CIOs have spent the past few years investing in cloud-based platforms and applications to help with the digital transformation of their businesses, and to allow their employees to connect to corporate systems from any device and on the move.
With hindsight, that commitment to cloud-enabled services is fortuitous to say the least. While the impact of coronavirus COVID-19 has already been devastating in human terms, the economic impact on many organisations would have been much greater if it wasn't for the huge investment by businesses in cloud computing that has enabled many knowledge workers to switch rapidly to home working.
Organisations across the globe splashed out a record $107 billion on cloud-computing infrastructure services in 2019, up 37% from the previous year, according to analyst firm Canalys. Gartner predicts worldwide spending on public cloud services will grow 17% in 2020 to total $266.4 billion, up from $227.8 billion in 2019.
SEE: Cloud v. data center decision (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)
The analyst describes the use of cloud computing as "mainstream"; in many organisations, the cloud is now simply business-as-usual for IT operations. And yet the pace of the switch to the cloud has been so great that even a couple of years ago many organisations would have lacked the tools to respond effectively to the demand for working from home.
Today, many CIOs I speak to have pretty much everything they need to be successful remote-working companies, from fast home internet, readily available and affordable laptops, mature single sign-on to multi-factor authentication, and the majority of business systems can be provided over the public internet.
That's means that organisations like in the cases of the Greater London Authority, Leeds City Council and the University of Sussex have been able to create a remote-working strategy in days, not even weeks or months.
Of course, it's important to stress that – despite its inexorable rise – cloud computing isn't yet ubiquitous. Important pockets of resistance remain, not least the plethora of legacy applications that remain in blue-chip enterprises and which are hard to re-platform to cloud infrastructures.
But that's for another day. Right now the cloud is rising to the challenge and providing the platform to help employees in organisations to work, if not in a normal way, than as normal as might have been anticipated when you're not allowed to share the same space as your colleagues.
If the outbreak had happened a decade earlier, IT would have been in a very different situation. Back in 2010, the average company spent just $6,300 a year on cloud computing, or $23.31 per employee, according to a survey of IT executives by Osterman Research.
Software development was one of the biggest uses of private cloud computing, but the basics of remote working – video conferencing, document collaboration and secure networking – were just a pipedream. In 2010, cloud computing was characterised by hype and there's no way that companies many could have established effective remote-working capabilities.
That would have left CEOs with much harder decisions to make. No cloud computing would meant no home working. Without a viable option to continue working safely, many more companies would have been forced to close their doors and furlough staff.
But while the human and economic cost of this crisis is huge, the potential financial damage of coronavirus has been reduced by the ability of many workers to use the cloud to fulfil some operational activities. If it wasn't for the cloud, people who are lucky enough to still have a job wouldn't be able to moan about how they now spend the majority of their working days in Zoom meetings.
Those of us still able to bring in an income for our families should be thankful for the cloud. While the office is out-of-bounds, the work that usually takes place within that space can now be completed from any location, whether that's the home office, the kitchen or the sofa.
Cloud isn't just about supporting remote-office work, either. Children around the world are logging on and completing schoolwork from home. It's the same at universities, too. As Jason Oliver, director of IT at the University of Sussex, has found, using the cloud to support distance learning means students and academics have a complete digital environment in their own homes that mirrors in-classroom experiences.
SEE: How remote work is changing CIO priorities amid the COVID-19 pandemic
It's also important to recognise how recent investments in the cloud by healthcare organisations are helping to support healthcare professionals in their vital work on the front line. Think, also, of how the cloud is being used to support ground-breaking and collaborative work by researchers around the world who are trying to find a vaccine for the virus.
In many ways, the coronavirus outbreak has been the impetus for the biggest ever beta test for a technology platform – and cloud computing has risen to the challenge. Executives that might have previously doubted the value of an investment in on-demand IT will have seen how cloud has supported remote working and will now be convinced of its strengths.
So the coronavirus outbreak will help persuade more companies to spend on the cloud – in fact, they might well have already made that investment to ensure their staff can carry on working. As they reflect on the decisions they took once the battle against coronavirus is finally won, executives might look back on the commitment they made to invest in the cloud and conclude that it was the best IT decision that their business ever made.