Sunday, July 5, 2015

Cloud and the Omni-channel Customer Experience

We are truly living in a connected world.  Today I checked the weather on my computer and paid some bills before checking my email on my phone en route to my SUV.  Once I sat down, my SUV automatically connected to my phone and minutes later showed an incoming text from my daughter, whom I called back via voice command.  She texted me her order for a meal I bought via an app while waiting in a parking lot, and returned home to watch a video she created earlier in the day, by mirroring her phone with the TV.

Impressive to say the least.  Remember NONE of the solutions I used were designed by or bought from the same company.  Yet amazingly they meet my need, to help me make the most of my time.  In our connected world we have the opportunity to always be busy, to cram as much as possible into our daily life.  Mobility, eCommerce, Social Media, Collaboration all let us take advantage of those previously lost moments in time, whether waiting in the car or sitting at the airport.  And at the foundation of all of this technology, which is able to work so seamlessly together, is cloud computing.

While my consumer oriented world is full of neat new toys, the world of retail is trying to figure out how to play a bigger role; not just Retail as in stores, but retail as in producer/consumer interaction including banks and healthcare, automotive and high technology.  I haven't seen a business strategy or talked to a C-suite executive in retail the past three years without the topic of Omni-channel finding it's way into the conversation.  An Omni-channel Customer Experience is a simple concept: the creation of a common look and feel across all channels through which a customer interacts with a company.  Simple in concept, yet frustratingly difficult in reality, but companies know their customers expect a consistent experience.  CIO's know whoever delivers on the promise best has the opportunity to create some daylight as they pull ahead.

Why is omni-channel difficult to implement in a single company yet already a thread holding my personal life together?  The difference is cloud computing.  Each of the solutions I used today was built in the last five years on a cloud foundation.  However cloud continues to prove elusive for corporate America, and for numerous reasons.  There is simply no way to build an omni-channel customer experience and avoid cloud computing, yet focusing on cloud computing won't deliver the experience nirvana either.  It's easy to understand why CEO's to CIO's are frustrated.  It's the enigma of modern IT: all the data, compute and storage one could possibly ever need, and nothing put together in a way that makes it truly useful.  It's the cost of holding on to outdated models content to reap the benefits of one technology generation without considering the next.  Companies today are islands; islands of applications and data if not servers and storage as well.  Data in isolation is almost worthless in today's world of Real Time Analytics and Big Data.  And making it all the more frustrating, you can't hurry cloud, you just have to wait.

Cloud Computing is the single most important technological shift which has happened in Information Technology.  For the first time it's not about a domain, such as the network or data or applications.  Cloud is about everything, from technology to taxes.  Like the artillery shell that's a degree off when fired, those who get cloud wrong will simply miss the mark, measured in cost in the short term, but ultimately measured in customer satisfaction and solvency.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Last Mile and the Future of Cloud

"Look back to where you have been, for a clue to where you are going"

It's an unattributed quote, but I find it applies repeatedly throughout technology.  So often what appears new is really a twist on a tried and true approach.  Anyone who's spent any time around networks knows the phrase "last mile".  It's a reference to the final leg of the network connecting a home or office.  When AT&T was broken up in 1984 by the US Government, AT&T emerged as the long distance company while local service was divided into seven "baby bells" including Pacific Telesis, Ameritech, and BellSouth.  Experts believed long distance held the promise of higher profits while the Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOC's) were doomed to a capital intensive, low margin struggle.

The experts were wrong.

Owning that "last mile" turned out to be very profitable; so profitable one of the RBOC's, Southwestern Bell, was able to buy those other three RBOC's, changed it's name to SBC, and then bought it's former parent, AT&T.  Although mobile networks are great for connecting smartphones and tablets and satellites can deliver radio and television, it turns out nothing yet can replace fiber and copper for bandwidth and low latency.  After the Telecommunications Act of 1996, last mile services exploded and today instead of just the local phone company there are a variety of competitors including Google.  And providing that last mile of service continues to be a significant revenue driver.

Let's put the last mile conversation to the side and switch gears.  Today large corporations are investing billions of dollars in Big Data; growing their analytic capabilities to generate the oxygen required by their growth engines.  These fierce competitors are slowly realizing there simply isn't enough time available to:

  1. capture data at the point of origination
  2. move the data across the country
  3. filter the data to focus on the most valuable elements
  4. combine the data with other data to broaden the perspective
  5. execute analytics on the data
  6. generate a result
  7. communicate the result back across the country
  8. leverage the result to drive some benefit

If the network operates at the speed of light, how can there not be enough time?  Beyond the reality that light slows down in fiber (by about 31%), there is not one single direct link between the user and the corporate data center.  Users have to be authenticated, security policies applied, packets routed, applications load balanced.  The multitude of events that occur, each one very quickly, add up to a delay we call latency.  In a world where everything is measured in minutes latency goes unnoticed, but in our Internet world we are moving from seconds to sub-second time frames.  Think about how patient you are when navigating through a website.  After that first second ticks off the clock, people begin to wonder if something is wrong.  It's the byproduct of taking our high speed access to the Internet for granted.  Marketers want to collect metadata about what you're trying to do, figure out how they can influence you, and insert themselves into your decision chain; and they only have the time between when you click the mouse and when the browser refreshes.  Hopefully now you can understand why that eight step process, moving data across the country is so unappealing.

For the past three years I have advocated an alternate approach; putting their servers as close to the end user as possible (commonly called "the edge").  Where "the edge" is located depends on the conversation, however the furthest it can be is at the start of that last mile, the last point on the network before it connects to the end user.  Today the edge extends as far as the same city for large populations, more often it's a region or even a state.  Although my serverless computing concept could be part of the answer and move the analytics into end user's computer, in truth at least some analysis needs to occur off-site, if for no other reason than to stage the right data.  Moving analytics closer to the edge requires us to move compute and storage resources closer.

Let's return to the "last mile".

If you looked at a map of the network which serves your home or business, you would notice the wire goes from your house, out through a bunch of routers, switches and signal boosters until it finally reaches a distribution point owned by your provider (or wherein they lease space).  These locations are often large, having previously housed massive switching systems for the telephone network, and they are secure, built like cold war bomb shelters.  What if these locations were loaded with high density compute and storage available much like a public cloud to augment the resources within the corporate data center?  If a business can operate while leveraging public cloud resources, what we lovingly refer to as a Hybrid Cloud model, then wouldn't it make sense to push the resources as far out toward the edge as possible?

I'm hoping you are increasingly buying into this idea, or at least skeptical enough to wait for it to implode, and want to know how this is broadly applicable.  I do not see this as a panacea, any more than I do serverless computing, cloud, big data, mobility or any other technology.  However I do see it at a minimum as moving the conversation forward on how to deal with a world where our endpoints are no longer fixed, and at a maximum another arrow in the quiver.  Consider how much data is being collected today; from the GPS location in your phone to the RFID tag on your razor blades, we are living in the Data Age.  Every single device powered by electricity is a likely candidate to be internet enabled, what we call the Internet of Things.  Each of these devices will communicate something, creating new data every day and adding to the pile of data that already exists.  To deal with the onslaught, companies need to filter what's coming in, remove the noise, and then execute their normalization routines (standardizing date formats, to get the data ready for use.  Since compared to the cost of moving data, everything else is free, there is an economic incentive to move data as short a distance as possible.  Handling the grunt work of analytics locally could have a dramatic impact on overall system speed.  And over time, having local compute resources will enable software architects to push analytics closer and closer to "the edge".

Today I am unaware of anyone working on this issue, despite pushing for it and finding a few leading edge Fortune 500 executives already facing this challenge.  The truth is we live locally, we're served locally, why not compute locally?  I see this as a gift of future revenue, sitting on the doorsteps of the telco's and cable providers waiting for them to create the product.  However I don't believe they realize what they have.  There is no last mile provider who has made a splash in cloud or big data. They own the last mile; they're the ones who own the gateway that links the world to their customers. Moving the public cloud from super-regional data centers to the local central office where the last mile connects could make the telcos instantly relevant in cloud and give them a nearly insurmountable competitive advantage over today's public cloud leaders like Amazon and Microsoft (perhaps this is part of the reason Google created Google Fiber).  Imagine a legacy infrastructure being resurrected to meet an emerging need.  But then, as I said at the beginning, "Look back to where you have been, for a clue to where you are going"

P.S.  I was so excited to see the headline "IBM, Juniper Networks work to build networks capable of real-time, predictive analysis", until I realized it was the opposite of integrating data analytics into the network.  Oh well, my quest lives on.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Value * Easy = Consumption

Over the past decade I've witnessed a constant stream of IT executives and technology professionals view cloud as a threat to their careers.  When viewed through the eyes of an internal IT shop where the business has been a captive customer I can understand their worry.  Now they're being asked to enable innovation instead of taking orders; bring solutions to the business instead of begrudgingly accept new challenges.  However I can't understand why they don't see the other side of the cloud coin, the very equation which drives cloud adoption: Value * Easy = Consumption.

Public Cloud has been built on two value propositions.  First providing value through availability to resources, in a short time period, without capital investment.  Those three values align with the strategic goals of every CxO no matter how you write them:
  • "Do more with less"
  • "Improve agility, elasticity, efficiency"
  • "Reduce costs"
  • "Shift from maintain to innovate"
  • "Remake the cost curve" (*my personal favorite)
Those are just a sample of quotes from CxO's I've worked with over the past decade.  Moreso, each of the CxO's had a common opinion of IT: too slow and expensive for the value delivered.  This is the environment into which AWS started selling it's cloud capabilities, back before we had the phrase "cloud computing".  It's important to remember AWS grew out of Amazon's own internal needs, it was not the result of market surveys and product development.  Although Fortune 1000 adoption of public cloud has been slow, the concepts of cloud computing rapidly penetrated corporate America in an attempt to bring the AWS value proposition to the enterprise.  Shifting from a hardware centric view to a capability centric view of infrastructure is a major upheaval in approach.  

Given very few companies have been successful in adopting cloud, what's the holdup?

Whereas a CIO can buy "Value" in the form of tools (BMC, VMWare, etc.) or rent it (AWS, Google, Azure, etc.), the truth is they can't buy, rent, lease, borrow or even steal "Easy".  Making something easy isn't easy, and cloud is anything but easy.  Put yourself in the shoes of a business executive such as the Chief Marketing Officer or the Chief Financial Officer.  In your world you have very few hard assets, having shifted most everything to a lease model; from office space and PC's to digital advertising and audit.  You can shift your spend as your business changes throughout the year.  What you need are technology solutions able to meet your need for agility, elasticity and efficiency.  How does your IT team respond?  Building out large scale data centers, buying servers, writing software.  Do any of these approaches appear to be in synch with the CMO and CFO's needs?  No.  In fact strategic planning with IT is so difficult, these leaders are increasingly willing to go outside the company, which is not easy, to get what they need.  They're willing to invest their reputation and the success of their team in taking a risk to convince the CEO, corporate security, office of the general counsel, and fellow business leaders that going around IT is the right strategy.  Then they spend money on consultants and hire talent to move in the new direction.  And yet all of that is considered easier than getting solutions from IT, the place they would prefer be the first, last and only stop.

Without a concerted effort to make cloud use easy the entire equation is upset.  Easy is the governor on the economic engine of cloud.  Having cloud capabilities, being able to deliver the "Value", isn't enough.  When done right, "Easy" is a multiplier of "Value" and drives consumption significantly beyond expectations.  At that point IT executives and technology professionals don't view cloud as a threat to their careers, it morphs into a driver of career opportunity.  Their own value increases dramatically, and their strategic value to the long term success of the business in particular.  In my experience it's much more rewarding to have a seat at the table to discuss how to accomplish some new goal than being berated as the barrier to accomplishing an old goal.

Cloud in the enterprise will never be a success without "Easy".