Benefits of the cloud
A while back we wrote about the Cloud, what it was, and what it might be used for. This time round we will dig a little deeper into the benefits of cloud adoption, and the requirements that we should be aware of if we are to adopt the cloud.
In order to make this readable for decision makers who just want the highlights, we have the Cliff Notes version. If you want a little more meat, the Detailed version follows the Cliff Notes.
So let’s start with some benefits.
Quick to implement and Scalable.
Simply upgrading licenses to liberate more features allows us to scale up easily and quickly, often with little to no interruption and minimal implementation costs. Scaling back is pretty much the reverse process.
One of the immediately identifiable benefits of the cloud and cloud services is the ease of adoption. Allied to the ability to scale and the large variety of offerings, cloud usage seems pretty compelling. We can start with a single license for MS 365 Business Standard, which provides Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Outlook and Exchange Online. Any number of new users can be added simply by purchasing more MS 365 Business Standard subscriptions and adding user accounts. Within a matter of hours we can scale from 1 user to 20 users.
Let’s say we now need to share documents with other team members and we want to use Sharepoint to do it, then we upgrade all user licenses to MS 365 Business Premium and we now have Sharepoint Online and all users can access it. Every user now also has access to Onedrive, and can invite others to view, edit and download files stored on Sharepoint. This upgrade is fast, seamless and does not require any downtime. No uninstall and re-install, just a sign out and sign in for the end user. Easy implementation is definitely one of the benefits of cloud adoption.
Taken a step further and we can share files with users external to the company with Sharepoint Online. In very short order we have improved our internal efficiencies and our external efficiencies. We are now collaborating with our clients with consummate ease. Tell me that’s not impressive for a company that we started a few hours ago?
A veritable smorgasbord of offerings.
From basic office applications to fully integrated collaboration tools to external sharing and even virtual servers and applications hosted in the cloud, there is almost no limit to what we can do. And the CFO won’t break out in hives when you start talking about the cost.
As mentioned above, there is a huge variety of offerings and applications within the Microsoft Cloud Service Universe. We can start with a simple office application providing wordprocessing and spreadsheets; a more featured office application with the addition of Publisher, Powerpoint and Access; communication and collaboration with Teams, Sharepoint and Onedrive; a phone system using Teams phones and calling plans; Cloud virtual machines running SQL and Microsoft Dynamics; Virtual Servers and Containers to run your own applications; Developer environments to allow you to conceive, build, test and deploy applications with restrained development costs and shortened schedules.
And the offerings keep coming as new concepts, ideas and services are dreamed up, created and published.
Latest Versions, Updates and Patches.
Always up to date, always secure, always compatible.
Even though the Linux proponents may be rolling their eyes, no one is immune to the passage of time. Updates come a not so distant third to death and taxes.
Alongside the development of applications and services, the continual updating, patching and securing of applications takes place, allowing users to run the most compatible and secure software available. As boring as this is, it is essential to our continued safe and efficient operation. Most of the patching and updating is done on the fly, generally with little interruption to the daily work load. Issues do occur from time to time, but in comparison to the difficulties experienced in the past, today’s processes are much better.
As other vendors update and improve their products, so everyone else has to do the same to allow for continued compatibility. Previously companies may have used older versions of Office. Now those versions won’t work with the latest Adobe files for instance. With today’s subscription software, the latest versions of all vendor applications should remain compatible.
Updating software due to the continued changes in the security landscape is also essential. Today’s hackers are well aware of the vulnerabilities found in older applications, and continue to find vulnerabilities in more recent applications. In this battle, the ability to change your code and propagate that change on a short timeline is a major advantage, and cloud applications lend themselves to this.
Access to your data and applications from anywhere
At least wherever you can get a signal!
Business production becomes much more efficient when your staff can access their work from any place at any time. Greater efficiency leads to the more profitable use of time. This reduces your costs and improves your profitability. The increased flexibility should also make your workforce happier.
“Access your data from anywhere”. This used to be less pertinent in 2018/2019. Now, pretty much everyone understands the significance of that statement. With work from home, most of us know about accessing your office applications without being in the actual office.
Today an individual can quite realistically create a Word document on a laptop while in Timbuktu, save it, fly to Amsterdam and edit the document while waiting for a connection to Kathmandu. Finally, upon checking into a hotel in Kathmandu, this same individual can present the finished document via Teams, with attendees in France, Iceland and Houston. Just a decade ago this was almost unheard of. In case you are wondering, the Marriott Kathmandu does have high speed internet which is also something that was unheard of a decade ago.
As to why you would be travelling from Timbuktu to Kathmandu, I have no idea; unless it is to show how connected we are.
Improved Collaboration, Security and Administration
Clients, both internal and external, can share and collaborate with ease and in a secure environment. All of this can be administered from a single point, securely, with as much simplicity or complexity as you wish. Better collaboration. Greater efficiency. Happier clients. That might be a win, win, win.
As you can see, collaboration is a major theme in today’s cloud offerings. Both internal and external cooperation and partnering capabilities are significant, and we can attest to the fact that they are being embraced and employed rapidly by organizations big and small.
While Microsoft’s default settings are reasonably relaxed immediately upon adoption, they can easily be tightened at the organizational level and provided considerable barriers to unwarranted access. The security can be managed centrally and can be as granular as you wish, restricting access by single users to single files if need be, or restricted by whole organizations to whole organizations, and anything in between.
The central administration is not unique to the Office and Azure Portals. Both of these entities can be managed from one web browser, making it a truly centralized administrative experience. The access to the administration site is controlled by group membership and can be further secured with Multi Factor Authentication.
In addition to Tenant administrative access and security, access to the physical cloud and to the ‘back end’ software is almost draconian in it’s requirements. Access is limited to a few highly qualified individuals, requires the approval of a number of authorizing bodies, is limited by time, is monitored for actions and documented for record.
Requirements of the cloud
There are of course needs that have to be satisfied. We were never going to be offered a self healing, self aware, secure service that understands you and your desires and could seamlessly adapt to your way of doing business. That might be a good thing too. Remember the HAL. 9000?
“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
Access from Anywhere
Access from anywhere is all well and good as long as we know who is accessing what and from where. Luckily there are tools for that.
One consideration among our requirements is the other edge of the ‘access from anywhere’ sword. While this flexibility is good for you and your employees, it might also be good for someone with more nefarious intentions. You are going to have to be aware of user access and work to ensure that it is your users who are doing the accessing. Administration tools allow for this level of control, and access can be restricted to your users, but your admins will have to do the tightening.
The use of personal devices
Personal devices are a boon to business efficiencies on the go, but they also become another entry point that needs to be accounted for. Luckily, we have the tools to do just that too!
Personal devices have been used in the business environment for some time now. Users commonly have personal emails and messaging apps that they use on a continuous basis. Regardless of the device manufacturer, applications are available that allow you to run email, messaging, collaboration, word processing and spreadsheets on all of today’s smart phones. Being more computer than phone, (don’t get me started on smart phone call quality), the modern handheld device lends itself to Outlook, Teams and other business applications.
Without delving into the safety implications, it is particularly easy to attend a Teams meeting on your cell phone from your car. You should of course be parked up when you are doing this, but it is very doable. Tablets are maybe even more useful in this arena and many people have their own ‘Tab’ or ‘iPad’ or ‘Surface’, with applications readily available to them. We can see that the majority of business employees have the ability to access company data through a wide variety of personal devices. Azure administration console has the facility to register devices used by employees and thus add them, or not, to the list of devices approved for access. Rules can also be written to force additional authentication requirements for access attempts using any given device. Once again, your admins will have to this.
Taking Control of Security
Security tools abound. Your IT team will have to take the reigns and assert control. With great power comes great responsibility. However, the tools are all there and we just need to use them.
As you have read, you can access your data from anywhere using pretty much anything. The requirements? The larger number of points of entry have to be accounted for. The tools exist to ensure that access from anywhere is controlled access from anywhere. That the users accessing data are your users. And the data they are accessing is data they are allowed to access. Policies, Rules, Allow lists, Deny lists, Conditional access, Device registration and any number of criteria that have to be satisfied to allow or deny access are all the fingertips your IT administrators.
You may wish to set policies that allow an employee to connect to Sharepoint from a domain connected computer within office bounds and with no additional authentication requirements. That employee can connect to Sharepoint with a domain joined company laptop from outside the office, but only after they have authenticated with a code sent via an Instant Message to their smartphone. However, that employee cannot connect to Sharepoint using their smartphone’s web browser.
Whichever way you choose, you will have to take control of your security. Luckily this can be done with the tools available and there is ample opportunity for testing as you proceed.
You Data. Your Responsibility
Cloud data backup to the cloud
You are responsible for the integrity of your data and for access to that data. Always. Depending upon your level of cloud adoption there may be more that you are responsible for. As always, there are tools to help with this.
While most cloud providers, and certainly Microsoft, do provide for a level of fault tolerance and redundancy, the physical ‘security’ of your data is your responsibility.
This means that hardware failures and regional disasters that would affect your data are mitigated by the replication of data between regional datacenters.
However, corruption or loss of your data is your responsibility. In simple terms the responsibility for data, devices and accounts will always lie with the customer. Of course if you have your own servers in your own office then responsibility for everything lies with you.
Whether you choose Software, Platform or Infrastructure as a Service, there is a “Shared Responsibility in the Cloud”. The model and details of this can be seen here.
There are number of methods for ‘backing up’ your data using the applications and structure of the Azure cloud. Sharepoint sits on Onedrive and Onedrive can be used to keep copies of data on PCs within an office environment. This is a little klunky and to be honest there are much better services provided by third parties.
Druva would be one of these companies providing cloud data backup at competitive prices. As of this writing, Druva has successfully completed anther round of investment capital injection, so at least a few people think they are doing the right thing and doing it well.
Carbonite has a backup for MS 365 which should be pretty solid bearing their history and longevity in mind.
Microsoft also has a number of Azure backup services, as does Amazon for the AWS cloud. The details and uses of these services are monumental and beyond the scope of this article, but the point remains.
Your data. Your responsibility. It was ever thus.
If you are a smaller business you will need a less complex environment. A bigger business that needs to scale will necessarily have the resources to do so and handle the increased complexity.
Greater complexity with simpler management and thus commensurate cost reduction.
As I alluded to above, there can be some complexity involved in cloud scaling. The mitigating factor here is that businesses which take advantage of the ability to scale will necessarily have the resources to dedicate individuals and/or teams to well defined areas of expertise and responsibility while still managing to do more with less. Increased scale will increase costs, but the mindful usage of resources should allow the returns of scale to significantly outweigh the costs. By this means, Cloud use and the administration thereof can transform IT into a savings and efficiency center. Once this is realized and leveraged the returns can be prodigious.
In conclusion, cloud adoption need not be scary as long as it is approached with eyes wide open. The benefits do outweigh the costs as long as the costs are understood. This is of course a tried and tested business maxim. If you want to grow a profitable business you need to understand your costs. Costs can then be constrained, efficiencies exploited and the bottom line improved. Your Delta is now Positive. Delta Plus!