Businesses across all industries have steadily been quickening their march to cloud computing over the last handful of years. Now, in an increasingly digitalised post-pandemic world, they are fully charging. With an economic downturn looming, there is an urgent need to innovate, reduce costs, bolster security, access on-demand scalability, and optimise resource use – all enabled by the cloud.
According to Gordon McKenna, vice president of Cloud Evangelist and Alliances at Ensono, a global hybrid IT managed service provider, the explosion of generative artificial intelligence has only boosted the business case. “Generative AI is the biggest game changer,” he says. “The technology is not new, but now anyone can take advantage of pre-programmed language models. It has lowered the barrier to entry and is transforming everything.”
McKenna uses ChatGPT to help “write emails and documents”, saving “hours” of his time. He continues: “It’s the next wave of IT, and it allows people to do more with less by aiding them to do their jobs quicker and better.” His mantra is “be a disruptor or be disrupted”, and he argues that companies operating in the cloud stand to gain the most from generative AI and other nascent technologies. “Business leaders will accelerate to the cloud because they want to be AI-ready and aggregate their data securely on a modern platform.”
Harry Margiolakiotis, managing director of engineering at Thought Machine, a fintech company that builds cloud-native technology mainly for the financial services industry, says his company can maximise the potential of generative AI “because we are in the cloud and all cloud providers are currently rushing to offer gen AI services”. He explains: “Otherwise, we would have to set up all sorts of infrastructure to reach that point, to be able to use and experiment with these breakthrough technologies.”
Need for speed
Thought Machine’s clients stand to benefit. “The cycle of [digital core banking projects] going live is typically years, but thanks to the cloud and the software agility, this is now happening within five months,” says Margiolakiotis. “Having a live bank with half a million customers in single-digit months is unprecedented. It’s impossible to achieve this on-premise.”
Margiolakiotis says other pluses make it a compelling argument. “A cloud strategy for any business is one of the safest ways to stay competitive and relevant,” he says. “But you need to design it well. A ‘lift-and-shift’ approach is a start, but becoming cloud native is the best way to leverage the available technologies and on the way attract top talent too.”
The need for speed is evident for Nigel Gibbons, director and senior advisor at NCC Group, a Manchester-headquartered cybersecurity firm. “The business world is shifting fast,” he says. “Before the pandemic, I would have advised organisations to take baby steps, but you actually need to hit the accelerator. Organisations that can operate to the edge of their risk envelope should commit to the cloud faster due to a raft of benefits. We can now take monolithic applications, old-legacy stuff, and transform them at a speed that no one appreciated a couple of years ago.”
Moreover, yesterday’s model won’t be fit for tomorrow – beware the cloud paradigm of doing more for less – the reality is to prepare to be ‘doing more with more’ and expediting innovation for growth. Yet, a certain amount of caution is required regarding mindset and expertise, Gibbons warns. “Moving to the cloud resets trust, resets risk, resets all those parameters you formerly operated under on-premise,” he says. “Too many organisations who have rushed to the cloud have gotten themselves into awkward situations, where they thought they could float the traditional control frameworks, models, and ways of operating.”
Data privacy concerns
Gibbons notes one of the “biggest areas of opportunity around cloud is driving down risk and taking organisations into a new band of profitability and innovation by understanding what true risk potential exists”. Additionally, cloud “brings a significant step up in terms of advanced end-to-end security capabilities, which few organisations realise”.
Meanwhile, a somewhat frustrated Nathan Hayes, IT director of global law firm Osborne Clarke, points out that the legal industry is generally slow to adopt new technologies. “Our cloud-first approach is very much appended with the term ‘where possible’,” he says, identifying two barriers to progress. “One is our clients, a few of whom are remarkably opposed to cloud services. And regulators in some jurisdictions are still a bit in the dark ages.”
With data privacy especially a concern for law firms, Osborne Clarke is in the process of “setting up ring-fenced, Microsoft-Azure-hosted OpenAI tools” to experiment and secure data in the cloud, says Hayes. He stresses the dangers of relying on AI, though, and references a recent case whereby a US attorney submitted a court brief with false – and unchecked – citations generated through ChatGPT. This cautionary example emboldened the theme that it’s best to be prudent in the legal profession. “It’s all about trust,” says Hayes. “If you can’t trust your lawyers, who can you trust?”
Mark Howard, head of technology engineering at Nuffield Health, the UK’s largest healthcare charity, reveals similarly modest advancements in this area, where they are actively growing the expertise. “We are making steady progress on our cloud journey, and de-risking is a big part of what we want to do,” he says. “We’re not a technology company, so for us it’s also about bringing the strategic importance of cloud migration to life for our wider business, as well as influencing organisational change. You have to go in with eyes open, and acknowledge that it’s a conscious decision made for good reasons, with a continual focus on addressing risk.”
Indeed, Hayes challenges the notion that businesses in the cloud can do more with less. “I’m finding that we can do much more, but it’s costing much more, too.”
Perhaps Elon Musk would sympathise with this observation, given that the cost-cutting billionaire allegedly stopped paying Google Twitter’s $300 million (£236 million) a year bill for cloud services, possibly leading to disastrous user limitations when the contract expired on July 1.
In response to Hayes, Gibbons says: “In industries constrained by compliance and regulation, the cloud offers such potential for business resilience, but without care the cost can become exponential.”
He argues that the return on investment is significant but not immediate. “Yes, there is an increasing cost, but that cost should be offset against the potential you realise as a business,” Gibbons says. “Because utility-based computing – which is what the cloud is – allows me to realise the innovation, the untapped potential, the intellectual property in my people’s heads. Ultimately, survival in the digital economy depends on organisations making that shift.”
Dane Buchanan, global director of data, analytics and tech at M&C Saatchi Performance, is more optimistic about generating efficiencies and value from the cloud. Companies can do more with less “by continuously monitoring and optimising their cloud resources”, scaling up or down based on demand, he counters.
“Media agencies and the cloud go hand in hand, as we have to be dynamic and deal with a multitude of clients worldwide,” says Buchanan. Ingesting data across many markets brings its own set of challenges, particularly when it comes to where we store data and how we navigate region-specific data regulations. Working in the cloud gives us the flexibility we need to spin up data centres based on individual clients requirements.
For M&C Saatchi Performance, most of their tech resides within Amazon Web Services. “We’ve enabled auto-scaling and utilise AWS Forecast for proactive planning,” says Buchanan. To illustrate his point, he turns the key on a car analogy. “Think of data as fuel; without it, the vehicle will not move. The cloud enables you to get the most out of that data. But this requires proper data governance and labelling an area in which many companies have underinvested. Cloud-based SaaS products typically offer greater flexibility, security, and more frequent updates when compared to traditional software.”
Cloud innovation for good
Security is a theme taken up by Ensono’s McKenna. A recent visit to Microsoft’s data centre in Dublin proved reassuring. “There are tank traps leading up the entrance,” he says. “There are only five people in the entire building – four of whom are security staff, and the other is a guy collecting discs for destruction. Then it’s biometric control to enter, and you are weighed in and out, just in case you have picked up a disc. How can you be more secure than that, on-prem?”
Aside from physical security, the cloud is secure in other ways, says Nathaniel Jones, director of strategic threat and engagement at global cybersecurity firm Darktrace. He dismisses the so-called quantum apocalypse – the concept that encrypted data that has been captured and stored until it can be decrypted – as a concern for the immediate term. Gibbons agrees: “This is one of the reasons for migrating to the cloud: my data lake will always be up to the latest standard around encryption.”
“A more pressing issue is for businesses to understand themselves, their own infrastructure and high-value assets, in the transition to a cloud-first approach,” said Jones. “A zero trust cloud model that continuously monitors the organisation’s internal and external attack surface will help cost-wise but also take advantage of the shared responsibility model in cyber risk transference.”
While tech will possibly save the world, there is certainly an element of digital Darwinism for businesses to contend with, Jones adds. “From an IT perspective, if you’re not moving to the cloud, your business will die,” he concludes.