Innovation is as free as a cloud

Flexibility offered by cloud computing makes businesses more agile and able to innovate without costly commitments to IT infrastructure, as Nick Martindale reports


Over the past few years, more businesses have discovered the benefits of using the cloud to provide elements of their IT infrastructure. Often the initial decision will have been based around cost efficiencies and the attraction of not having to pay large upfront costs, but for many the cloud has also been a source of innovation that has helped to drive organisational growth or change the way in which they operate.

One of the biggest advantages has been the ability to experiment with new offerings without having to commit to costly projects. “Many business leaders will tell you that true innovation is trying out different ideas and cloud computing has broken down some of the traditional cost barriers that can prematurely halt this kind of trial and error,” says Andy Barrow, technical director at ANS.

“If a small enterprise is developing a smartphone application or website for particular territories, public cloud providers like Amazon or Google can be used to build a presence and roll out a campaign quickly, while only paying for the cloud provision that they need in each of those territories.”

Others have found more efficient ways of working on the back of being able to access information from almost anywhere, across a range of devices. “Physical location no longer matters, so the best talent can be sourced wherever they are to create unique, global teams based on expertise,” says Pete Baxter, vice president at Autodesk UK. “The cloud is enabling businesses to do what they couldn’t do before.”

The ability to access software through the cloud is also helping IT departments provide extra resources or functionality to business teams, without physical or geographic restraints. “Cloud platforms are allowing thousands of point solutions to be developed by IT and the business alike,” says Steve Cardell, president of enterprise services and diversified industries at HCL Technologies. “This is a hotbed of innovation and creativity, bringing the potential to enrich every job role.”

This ability is helping organisations embrace trends, such as big data, modelling and simulation, and 3D animation, says Professor Sian Hope, chief executive of HPC Wales. She gives the example of architectural visualisation firm iCreate, which has used the processing power of supercomputers based in the cloud to improve details of its animations and reduce the amount of time it spent rendering them. “This increased quality, alongside faster production speeds, allows the company to compete more effectively in a global market, taking on larger and more ambitious projects, and providing services to more customers than previously possible,” she says.

The cloud is enabling businesses to do what they couldn’t do before

But Chris Harding, director of interoperability at The Open Group, a vendor and technology-neutral IT consortium, also has a word of warning, despite acknowledging the potential of the cloud as a source of innovation. “The advantages of being able to use resources as and when you need them, and paying only for what you use, often make the decision to use cloud for development a no-brainer,” says Dr Harding.

“But the considerations for long-term operation of systems are very different and cloud is not always the best solution. Do not fall into the trap of relying on the special features that your development cloud provides, so that it is impossible to move to an in-house or hosted platform, or even to another cloud provider that may be more economic for your production system.”

CASE STUDY

GETTING A CAFFEINE BOOST

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For Andy Milligan, founder of consultancy firm Caffeine Partnership and author of Brand It Like Beckham, the cloud has come to epitomise the innovation his business stands for.

“When we first set up, we wanted to be an unconventional consultancy so we looked at what we would do differently,” says Mr Milligan. “We thought nimbleness was the key, and to do that we needed people who were really good at thinking smartly and quickly.”

By enabling genuinely flexible working, the company’s use of the cloud has helped both recruit the right kind of people and create the conditions in which their natural instincts can flourish.

“Our clients tend to be senior leaders and our proposition is giving them experienced businesspeople who will help them to grow,” he says. “You can only do that if you have expert people, and they typically tend to be self-starters and don’t want to be managed in a traditional way.”

More practically, the cloud also means staff can be based all over the country, which allows the growing consultancy to respond quickly to new projects. “If a client asks if we can start work tomorrow in Birmingham, Glasgow or even overseas, we can say yes because we’ll have one of our consultant associates who doesn’t live that far away,” says Mr Milligan.

The cloud also creates a culture where partnering with other organisations becomes the norm. “The ability to link up with nimble networks allows us to create a much better offering,” he says. “A truly innovative mindset is naturally collaborative.”

CASE STUDY

TRACING SUCCESS TO THE CLOUD

Demand-generation marketing agency Tracepoint started up three years ago and decided not to own any server hardware, but instead to rely on the cloud.

The business saw immediate practical benefits, particularly around sharing files with clients and staff, but has also used the cloud to help it become more innovative and responsive, to both its own needs and those of clients.

Company founder James Cox says the real light-bulb moment was when the business switched from a traditional accountancy model to a cloud-based package. “Although we were quite quick at getting invoices and expenses across to the accountants, it would take four or five weeks to get financial information back into the business,” says Mr Cox. “Now we can close our books five days after the end of the month, and very quickly see which activities are producing the best results and which need some attention.”

The cloud model has also helped the company compete with much bigger operators by enabling it to access a range of software packages to offer clients. “These bring together data silos, in places such as Google Analytics, customer relationship management or social media software, and connect it all together,” he says. “It was always much more difficult to link up different parts of the business when things weren’t in the cloud.”

Like Mr Milligan, Mr Cox attributes much of his business’s success to this way of working. “We wear it as a badge of honour that we have never lost a client and we couldn’t have grown as we have without delivering a tangible impact to their businesses,” he says. “We couldn’t have done that without the cloud.”