Cloud computing, if you’ll excuse the pun, has taken the world by storm in recent years. Even companies like Microsoft, who have traditionally sold software as discrete products, are now firmly on the Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) and cloud application wagon.
The odds are that many employees are already using personal OneDrive, Dropbox, Google Apps or Office 365 accounts to sync data and perform collaborative work. They are simply doing it without official support from you and, therefore, with no oversight. The question then isn’t whether you should be looking at cloud solutions for your intranet, but what the best way is to capitalize on the technology, while avoiding the most common pitfalls.
The Good Stuff
One of the main advantages of using cloud applications on your intranet is that they can have a positive effect on productivity. Of course, this depends on using the right workflows and methods. In a best-case scenario collaborative productivity apps such as Docs from Google can significantly reduce the need for in-person meetings, multiple versions of documents or time consuming round-robin style consultation, rewriting and contribution.
Apart from the the factors that make a cloud intrant appealing to users, there are quite a few compelling reasons your IT support department may like using cloud applications for your intranet. If you are using services hosted in a public cloud from Google, Microsoft or Amazon a lot of maintenance drudgery goes right out the door. You don’t have to worry about software upgrades, compatibility or dealing with peak loads on your network.
Thanks to hybrid cloud implementations you can even integrate cloud services that look and act as if they were running on your local network, but are actually a virtual service that can expand and contract seamlessly as demand from your users go through peaks and troughs. You only pay for what you need and you don’t have to over capitalize on servers and other network technology to deal with occasional peak demand.
Deployment of cloud applications can also happen at a much higher pace, even in large enterprises. From the cloud application provider’s side the infrastructure is basically always on tap, so the main time commitment comes from integrating your existing intranet with the software from the cloud application provider.
Some of the features provided by cloud applications such as DropBox are simply not available or easy to implement in a traditional intranet setting. DropBox is far more advanced than a shared network drive on an intranet and doesn’t need you to jump through hoops so that people outside the intranet can access the data. The same goes for collaborative cloud apps such as Google Docs. Trying to achieve that sort of functionality on your intranet independently is a tall order, if at all possible.
These different advantages add up to what’s probably the most commonly cited reason for cloud technology implementation: saving money.
Computing power and applications become a utility like electricity and water. You don’t need to have your own coal station of water plant, so why have an expensive data center whose full capacity you only need some of the time?
Many people, especially those that aren’t particularly computer savvy, are loath to upgrade things like Windows and Office. This is understandable, because new versions mean changes to the interface, new features and new ways to do old things. This adds additional pressure that most working adults would prefer to avoid.
The problem is that cloud applications are running on a remote computer and the user has no control over things like updates. Some users may find it unpleasant to open their productivity tools to find that things are no longer the same compared to the day before. There’s not much you can do if the application is running on a server you don’t control, but if you are running a cloud application on your own servers for those on the intranet, think twice about the pros and cons for a given update. Add features in a controlled and logical way, allowing users to habituate to these changes.
In certain circumstances, especially when it comes to niche proprietary software, achieving interoperability between cloud applications and your other systems could be a challenge. However, cloud app providers are often willing to assist with these issues and it’s worth approaching them for help. Many cloud infrastructure products such as Microsoft Azure are very customizable, but need developers experienced with cloud technology. Something which may not be part of your in-house skill pool.
The issue of control is probably the most contentious one for network admins and their organizations when it comes to cloud computing. Where is your data? Is it safe? What happens if the apps go down?
Although in practice specialist companies like Google and Microsoft can provide better uptime and security than you could, there is still a psychological disjuncture and a legitimate concern about cybersecurity to contend with.
Even it turned out to be a false alarm, reports about stolen user account on DropBox gave the whole community a sharp wakeup call in 2014.
Finally, although shifting to cloud application should be cheaper, pay close attention to the terms of the service agreements. There may be hidden costs that aren’t apparent at first glance. Don’t assume that licences for cloud applications cover the use cases you think they do. This is a potentially costly mistake that too many people overlook.
Cloud apps can be a great boon to productivity and reduce costs, but doing so successfully requires patience, research and a realistic game plan. Are they good for your intranet? Ultimately that depends on how you use them, but those that get it right never have a reason to look back.