Mobile devices are changing the way business executives access data and analytics. Meeting this new demand costs money and takes time - unless you use the cloud. David Reed discovers why many CEOs get emotional at the prospect.
Consumerisation of IT is a term coined several years ago by Gartner. It defines the growing use of mobile devices - smartphones and tablets - to access business intelligence and applications. This trend is generally thought to be going only in one direction, with ever more business tools being opened up to users via whatever access tool they want to use, even ones they buy for themselves.
Not so long ago, this idea would send the average IT director into a frenzy of fear and denial. Decades of building resilient and secure in-house environments that “keep the lights on” have created a culture that views anything outside of the corporate firewall as a threat. That view still prevails in many database management projects that propose outsourcing customer data to a third party.
If resistance to a hosted database looked intense, it is nothing compared to the hostility towards cloud-based services. At least that would be the reaction from IT if it did not share the same interest as business executives in what the cloud might have to offer in terms of flexibility, price, service levels and robustness.
So could customer data management in the cloud follow other key business applications - from sales force management to analytics - and become standard practice? Distributing information to as many business executives as possible via mobile devices would seem to require a new, flexible and agile data infrastructure of this sort. Or are the issues which this solution presents, from security and disaster recovery through to total cost of ownership, too challenging for this area of activity?
Chris Drake, CEO of secure cloud hosting provider Firehost, argues that any negative view is down to “herd mentality.” Any IT department running databases on a legacy hosting system are effectively working with a private cloud. All that is happening now is a migration to a public cloud environment.
But for this trend to continue, a shift in mindset is necessary. “Customers coming from a dedicated server environment need to change their attitudes. At the moment, they buy the biggest server they can afford and throw hardware at the issue of scaling. They don’t take advantage of the flexibility of the cloud,” he says.
To illustrate the point, he compares the performance of a 24GB installed server against that of a cloud-based stack of six 1GB servers. For the same price, the user can achieve a three-fold improvement in performance as a result of application stack efficiency, better input-output per second and advantages in caching.
“It is about taking advantage of the cloud to have smaller, role-based servers which it would cost a lot to have as a dedicated resource,” says Drake. Data management projects are often aimed at providing a specific line of business with more agile processing, such as when analysing customer data or harnessing clickstream data. Rather than having to get in line for IT resource and wait behind classic business operational demands, data teams want to get projects up and running in order to test their potential benefits. That is particular true of the new move towards real-time reporting for all, which demands intensive data processing.
Drake points out that over time, using a cloud-based service can actually reduce costs, provided the customer has a flexible approach. “Do you adjust your servers every month? If not, you are wasting money,” he points. An installed base has a fixed capacity that is rarely used optimally - in fact most organisations have large peaks and troughs in how much CPUs and active memory are called on. If this resource is scaled down when demand is low (for example, during holiday periods) and scaled back up when demand is high, the net results is more cost-effective.
“Even if you are adjusting your in-house servers every month, it still won’t save as much as a cloud solution,” he argues. “That horse has already bolted. It is just a question of the factor by which your cost is reduced - one-fold or five-fold. Our customers don’t want to have dedicated hardware.”
For emerging data management projects, like mobile business intelligence and big data analytics, this looks highly attractive. Some of that data mining will return massive benefits to the organisation, which may then want to invest in a dedicated resource. But a lot will involve short-term, resource-heavy activity that could lead nowhere. Redundant servers are a waste of capital expenditure.
Even so, many data managers and their bosses are wary of the notion that customer data can sit securely in a public cloud environment. Drake points out that his business is the only cloud-based server to be PCI 2.0 and HIPAA compliant and to routinely pass security audits. So much so that RSA, a by-word for data security, uses Firehost for two parts of its own business. “We can take 85 per cent of the burden of data security off the client’s shoulders,” he says.
It is notable that, to date, none of the major data breaches uncovered have happened in the cloud. A study undertaken by Verizon and the US Secret Service did not find a single data security breach at the level of a hypervisor - the automated system that balances loads across the servers in a cloud to allow multiple systems to run concurrently.
When Gartner looked at the consumerisation of IT trend, its focus was on how access devices were driving it. Key predictions made by the analysts included that 75 per cent of companies expect end users to be connecting to the enterprise network via tablets with or without permission by 2013 and 90 per cent of organisations would be supporting access to corporate applications on personal devices by 2014.
That combination of mobile devices and demand for access is a clear driver of new, more flexible IT solutions. But it is combined with a change in the nature of what those business executives expect to be accessing. Watch the ad for the iPad 2.0 and you will see Microstrategy’s business reporting tool at the heart of what Apple believes users will be doing with the device.
For many businesses, delivering that kind of reporting and analytics via the installed IT base is near impossible. Cloud-based solution vendors have recognised the problem and are offering quick-fixes.
Kognitio is well established for its powerful in-memory analytical database. Five years ago, it began to offer a cloud-based proposition alongside the on-premise version and has just rebranded this datawarehouse-as-a-service as Kognitio Cloud. Affordability is a key part of the appeal for its clients.
“It fits into the operations budget - that is a benefit of operating in the cloud,” points out Nigel Sanctuary, vice-president, propositions at the company. “We address the budget question head on by making it clear to clients what they get - a managed service on a hosted and managed platform.” All of those costs are bundled into a monthly subscription for an analytical database that could be live within a week - a timescale that is unlikely for an in-house solution.
When it comes to the issue of whether customer data is secure in the cloud, Sanctuary points out that, “it is an emotive issue. We see requirements from clients ranging from non-critical data up to military-level security.” Kognitio runs on a Tier 3 data centre which operates stronger security protocols than are present within many organisations.
Yet the move into a cloud environment seems to trigger some irrational fears. “We asked the question to a couple of hundred people on a webinar, if they were shown every possible accreditation needed to make their data secure, would that be enough to move it into the cloud? Seventy-five per cent said no,” recalls Ian Bird, vice-president of cloud solutions at Kognitio. “So you have to wonder if they really want to go into the cloud at all? What extra could you do?”
Assuming cloud-based services are not just at the peak of the hype cycle, the current level of interest will need to overcome these sorts of emotive barriers. That will be easier in some industry sectors and at certain stages of the data management maturity cycle than in others. Long-term client BT is using the cloud proposition, but also runs fortnight-long security audits on its service provider, for example.
Michael Hiskey, vice-president of marketing and business development, accepts that emotion can distort perceptions of security. “What a lot of organisations call their data centre is a rack of servers with a coffee machine on top. But when it comes to the cloud, security issues come top.”
In response to this shifting market, Actian Corporation (formerly Ingres) is launching lightweight, consumer-style applications that automate business actions triggered by real-time changes in data. Called Action Apps, they are designed to support the new era of decision making based on live information which the iPad has ushered in.
“Organisations already have the ability to store and analyse data, but nine times out of ten that data is out of date,” says Sean Jackson, marketing director EMEA. “They have got to get triggers on mobile devices to understand what is happening in a timeframe where they can take effective action.”
That does mean moving business critical data into the cloud, but it does not require ripping out existing IT infrastructure. Action Apps sit in the cloud on top of the Vectorwise analytical engine, which is itself supported by the widely-installed Ingres database or can be driven by other common data engines.
“You don’t have to re-engineer the data warehouse - this is not about ripping out and replacing. The idea of having invested for a dozen years in Teradata or Oracle, building processes and training staff, then throwing that away and bringing in a new solution doesn’t make sense,” says Actian.
A hybrid solution of this sort offers a combination of benefits - the ability to adopt new generation tools with the flexibility and cost-benefits of the cloud without dispensing with the core data environment and all of its proven resilience and security. Wrap that up in a service level agreement which ensures executives are getting the insights they want, when and where they want them, and it makes an attractive picture.
Cloud-based services are undoubtedly going to penetrate all levels of business, including data management. Mobile devices also look like becoming the default mode of access for business intelligent and applications. Given the existing security levels applied to cloud data centres, the only thing missing is a recognition among chief executives that there are rational reasons for adoption, rather than emotional ones for resisting.