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Smartphones help us to understand the cloud

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Writing for Forbes this month, Joe McKendrick highlights a recent survey that suggests that “mobile computing appears to be a driving force behind cloud adoption in enterprises.” While the cloud clearly plays a role in making mobile devices as valuable to the enterprise as they are, it may be too much to suggest those devices truly drive cloud adoption. Rather, smartphones and tablets have brought the cloud discussion to the forefront, regardless, paradoxically, of whether the implementation actually relies on the cloud.

The survey, conducted in October and November by polling firm TNS on behalf of IT and professional services provider CSC, polled over 3,500 IT executives to explore their attitudes toward cloud computing. Access to information from multiple devices emerged as a clear driver for a third of respondents.

Cloud computing in its various forms delivers many benefits to the enterprise, and it was recently estimated to have found adoption among over a third of enterprises. It may enable a realignment of budgets, removing large upfront capital expenditure on new hardware and replacing this with recurring operating expenses for renting someone else’s cloud-based infrastructure. It may save the enterprise money or contribute to green targets, through the more efficient use of servers sited in locations that offer more environmentally responsible sources of power or cooling. It will typically enable the enterprise to make its IT processes more agile, with new infrastructure available for use in minutes or hours rather than weeks or months, and with virtual machines returned to the common pool once their task is complete.

So why have smartphones and tablets become so important to understanding the cloud? As financially, commercially and strategically advantageous as the above attributes of cloud computing may be, they are not particularly visible to the enterprise or to its senior executives, except indirectly as shifting budget lines on a spreadsheet or as shrinkage in the size or utilization of the data center in the basement. Access to email on the road and visibility of corporate dashboards from the home computer, though? Both are very visible, and both are generally seen as beneficial. Of course, Blackberry-wielding executives had access to corporate email long before the cloud reached its current prominence. And any company with an in-house Exchange or Sharepoint server can push email and documents to employees without relying on either its own cloud or anyone else’s.

But cloud-based providers of similar services, from Google’s Gmail (adopted by “thousands of companies” every day, according to Google) and Microsoft’s Office 365 to Box and Salesforce (the first cloud company to exceed $1 billion in revenue, back in 2009), have done an excellent job of persuading customers that “the cloud” is to thank for delivering documents and messages to any device, anywhere. These cloud-based Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solutions deliver basic functions (such as sending and receiving email) that the enterprise may value. But they do not require the cloud to do this, as the physical server in the data center running Exchange demonstrates.

The cloud may enable providers to offer these functions more cheaply, more effectively or more efficiently than an on-premise alternative, but the basic requirement to access enterprise data outside the office is one that can be met in many ways. For the executive on the road who is receiving updated sales figures just ahead of an important presentation, whether the insight is delivered over a VPN from a physical server in the head office or from a distant cloud computing service is not important. At the point of need, she got the information she required.

Consumer cloud services such as Gmail, Evernote and Dropbox deliver value in enabling their users to create, store, manage and access a wide range of content on a plethora of devices, from anywhere with a network connection. Each is demonstrably a cloud-based solution. Could it simply be the case that executives, asking corporate IT for similar capabilities inside the enterprise, presume that the cloud will also be required?

Whether the solution that is eventually delivered runs off a physical server, on a virtual machine inside the enterprise’s private cloud, or off some geographically distributed service in the public cloud may end up being irrelevant to the executive accessing his corporate data from home, “via the cloud.” But in their quest to make their lives easier outside the office, those same executives inadvertently become champions for the ideal of the cloud. The smartphone’s being used to access email and dashboards may not really be a “driving force behind cloud adoption,” but it may be a powerful ally for those individuals within the organization who do understand cloud and who want to bring its benefits to the business.

Question of the week

Is mobile a driving force behind cloud adoption or simply the most visible aspect of the cloud’s benefits?