Almost everywhere you go in IT these days, the talk of the town is about cloud: what it is, why it matters, how to get there.
This comes at a time where the market is ruthlessly driving down costs concurrently with increasing demand for delivery of information.
Cloud is emerging as a way of making a business organization more agile, nimble, and efficient so that it can quickly meet business needs.
In this rapidly changing environment, business analysts are becoming vitally important in helping to guide the transformation that is underway. Their role as agents of business change places them in the eye of the storm when it comes to cloud initiatives.
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So how does a Business Analyst prepare for cloud computing? First, it is crucial to understand precisely what cloud is. Second, it is important to understand what the challenges and pain-points caused by a transition to cloud. Only then does it become clear how important a business analyst is for addressing the important issues raised by cloud.
So what is cloud?
Cloud computing is often simply (and wrongly) defined as a way by which a 3rd party vendor hosts IT infrastructure that runs applications, instead of having the IT infrastructure owned and hosted by the company or organization using it. While sometimes true, this definition is overly simplistic and not always accurate (for example, a company could own a “private cloud” itself rather than using a 3rd party.)
For a more complete definition, we can look to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Special Publication 800-145. According to the NIST definition, “cloud computing is a model for enabling ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction.” (Notice there is no mention of 3rd party providers.)
Let’s parse what that means. The NIST definition calls for five essential characteristics for cloud computing:
- Cloud provides ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand access. This means that cloud computing is self-service and available all of the time.
- Cloud provides for broadly available network access. Computing capabilities are accessible via the network rather than through hard cables, and can be accessed by any relevant client (PC, mobile phone, tablet, etc.).
- Cloud computing allows for resource pooling. When an organization doesn’t own computing resources exclusively for the use of specific applications, those resources become available for use by other organizations and applications. Resources can be dynamically allocated and re-assigned based on changing consumer demands. (This contrasts with the traditional model of computing resources that sit in a data center, which collect dust when not being actively utilized.)
- Cloud provides rapid provisioning and release of resources with minimal effort or provider interaction. When there is a sudden spike in the volume of demand for an application, it should continue to run quickly and smoothly through rapid allocation of resources behind the scenes without the need for human intervention.
- Cloud involves a metered paying model. Implicit in the definition of cloud is that someone has to pay for all of this. Rather than payment being for the purchase of equipment for a data center, the payment is for actual usage–usage for a number of servers, processor cores, terabytes of data, the amount of bandwidth used, or whatever else is relevant to the service.
Another thing to know about cloud computing is how it can be deployed. There are essentially three models:
- Software as a Service (SaaS): provides functionality for end users, often with a per-license structure and with relatively minimal customization of the front end. The vendor runs everything. Gmail and Microsoft Office 365 are examples of SaaS.
- Platform as a Service (PaaS): provides a platform upon which applications can be written and used. The vendor runs infrastructure, middleware, and operating system and you manage your own applications. Google App Engine is an example of PaaS.
- Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS): provides core infrastructure as a utility service. The vendor runs infrastructure only; you manage everything else. Amazon Web Services is an example of IaaS.
A simple way of keeping the deployment model straight is to think of a railroad. The rails are the infrastructure, the train cars are the platform, and the products being carried are the “software” service.
Why is everyone moving to the cloud?
Cloud is often touted as the answer to reducing costs because it offers a number of benefits. The shared nature of resources means there is greater utilization and use of the computing resources you actually consume without having to pay for or maintain what you don’t use. It also offers advantages in terms of requiring less space along with the electricity and cooling necessary. It forces a simpler, more centralized management approach of computing resources. It also outsources the maintenance of commodity services not part of an organization’s core mission for things such as websites or email service. It also places responsibility for maintaining computing resources and their continuity of operations in the hands of experts who provide that service for many customers.
What does all this mean for a Business Analyst?
Consider some of the business problems that arise when we move away from a model where the applications supporting an organization’s processes reside on traditional, fully owned, dedicated computing resources.
- How do you identify which business services and processes should be moved to the cloud?
- Does a business really want its redundant, inefficient, or bloated processes and applications to be moved to the cloud where usage is strictly metered? If not, how do you make the identified services and processes cloud-ready?
- What requirements, policies and governance should be implemented to guarantee performance, privacy, security, and quality of business data?
- How will performance be measured and monitored, and by whom?
- What kind of agreements (called Service Level Agreements or SLA’s) must be negotiated and monitored with cloud providers to ensure that the service does what it promised to do?
- What kind of cultural challenges will arise from moving to the cloud, such as resistance to change or concern over lost jobs?
- How will cloud applications and supported business processes integrate and interoperate with the rest of the organization’s processes that may remain on traditional computing?
- How will legacy assets be decommissioned once their corresponding functions are moved to the cloud?
Business analysts will play a key role in addressing each of these problems and more, since nobody is better situated to pave this new path between business needs and IT implementation. It is therefore crucial that Business Analysts begin developing a cloud competency whether or not these issues have already arisen in their organizations.
There are five key things Business Analysts can do now to help prepare them and their departments for cloud.
- Educate yourself. There is additional NIST guidance about cloud and a lot more to know than what can be covered by this article. Learn about the different deployment models and cloud computing environments to begin understanding the possible options you could leverage for your organization.
- Take a holistic view of the enterprise. Now more than ever, a business analyst must take a 360-degree view of the enterprise when analyzing business process re-engineering. With cloud metering of usage, business processes must be aligned and made efficient wherever possible to eliminate duplication and waste. This happens best when the needs of the entire business are kept in mind rather than just the needs of a local business unit.
- Be prepared to address the issue of control in your requirements. The most burning issues for cloud revolve around control: ensuring performance of the infrastructure, continuity of operations should there be a need for disaster recovery, and security of data and application assets. Giving up the control provided by owning infrastructure assets is bound to be culturally difficult, but be prepared to explain how there are ways of mitigating these concerns to the level of acceptable business risks.
- Know how to measure. In a metered environment, everything about cloud comes down to measurement of performance. How much uptime was there? How fast is the application running? How much bandwidth was consumed? What is the Return on Investment of a new cloud platform? Your organization better be ready to choose, track, and report on all essential Key Performance Indicators. Many business organizations are not all that great about measuring their own performance. That needs to change before cloud computing can truly shine.
- Provide natural leadership. As you learn about cloud, you will become a thought leader on how best to acquire and manage it. Whether it’s implementation of SLA’s, development of cloud policies, making business processes cloud-ready, or writing cloud-specific requirements, you can be in the driver’s seat in making choices to maximize your organization’s success.
For current business analysts, the next few years will provide many opportunities for career advancement as long as skills are kept current to be valuable in the age of cloud computing. For new business analysts seeking to enter the field, there will also be more opportunities than ever to help fill increasingly critical roles in business organizations capitalizing on the advantages provided by cloud.