With small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) putting greater dependence on storing data in the cloud and allowing their staff members to bring their own devices (BYOD) into the workplace, IT decision makers are now providing the most significant competitive advantages for businesses, with the challenge of balancing innovation and cost effectiveness resting on IT leaders.
At ZDNet's TechBizz Australia event, held on Wednesday at the Sydney Opera House, the panellists explained the effects that cloud, BYOD, and big data have had on their business decision making. While most of the businesses represented on the panel employ a hybrid model of each, all agreed on the increasing importance of cloud and BYOD within the enterprise.
"There are so many cloud options that everyone should find a cloud," said Goran Stefkovski, director of technology at online retailer Kogan.
The company even has its development environments running in the cloud — if the Kogan office burnt down, it could have everything up and running again from another location within 24 hours, according to Stefkovski. Kogan makes use of a mix of BYOD and issued devices, but enforces a strong policy on installing remote wipe applications in order to rid devices of company data should they be lost or stolen.
James Rogers, general manager of online agriculture supplier Agsure, added that generation Y workers will bring their own devices regardless of a lack of company policy, so it is within the best interests of a company to devise a set of rules.
According to Dana Teahan, CIO of the Australian Institute of Management (AIM), the non-profit organisation now does "everything in the cloud", having moved completely to infrastructure as a service (IaaS) to keep the business "more within control".
Providing a real-world experience of the importance of the cloud, Shaun Gamble, CIO of Lindsay Transport Australia, said that his company was able to come back online after only 24 hours of downtime during the Queensland floods in 2010-11, when it lost its Brisbane head office — despite only being a 50 percent cloud-based business at the time. After seeing the value so strongly demonstrated, Gamble said that Lindsay Transport fully intends to become more cloud reliant, with major business apps to be the last thing put into the cloud.
When managing disparate cloud applications, Teahan lamented a lack of tools to seamlessly integrate all cloud apps, saying that "interoperability between cloud vendors is going to become a bigger issue". Rolf Weber, co-founder and joint managing director of brandsExclusive, also promoted the importance of an in-house tech team to manage IT.
The scalability of the cloud is its biggest drawcard, according to the panellists, with Stefkovski saying: "Scale increase means you can't predict the growth, so you can't accurately cost out infrastructure; cloud has unlimited scaling-out opportunities — cloud is just more scalable, and you won't be paying for space for servers that you won't be using for years."
With so much company data now residing within the cloud, attention has turned to the security provided by the vendors, and whether it is sufficient for protecting customers' data. While Gamble said that companies with a low risk profile can generally trust the cloud provider to provide better security — "sometimes, cloud providers are 10 times more secure" — the other IT leaders on the panel argued that companies should not assume that a cloud provider is looking after the security over its platform. It is the "companies [that] should secure customers' data; you need to keep your own customers' info secure", Teahan added, when asked specifically about how the US National Security Agency PRISM news has affected the business practices of technology companies within Australia.
Big data analytics is still a strongly considered trend when it comes to providing a better experience for customers and aiding the business to make more cost-effective decisions.
Stefkovski said that Kogan depersonalises all of its aggregate customer data, with the anonymous data then being used to "customise and personalise the searching experience for customers". The retailer also uses Google Trends to map the popularity of products over the year, in order to provide relevant suggestions to customers. Teahan, Rogers, and Weber similarly make use of marketing analytics to predict and present customers with what it thinks they would be most interested in.
Gamble said that Lindsay Transport has only just realised the internal benefit it can attain from big data, but has had some difficulty in getting older employees to accept the use of this tech. The company incentivises its drivers in order to reduce the amount of resistance the company runs into when introducing projects that keep data and telemetry on how its vehicles are being used, maintained, and driven.
On the key advice to give an SMB in regards to emerging tech, the panellists advocated researching the business needs and costs of any potential IT solutions.
"Don't be afraid at the start to try things, sign up to trial services to see if it works for you, touch base with the account management team, find the best way to do things, and, if something doesn't work, change it," Stefkovski said.
Added Teahan, "Don't confuse a tool with a solution."