Three ways to survive the rise of the cloud and 'big software'

Embracing new ways of working and building new relationships are key to navigating the new world of software.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

Applications that were once simple to manage are now rolled out across thousands of physical and virtual machines.

These sprawling applications include multiple components, with the potential points of integration spread across the enterprise and out into the wider cloud.

So, what are the key challenges CIOs will face as they overhaul their IT departments in readiness for the next stage of enterprise computing? Here are some key lessons for CIOs.

1. Build a platform for business change

Successful companies in the digital age are characterised by their ability to absorb technology into everyday processes and by ensuring there is no division between what might previously have been classed as IT and business professionals.

CIOs at more traditional firms must help sponsor a similar view: rather than being divorced as separate cost centres, modern technology teams should work directly with their peers across the rest of the organisation. CIOs must, as a matter of urgency, work out what their business colleagues need and support them to make the right technology decisions.

Many end users, after all, are digitally savvy. If IT does not provide the right tools, then individual lines of business will go outside to external consultants and source their own software. The good news is that a well-managed cloud strategy, with the ability for users to draw on services on-demand, can provide the bedrock for lasting change.

"You can get raw computing power, storage, and applications on-demand, anytime and anywhere now," says Dave Smoley, CIO at AstraZeneca. "You don't have to make big capital investments; you don't have to go through long procurement processes. All these cool innovations will be enabled by cloud capability -- and the devil will be in the detail."

CIOs must work to establish the governance that allows the rest of the business to make the most of on-demand IT. Application programming interfaces (APIs) will be key to bringing services together. However, APIs can also be pushed by specific vendors, which creates lock-in and makes it tough for the business to change its approach later.

"Don't fall for the siren call of the providers and think you're implementing a standardised API," says Clive Longbottom, service director and analyst at Quocirca. He was speaking at a recent discussion on the concept of 'big software' -- the complex sprawl of software that makes up modern enterprise computing -- sponsored by open source software company Canonical in London.

"It's a rapidly emerging market and there are issues. Try and go with an open approach, only use limited amounts of propriety technology and find a way to back out when you need to," he adds.

2. Develop the right kind of IT capability

A shift to the cloud, with a new emphasis on IT procurement and management, should be accompanied by a change in the division of labour. Most businesses will no longer need a traditional IT department with a host of database administrators. Yet the pace of change is often slow.

Increasing amounts of technology might be purchased by lines of business executives, yet technology teams are still set up to deal with old IT. Traditional, manual-intensive processes and working styles are simply switched to the new cloud-enabled business.

But the rise of automation means IT departments will need to evolve and draw on new skill sets. For many organisations, IT capability will be organised around two key areas, which Longbottom suggests is a subtle variation on the bimodal IT model first posited by Gartner in 2014.

The first area involves managing systems of record. Here, change should be limited and some element of operational IT skills will be retained in-house. The second area covers systems of engagement, where transformation must take place rapidly. Successful businesses will support continuous delivery across their customer-facing interfaces.

CIOs should embrace DevOps and give IT professionals space to work on innovative projects that drive genuine change. CIOs who make the most of continuous development and delivery will be able to engage with their business peers when they have an idea, and will then be able to present a range of digital options.

Such flexibility is likely to be key. Once a business becomes agile, executives can start to take decisions quickly about what might once have been fundamentally tougher questions. "To thrive, you need to survive -- and this can involve breaking a lot of things that you've done before," says Longbottom.

3. Create an ecosystem of supportive partners

Embracing agility and creating business-led IT initiatives is just a jumping off point. Even IT leaders who embrace change will find it challenging to keep innovation going. The constant drop feed of change means organisations that attempt to keep everything running in-house are likely to become outmoded quickly.

The answer to this challenge lies beyond the enterprise firewall. Just as CIOs looked to big outsourcing deals to help manage service demands ten years ago, so IT leaders in the digital era must look beyond the safe confines of the IT department. Modern CIOs must always be aware of what is happening outside the enterprise and they should be able to draw on a wide and adaptable support network.

"You need an ecosystem around you in the era of big software -- remember bringing in new skills on-demand will be expensive," says Longbottom. "There are a lot of potential technology choices and, as a CIO, you will have to make use of that IT economically, possibly by working with external partners."

The bigger aim for IT leaders must be to collapse the amount they spend on existing infrastructure. By using automation and reducing operational spend, your IT department can start directing more money towards the innovation the business demands. Rather than fixing systems, your IT team can get out, meet people ,and find great solutions to business challenges.

Your ecosystem should draw on startups, software companies, non-competitive rivals, and any source of inspiration that might provide a new route to innovation. It is a sentiment that chimes with Mark Ridley, group technology officer at venture builder Blenheim Chalcot Accelerate, who spoke with ZDNet recently.

"This external exposure, which also includes partner ecosystems, can be a powerful learning opportunity that will allow CIOs to observe those rare and surprising collisions of seemingly disconnected ideas from different worlds. Those wonderful moments are where innovation comes to life," says Ridley.

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