On Cloud Computing: Get Your Head in the Clouds

January 30, 2011

Clouds as Play and Poetry

AxisPortals loves clouds, and always has. As a child, she loved flinging herself in dewy grass to watch fat cottony puffs or thin whisps of white trail across the bright blue of a sky that, back then, never seemed noticeably marred by a film of gray pollution around the edges. She remembers, on windy days, watching as the shadows cast by clouds rushed over the landscape. Like most every kid, and the blessed handful of adults  who’ve managed to hang onto their sense of wonder and imagination, she found faces, animals, castles, and kingdoms in the shifting shapes above. Even now, she thrills to the romance of thick fogs that invite one to walk among the very clouds, and to those fleeting moments of “God light,” when clouds break sunlight into a such a perfect array of beams that it seems–that is is–a moment of purest grace.

In short, it is no surprise that AxisPortals doesn’t struggle much with cloud metaphors. She even loves watching storm clouds resolving into high, threatening walls of darkness, and she always knows she’s met a kindred spirit when someone understands the way the sky sometimes seems to go green in the moments just before some particularly vicious storms.

When it comes to cloud computing, AxisPortals is, similarly, an enthusiast. Though the definitions of “cloud computing” are many and various, they all boil down to one appealing notion:  resources are available and accessible from any internet enabled computer or device. This is unequivocally a good thing, but it turns out to be a way of thinking that many organizations still struggle to grasp.

The Business of Clouds

Multiple Definitions of Cloud Computing

So what prevents an organization from taking fullest advantage of the flexibility, accessibility, and litheness of working in the cloud?

Let’s say that a mid-size organization is seeking a candidate tracking tool. Creating one with a cloud-based tool such as the CATS Applicant Tracking System or something similar couldn’t possibly be faster or more affordable. These tools are highly customizable, scalable, and accessible. They require no purchase of software or hardware, and no installation.  They require no local IT team to be constantly at the ready to field questions or make repairs.  Indeed, excellent support mechanisms are built right in, and there are user forums, support documents, and training videos galore.  Currently stored information can readily be imported to them, and information from within can just as readily be exported. They integrate beautifully with both websites and content management systems, and they are geared toward taking advantage of social networking tools.  CATS, for instance, integrates beautifully with LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.  It also plays very well with Monster, CareerBuilder, and HotJobs.  In short, there’s much to recommend use of a cloud-based tool in this instance.

Unfortunately, though, these very strengths can prove a stumbling block for organizations in which increasingly outmoded notions of ownership and physical presence still prevail. Where is the machine on which the program lives? Where is the outrageously high price? Where is the complicated contract? And aren’t social networking tools awfully dangerous?  Isn’t there something a bit scary, after all, about downloading resumes from CareerBuilder with a single click, or about pushing position postings to Facebook or Twitter so readily?   It all seems too simple, too sci-fi, and too darned contemporary to be trustworthy or real.  To a decision maker who is inexperienced in or suspicious of digital realms, the cloud and all that it entails can be a frightening or simply confusing concept.

Ownership is not an entirely unreasonable concern.  Ask anyone who once stored information on a service long since gone–there’s nothing worse than losing access to data.  However, in most cases, rightful interest in data management and preservation is a concern more than adequately addressed by the tool itself.  Routine backups, regular updates, replication of information, and ability to download data on demand are standard features of a good cloud-based service.  Indeed, the old-fashioned local machine is far more likely to prove troublesome on this score, which is why cloud-based storage and back-up systems are increasingly popular.

Deploying purchased programs on in-house equipment is a costly undertaking, whereas tapping into a cloud-based system generally requires only relatively modest subscription fees.  Similarly, in-house deployments often involve extensive training sessions, whereas cloud-based services offer online learning and support, as well as the advantage of functioning in online environments that will be relatively familiar to many end-users.  Most anyone who can figure out, for instance, how to set up a page in Facebook and use all if its various functions, could soon find his or her way around the dashboard of a cloud-based tool.  Add in excellent online training materials and the ability of new users to tap into these anytime, anyplace, and it rapidly becomes clear that the old model of classroom training and face-to-face support is as outmoded as the dusty machine in the corner. That’s an exciting prospect to those who move comfortably in online worlds, but for those who cling to habits and expectations formed in earlier times, letting go of familiar procedures can be quite as difficult as letting go of the notion that the most expensive solution must, perforce, be the best solution.

Way back when AxisPortals was stretched out in the grass admiring the shifting panorama of the cloudscape, she understood that things change fast. The swelling cloud bathed in sunset’s gold looked exactly like a giant piece of popcorn, but only for a few moments.  Then, it broke, shifted, resolved into something new, or ultimately drifted away to be replaced by another shape entirely. Nothing about these vaporous forms was ever steady or predictable.

Life is like that, too.  Business is like that.  Our economic and informational landscape is forever shifting.  We weather those shifts best when we are equipped to flow and evolve right along with them. Cloud-based services are affordable, lithe, nimble–they allow us to flow with the shifting exigencies of corporate IT, and to meet our audiences’ expectations for connection, immediacy, and accessibility.

Redefining the Idiom

Community Users Lead the Way

Change may come slowly in the cobwebby corners of brick-and-mortar organizations that have thus far managed to avoid entering or even contemplating the cloud, but elsewhere digital life in the cloud is well underway and rapidly expanding.  Recently, AxisPortals posed a casual question to her Facebook friends: How many social networking profiles, blogs, etc. do you manage? Six and upwards, said the respondents, and observation bears this out. But social networking platforms and blogs aren’t the only cloud-based tools enthusiastically embraced in the world beyond business.

  • School parents manage volunteer networks, organize auctions, administer hot lunch programs, track sports registration, and push email to parents using cloud-based tools such as Orgs Online and Auction Trak.
  • Teachers communicate with parents and students using tools such as eBoard, TeacherEase, and  SchoolCircuit.
  • Volunteers in local political campaigns make heavy use of tools such as Constant Contact, YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr, all cloud-based services.
  • Church employees and volunteers manage data, communication,  finances, and events with tools such as Church Community Builder, CathoNet, and Parish Data System.
  • Still others create custom project management spaces using tools such as  BaseCamp, Zoho Projects, and Nozbe.

All of these tools and the many like them are fast, affordable, scalable, efficient, and effective. In the communities served by business organizations, then, the advantages of cloud-based systems are already understood and applauded. Further, those who routinely interact with these tools naturally develop certain expectations based on that experience:

  • Users expect organizational websites to offer opportunities for social networking.
  • Users expect to register for activities, events, and classes online.
  • Users expect to apply for jobs and volunteer positions online.
  • Users expect securely to submit payments or make donations online.
  • Users expect to search for and locate pertinent information quickly.
  • Users expect securely to tap into records and documents online.
  • Users expect to create and update their profiles and account information online.
  • Users expect to find schedules, directions, maps, and other key organizational information online.

In American English, the idiomatic expression “to have one’s head in the clouds” means being so absorbed in one’s own thoughts and fantasies that one is out of touch with reality, but in the world of IT, that idiom is being turned upside down right now, all around us.

The organization that can’t or won’t get its IT head into the cloud risks failing utterly to meet the needs both of its own internal users, and of its community audience.

For some, that’s a paradigm shift that might entail enduring some stormy weather as new guiding metaphors of accessibility and emergence replace old notions of ownership and control, but as any devoted cloud watcher knows, keeping your eyes to the skies leads not only to a deeper appreciation of flow and change, but also to better preparation for whatever weather is on the horizon.

AxisPortals Aphorism:  Every silver lining has a cloud.