Answering the Cloud Skeptics

By Leah Gabriel Nurik

With companies juicing up their collaboration capabilities at the same time they replace and upgrade traditional applications such as e-mail, it’s not just small and midsize businesses looking to the cloud anymore.  Now, more and more enterprises are moving collaboration to the cloud to reduce CAPEX and ease maintenance.

Channel Insider recently sat down with cloud provider Apptix’s vice president of product and software development, James Bond, to talk about the move to the cloud and why it's one that many companies are choosing to make.

CI: Do you find that enterprises are more willing to transfer e-mail and collaboration solutions to the cloud now? What do you think is driving that trend?

JB: Yes, more larger enterprises are realizing that e-mail and collaboration solutions do not have to be held and maintained in-house. Data center space is at a premium, technical staff to maintain these systems are hard to keep, and the cost of a "hosted" solution is now equal to or less than hosting e-mail and collaboration in house.  Add to this that many companies have distributed offices and employees, so is there really any value in having their server farms "centrally located" in one of their sites? The workforce is highly distributed across the country or world, so hosting "in the cloud" actually makes more sense.

Helping drive the trends to outsourcing e-mail and collaboration to hosted/cloud providers is that the latest generation of providers is giving all the control and features back to the enterprise/corporate administrators.  No longer are hosted services this mysterious unseen system "in the cloud," but customers are given Web-based control panels to configure just about every aspect of their environment.
CI: How do you dissipate enterprise and SMB security concerns around hosting such sensitive data in the cloud?

JB: Apptix, and certainly other hosted/cloud providers, would not exist if we did not legitimately earn and continue to earn the trust of our customers in regard to data security.  The fact is that given our specific expertise in network, communications and data security, our personnel’s skill set and the security systems in place far outpace anything an individual company/customer could afford to install in-house.  How many customers have seven Internet providers, multiple layers of network firewalls, hardware load balancers, four layers of back-end subnets separating applications from databases, encrypted databases, real-time streaming data backup off-site, and daily encrypted off-site tape backups—all housed in $10 million plus data centers with 24/7 security guards, cameras, biometric scanners for access, a half-dozen rapid engagement generators with three fuel suppliers, 10-foot-thick reinforced concrete ceilings, Kevlar walls and triple fire suppression systems?  Those that have made this investment—try maintaining all of this 24x7x365 and replacing everything software and hardware every three to five years.  

CI: OK, what about legal and compliance issues?
JB: As for legal and compliance issues, cloud providers all offer various levels of archiving or compliant journaling of all data.  Some even maintain this data off-site from the normal server farms for an extra level of security and compliance.   All of the data is secured and transmission of data encrypted—in fact, it is generally considered an advantage to have your compliant data stored off-site and securely rather than in-house.  It clearly delineates who has access and control of the data, confirms data cannot be tampered with by internal employees, and is widely accepted as the norm in the legal community should legal discovery and evidence need to be gathered and categorized.

CI: Apptix recently integrated Microsoft OCS. How is OCS from Microsoft any different from getting an enterprise license or using Google Apps Google Chat or AIM?

JB: Microsoft Office Communications Server (OCS) is often just considered an instant messaging (IM) application.  Just in terms of IM, OCS is a private secure/encrypted instant messaging system rather than the plain text/open and unsecure solutions by AOL, Gmail, MSN, Yahoo, etc.  This feature, along with the ability to have audit logging of all communications—required by many organizations for compliance purposes—already sets OCS apart from free or public IM systems. While OCS certainly provides IM, it has a vast array of other functionality including remote desktop control, file transfers, voice and video chatting, Web conferencing, and screen/application sharing.  

In addition, presence awareness is one of the most useful features but is hard to realize the benefit until you have tried it.  Imagine wanting an immediate answer to a question and seeing right from within Outlook, SharePoint or the OCS client that your co-worker is online, currently working on their computer (i.e., not idle or away) and you can then IM or chat with the individual immediately.  It would be obvious using OCS if the person is not online right now, in a meeting or on the telephone so that you can immediately go to someone else or switch over and send an e-mail instead.  Presence awareness combined with IM, chat, e-mail and VOIP completely changes the way you communicate and work on a daily basis—you’ve got to try this!

CI: How do you see the proliferation of mobile devices and the consumerization of IT affecting an enterprise strategy for supporting multiple mobile devices for corporate e-mail?

JB: Long gone are the days when an IT director could stand firm and declare, "Our company only utilizes xxx brand device."  Whether it is the company CEO or the IT director doing it themselves, newer, smaller and "better" smartphones and mobile PDAs are being introduced into corporations—whether the IT department manager likes it or not.  The proliferation of mobile devices, each with unique operating systems and e-mail synchronization technique, is occurring so fast that most IT departments no longer worry about specific device standards but focus more on which synchronization technique they use. This allows corporate e-mail managers to either support (or not) all devices that utilize ActiveSync, for example.  Many companies have and still support BlackBerry and any device that utilizes the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) system.  Between these two standards, you cover about 90 percent of the smartphone/mobile PDA devices on the market.  Bigger issues now involve ensuring that the mobile devices can be remotely "wiped" of all data in case they are lost or stolen—something most devices and sync technologies are capable of now.

CI: Do you see a trend in businesses looking to MSPs or cloud computing providers for VOIP and unified communications services? If yes, Why?

JB: Yes, implementing internal phone/PBA or VOIP systems is very complex and expensive.  Add to this business-class e-mail, voicemail and instant messaging, and you are headed toward "unified communications" but the cost to implement and manage all of these services, server farms, etc., is considerable.  Small and medium-size businesses under 500 employees simply cannot make the cost justification to install these systems.  Those finding themselves already having some or all of the components of unified communications already have high maintenance costs and trouble keeping technical talent on staff—whenever their three-to-five-year systems’ lifecycle expires, outsourcing once again starts making a lot more sense economically and technically.

CI: What does the Holy Grail of truly integrated collaboration solutions spell for the enterprise or the SMB? Is this way off, or do you think integrated unified communications will happen sooner rather that later?

JB: Messaging systems are the backbone of most corporation communications—even more so than telephones in today’s modern workspace.  Then came collaboration features such as SharePoint or other applications and intranet sites that allowed distributed workers to engage on the same project, share information and store documents centrally.  Then, instant messaging shows up and some say it will replace e-mail someday—not so sure about that one, but certainly IM and e-mail will co-exist.  Users can use "instant" communications when your peer/co-worker is online and e-mail for when the topic requires a larger audience (other recipients), file attachment or a more permanent message thread.  Finally, you have the telephone, or in many cases the VOIP telephone.  Combine all of these along with voicemail and presence awareness, and you have "unified communications."  

Once you’ve experienced the flexibility of having all of these systems integrating, it is often hard to explain to others, but it truly does improve your productivity.  The problem is that most companies are constantly upgrading their internal systems often enough, and at a cost, that they never get all of the components of unified communications in place. This is where a hosted or cloud provider comes into play—imagine having everything up and running in a single day for all of your employees—then letting the hosted provider worry about maintenance, upgrades, data backup, etc.
Personally, I believe the ability to unify all communications has really only been practical and affordable for the past two to three years.  It is now not only feasible, cost-effective and considered proven technology, it is also available "on demand" without the huge internal investment required to install and manage all these systems in-house.  Hosted/cloud providers already have the solution ready to go and at a price—due to their scalability, cost of economies—equal to or cheaper than in-house implementations, but without the hassle and three-to-five-year upgrade cost cycle.

This article was originally published on 2010-04-01