Any retailer that offers online or catalogue shopping will know that the success of their business relies on being able to send the customer the goods they buy quickly, while keeping a close eye on costs. In other words, the most fundamental aspect of their business is fulfilment – making sure they have goods available to buy, and that they are capable of dispatching them efficiently.
Most online retailers store their goods in a small number of central locations, from which they are then delivered to customers once purchased. Both elements are needed for the business to succeed.
There are many parallels between this retail business model and the way that thinking about IT is evolving as it increasingly moves into the ‘cloud’. When implementing cloud strategies, today’s CIOs are effectively looking to centralise their computing power to deliver efficiencies, and enable a better experience for end-users.
For example, many CIOs now use virtualisation to consolidate and pool their server resources, in much the same way as retailers use large warehouses in central locations, to provide economies of scale and ensure lower prices for consumers.
However, whilst retailers have also set up highly-functioning distribution networks to transport goods to their customer, there has been little discussion of how CIOs do the same with their cloud applications – namely, fulfilling applications and data to the end-user. This could be a fatal mistake. Without a robust, well-managed network to join end users to the applications and data in the cloud, companies risk missing out on many of the benefits the cloud model promises.
Attempting to implement a cloud strategy using a company’s existing network infrastructure isn’t enough. Since each company may use a range of different cloud solutions, some based on ‘public’ clouds like Google or Amazon, others using ‘private clouds’ (i.e. virtualised private servers), or a mixture of the two, it’s a bit like trying to fit square pegs into round holes. Instead, it is much better to ‘retro-fit’ the network to each organisation’s specific requirements, once it has fully developed and defined its cloud strategy.
In the world of retail, even the best-laid plans are not 100% fool-proof. A retailer may depend on the postal service, public roads, rail networks or its own vehicles to deliver its orders – each of which has many risk factors which must be planned for.
This is where the similarities between e-commerce and cloud computing end: CIOs can exercise far greater control over their own networks, to ensure end-users receive the level of service that they expect. They need to adopt the retailer’s mindset, and examine how their networks need to change to best fulfil their product to their (internal) customers.
To this end, CIOs now have a number of options available to them. End-to-end network management not only improves the planning and execution of any network rollout, but also means that a business can call on specialist networking expertise if and when they encounter any problems.
Similarly, built-in fault tolerance and back-up connections mean that data can be made available no matter what happens to the corporate network – something that certainly couldn’t be said for a snow-blocked road or rail infrastructure, for example.
What this means is that CIOs should not, and must not, overlook the network as they look to move to the cloud. Retailers already know they could suffer huge reputational damage if their ability to fulfil orders is impaired, and CIOs should feel the same about delivering cloud computing to end-users.
Unlike in retail, CIOs have no excuse for a malfunctioning network, and this makes it all the more surprising that so few CIOs pay as much heed to their network as they do to, say, their virtualisation strategy. For no matter how sophisticated the ‘warehouse’ at the centre, if end users don’t benefit from the convenience and flexibility of the cloud, the business won’t see the benefits it expects either.