Mission-Critical Cloud

As technology matures, more organizations are looking to move their core business applications into the cloud.

It hasn’t taken long for the cloud to evolve into an integral part of the enterprise computing infrastructure. Just a few years after organizations began tentative experiments with cloud-based storage and file-sharing services, they now routinely use the cloud for testing and development environments.

The next link in the cloud’s value chain is with mission-critical applications. Do organizations trust the cloud ecosystem to host apps central to essential business operations?

Industry analysts are convinced they do. Based on results of a 10-nation study, Gartner says organizations are progressively turning to cloud-based deployment models such as Software as a Service (SaaS) for running mission-critical workloads.

“We’ve seen a real transition from use cases in previous surveys where early SaaS adoption focused on smaller pilot projects,” said Joanne Correia, research vice president at Gartner. “Today, the projects are mission-critical and production grade. This is an affirmation that more businesses are comfortable with cloud deployments beyond the front office running sales force automation and email.”

Cost Considerations

This is a fairly new development. As recently as 2013, industry surveys routinely showed that up to 90 percent of IT decision-makers considered it important to keep core business applications and workloads running inside the data center. That perception has shifted dramatically, as illustrated by a recent Forrester Consulting survey which found that 81 percent of organizations are either using or planning to use mission-critical apps in the cloud within the next two years.

Cost reduction is one compelling reason to move mission-critical apps to the cloud. It is generally accepted that one-third of enterprise IT budgets are spent on application management. That isn’t surprising considering large organizations typically run hundreds or thousands of applications — and they are continually adding new applications to gain business and operational efficiency. New applications place additional strain on network and server resources, and often demand extra storage capacity.

Shifting mission-critical apps such as Microsoft Exchange, SQL Server, SAP and Oracle Database to top-tier cloud providers offers relief. Application management costs become predictable, and core staff are freed to pursue more business-enhancing activities. Maintenance costs are shifted to the cloud provider and upgrades become seamless and painless.

Software licensing costs also can be reduced significantly in the cloud, where licensing is often based on a pay-as-you-go or monthly subscription model, rather than on a per-user or per-server model. Cloud platforms often leverage open-source technologies such as OpenStack, Linux and KVM to meet the needs of core apps while slashing the hardware, licensing and support costs associated with traditional on-premises deployments.

Migrating Custom Apps

“Homegrown” legacy applications can present special migration considerations. Some industry surveys show that as much as 40 percent of enterprise apps are custom-built for specific business requirements, based on older operating systems and hardware, and require frequent re-engineering. For these reasons, organizations tend to be reluctant to shift custom apps to the cloud.

However, some of these apps are ticking time bombs. While they have served a useful purpose for years, they require operating systems and hardware that aren’t going to be supported forever. What’s more, they may have been developed using old programming that only employees nearing retirement can still support. The cloud offers an opportunity to upgrade the application while reducing management costs and simplifying support requirements.

Cloud providers frequently offer the enterprise-class framework, tools and services to simplify migration. In some cases, this could involve re-hosting the application and its components without making changes. In other cases, it might be better to rebuild the app in a cloud environment using modern frameworks such as Java or .NET to make it more resilient. Finally, there may be instances in which the legacy app could simply be replaced altogether using a commodity SaaS offering that will deliver improved functionality with the added advantage of automated updates.

Eye on Agility

While the cloud delivers significant cost advantages, this is no longer the driving force behind adoption. In the Forrester survey, 77 percent of respondents identified improved agility as the key motive for moving core apps to the cloud.

One of the key ways cloud enhances application agility is by allowing developers to conceive, develop, test and release new code rapidly. In traditional “waterfall” development, teams gather all known requirements for the application, develop all elements and finally test the app before release. That not only takes a long time, but it forces the development team to go back to square one when errors are found. In the cloud, organizations can rapidly create multiple virtual test environments without dependencies on backend systems and data stores. Developer teams can test often throughout the development lifecycle without worrying about data or service availability, quickly adding new features, changing functionality or making bug fixes.

The ultimate goal of agile testing is to speed the process of getting high-quality code into production, giving organizations faster access to new apps that can drive productivity and business efficiency. Because cloud resources can be quickly added, applications can be dynamically scaled up or down without excessive administrative overhead.

Cloud providers can also quickly spin up application servers, storage and databases to provide rapid provisioning of scale-out architecture for data-intensive applications such as big-data analytics and business intelligence. Using simple subscription-based tools, organizations can plug into disparate data sources and create useful queries without having to know a database programming language.

Even the early skeptics would have to agree that the cloud model has enabled enterprises to increase productivity, improve data access, cut capital costs and more. The trend toward cloud-enabling mission-critical applications could open the door for even greater benefits. Automated upgrades, modernized code, streamlined management, improved scalability and increased availability all contribute to a more stable, robust and reliable application environment that can deliver competitive advantage.