Over the past 12 months I have posted a number of blog entries relating to cloud-based B2B integration and I will summarise these posts in a followup blog. In the meantime I thought it might be useful to try and highlight some of the more general things that need to be taken into consideration when looking to deploy cloud based B2B environments.
Much has been written about cloud-based environments so I thought I would just spend a few moments giving my own thoughts on what needs to be considered when deploying a cloud integration platform for the first time.
1. Don’t try and do too much at once
Moving to a cloud-based environment can bring many benefits to a company, but where do you start and how do you avoid trying to ‘boil the ocean’ so to speak. Before undertaking a cloud related B2B project you need to think about what you want to move to the cloud environment, for example are you looking to move your invoicing process to the cloud to simplify the way in which you work with trading partners in multiple countries?
Do you need to improve end to end visibility across your supply chain? Due to a lack of internal skills, are you looking to move a complex back office integration process to the cloud? Are you looking to onboard trading partners in a particular country such as India or China? or are you looking to move an entire business process such as reverse logistics into the cloud?
Therefore to ensure that your cloud project is a success and to recognise a quick ROI it may be easier to move one application or business process to the cloud at a time rather than trying the all or nothing approach. For example let us say that in 2012 you will set your company the task of moving your invoicing process to a cloud-based infrastructure. Once the project has been implemented and is regarded as a success you can then scale up your cloud-based-B2B platform to take on another task, for example introducing a cloud based returns or reverse logistics project.
2. Think about ‘cloud participation’
The success of a cloud-based project will depend on how successful you are at encouraging internal or external users to use the new platform. For example, what are the security implications of allowing external trading partners to have access to your cloud platform? How will remote workers get access to the platform? Will you need to provide or upgrade mobile/tablet devices in order to allow users access to the new platform?
Will you need to offer multi-language support? How will users be supported if they encounter problems with using the cloud platform? How will you train users in the use of the new cloud based application? Do you have any checking procedures in place to ensure that user entered data is accurate? The success or failure of a cloud-based environment will depend on how successful you are at encouraging users to use the new platform.
If you can take into account the afore-mentioned points then it will certainly help to simplify the deployment of your new cloud platform. The cloud also allows users to interact with information in a totally different way, for example using app-based tablet devices such as Apple’s iPad. This is likely to raise yet another important question, does your company have a mobile B2B strategy? If you can find a way to improve the user experience then there is more chance of your cloud project being a success.
3. Connecting with other business applications
Cloud-based environments can work well in isolation but to ensure maximum ROI on a cloud platform deployment then you will need to consider which other back office or enterprise systems will need to connect to the cloud platform. For example you may have spent a high proportion of your budget deploying a cloud platform to allow external trading partners to send you information electronically but what if you then need to get that information into an ERP system for example?
An earlier research project highlighted that on average 34% of information entering an ERP system comes from outside the enterprise. Therefore ensuring that information can flow seamlessly between your cloud-based B2B platform and your ERP system should be a high priority at the planning stage of your new cloud platform. What other systems will need to be connected to your cloud platform, transport or warehouse management systems?
Third-party applications such as RFID or bar code scanning systems? Or perhaps accounting packages? As with trying to think about what to deploy in the cloud, think about what you need to integrate to, DO NOT try and integrate to all your applications at the same time, come up with a project plan for what business applications need to be connected to the cloud platform and what level of integration is required. Once again, think small and integrate your business applications slowly to ensure that the operation of mission critical business processes are not impacted in any way.
4. Understand the costs involved
Have you ever undertaken an in-depth analysis of how much it costs to run a behind the firewall software installation? Software licenses, maintenance updates, server and associated network management costs, IT personnel to then manage the infrastructure. The costs escalate very quickly.
With a traditional software environment it is regarded as a normal capital expense, servers and software have to be purchased up front, and software/hardware are carried as a long term capital asset. Meanwhile a cloud-based environment is regarded as an operating expense, software is used on a pay as you go basis and most importantly of all nothing appears on the balance sheet.
Now I have only scraped the surface hear with the types of costs involved with running a software versus cloud based environment but it would be worth spending some time evaluating your existing infrastructure and I think you will be surprised at how much it costs to maintain on a day to day basis. If you understand the full costs involved with running a normal software environment then you may start to ask the question of why, from a financial perspective, you did not consider using a cloud based B2B environment before.
5. Make sure you choose the right cloud integration provider
The key to successfully deploying a cloud-based infrastructure is ensuring that you have chosen the correct third party cloud provider to work with. Over the past year a number of cloud solution providers have entered the market, however many so called cloud providers have merely ‘cloud washed’ their existing software portfolio to give the impression that they are a cloud provider when they are not.
There are also providers who offer a cloud solution for supply chain visibility, others who will provide e-invoicing and others providing collaboration type tools. Do you really want to work with different cloud providers when moving your B2B platform to the cloud? Each possibly offering a different level of service, no integration between the cloud applications and different structures for how these cloud platforms are managed and paid for on a monthly basis.
Would it be easier to try and identify a single cloud provider that can move your entire B2B process into the cloud?, a provider that can offer a high availability infrastructure with a single service level agreement to cover all applications that are used in the cloud environment? Can the vendor support multiple languages to allow trading partners anywhere in the world to use the platform and does the vendor offer a 24/7 multi-lingual support service so that problems can be resolved as quickly as possible?