it’s not enough to really improve services – just enough to stay out of trouble.

This tends to be a quiet and straightforward environment and IT is regarded as a support service like a team of plumbers or electricians. Useful when needed, but not called on otherwise.

Here, the “best” examples of work would be a mail platform that doesn’t ever “go down”, or file servers that never fill up and stop working. Maintenance and improvement work is prepared, and some of it happens, but a lot gets cancelled due to operational issues or concerns. There are lots of ad-hoc processes, created to manage problems that are followed years later because “that how we work”. Everything suffers from a lack of foresight and real focus on planning beyond the immediate

State 3 – Getting Ahead

At this point the IT department is spending enough time planning, preparing and testing new services that they are starting to reduce the rework of operations. Repeatable operations are systematised and codified to reduce the chance of error. Actual outages are rarer, where time has been devoted to finding and fixing single points of failure, design flaws and training requirements. The working environment is also different, an IT department in this mode is trying to engage with the wider business, canvassing for the next improvement or trying to get ahead of business challenges.

The perception of IT within the business is seen as a trusted advisor, capable and supportive. One example might be that team members are now working with a marketing team to help them pick a new communication platform, providing guidance and specialist support in partnership with the marketing experts. Both sides are seen as having a role to play. The IT staff can be spared for some hours per week because the core services are reliable, and they are looking for their next challenge. Their day job is shrinking – and good people will look to be productive with the right support from their leaders. Now is the chance to show what can be done with IT, and start extending into other areas.

State 4 – IT as an Asset

Repeated cycles of successful service improvement leave a very different IT department. Here as much effort is going into driving business outcomes as just keeping the lights on. While there will always be a few issues (everything involving humans creates a possibility of mistakes) mostly the work is looking outwards to the business and competition.

IT is now a valued part of the organisation, with a role to play which is delivering value beyond its core role. In a hospital that might mean IT staff working with a clinical team on a £2M project to unlock £25M of cost savings. Just as a thought experiment – what part of your business might technology be able to improve if only the team had time and focus to devote to it?

So – you mentioned Value earlier?

Your patience may now be rewarded (I hope). The graph below shows the return on investment for each of the 4 states. It assumes that an organisation is spending 5% of turnover on IT (staff, systems, and services). Each states return is shown.

Running in crisis management mode costs as much or more than the budget (for example the costs of outages damaging the business). You can see that even when IT is getting ahead, it’s really only returning what is spent. Most senior people want IT to be a trusted partner, supporting the business direction, but to do so we must prevent the fires and minimise operations work.

Where does cloud help?

Moving from state to state requires a mixture of things. One critical component is leadership and management support. Once you get out of a state where people feel the need to cover their backs and everyone is working together it is possible to make progress. All the tools, approaches and technology in the world won’t help if there is a lack of coherent leadership.

Once the goals are set, and the management is ready to make changes, tools and technology becomes useful. Cloud offers a number of ways to help escape both of the worst two states. On-premises, people are often caught robbing Peter to pay Paul, moving insufficient resources between services trying to “make everything just good enough”.

With endless scale, if you need more disk or RAM and the service warrants it, its trivially easy to provide them. When backup is just a service which is automatically configured on a server tagged as “production-SQL” it’s easy to get right and requires very little engineer time. Likewise, building a new server from a template can be done in minutes – during which your engineer will likely have time for a cuppa and to work on making something else better!

As the time for planning increases, hyperscale cloud allows teams to experiment with new approaches both by paying for what you use (so pilots come with lower costs) and increasing access to tools and new systems. Teams can be given access to isolated test environments as part of ongoing development and training as well as to inform future strategies.

Ok, so it’s a way to shift the spend from overheads to providing new value. How do I get started?

This is the tricky bit which will be highly individual – every organisation will need to take a different approach. For some, it’s about prioritising planning work and maintaining focus on that above day to day distractions. For others, it’s about the provision of a test environment which engineers can use to improve their skills or try new approaches. For many, using a consultancy to provide additional skills and new working frameworks is wise. Especially when too much time is spent firefighting, getting tools and support to escape the vicious circle can return large rewards. Regardless of how you get started, it’s a journey well worth going on. One real reward here is the chance to develop a forward-looking team – which it is always a great privilege to work with.