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Steve Short and NetLink Resource Group

So, What Exactly Is Cloud Computing?

While the term ‘cloud computing’ has been one of the most over-used IT catch-phrases of the past several years, there is a lot of merit in exploring these types of solutions for almost any business. Unfortunately, I hear a great deal of confusion and inconsistency in using the term “cloud” in both conversation and print. This confusion especially translates to business executives who know that the world is moving toward cloud computing but don’t always understand the basics of the terminology to be able to truly assess value and risk so they can lead their organizations in the right direction.

Well, I may be able to offer some assistance. I recently read an article in the Harvard Business Review entitled “What Every CEO Should Know About the Cloud”, written by Andrew McAfee, Principal Research Scientist at the Center for Digital Business in the MIT Sloan School of Management.

While this is an excellent article well worth the read, what I really liked about it was a brief sidebar called “What is the Cloud?” which provides the best, most concise description of cloud computing that I have seen to-date. This quick read should help anyone – especially business executives – understand the basic terminology of cloud computing. Here’s that sidebar:

What is the Cloud?

The cloud computing industry is growing and evolving rapidly—and also generating lots of jargon. As a result it can be difficult to understand exactly what the cloud is and how its offerings differ.

To oversimplify just a bit, those offerings can be divided into three categories: raw computing capacity, computers that are ready for software, and software itself.

The first of these, called Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS), is the most basic; it’s a server or servers out there in the cloud, or a bunch of storage capacity or bandwidth. IaaS customers, which are often tech companies, typically have a lot of IT expertise; they want access to computing power but don’t want to be responsible for installing or maintaining it.

The second tier is called Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS). This is a cloud-based platform that companies can use to develop their custom applications or write software that integrates with existing applications. PaaS environments come equipped with software development technologies like Java,.NET, Python, and Ruby on Rails and allow customers to start writing code quickly. Once the code is ready, the vendor hosts it and makes it widely available. PaaS is currently the smallest segment of the cloud computing market and is often used by established companies looking to outsource a piece of their infrastructure.

Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), the third category, is the largest and most mature part of the cloud. It’s an application or suite of applications that resides in the cloud instead of on a user’s hard drive or in a data center. One of the earliest SaaS successes was Salesforce.com’s customer relationship management software, which provided an alternative to on-premise CRM systems when it was launched, in 2000. More recently, productivity and collaboration software—spreadsheets, word processing programs, and so on—has moved into the cloud with Google Apps, Microsoft Office 365, and other similar offerings.

Cloud offerings share a few similarities across these three categories. First, customers rent them instead of buying them, shifting IT from a capital expense to an operating expense. Second, vendors are responsible for everything “beneath the hood”—all the maintenance, administration, capacity planning, troubleshooting, and backups. And finally, it’s usually fast and easy to get more from the cloud—more storage from an IaaS vendor, the ability to handle more PaaS projects, or more seats for users of a SaaS application.

Some large organizations are planning to build “private clouds” that they will own and maintain. These are essentially data centers that use many of the cloud’s technologies. Private clouds hold the promise of offering all the advantages of the public cloud while addressing security and regulatory concerns. However, I’m skeptical. The scale economies of public cloud companies lead to great cost decreases over time, and because their environments are intensely competitive, those decreases will surely be reflected in their prices. I doubt that most private clouds will be able to keep up.

Be sure to check out the full Harvard Business Review article here.

Posted by: Steve Short, President, NetLink Resource Group

Marriott International Invites NetLink to Celebrate Gift Card Site Redesign Success

It is an absolute privilege to be providing web solutions to some of the world’s premier organizations like Marriott International.   The fact that we get to support very high-profile projects that lead to tangible business growth is very exciting and rewarding.

While NetLink does not actively solicit gestures of gratitude from our clients, it is very rewarding when a client comes forward to thank us for our hard work and dedication.

This week, Marriott International did just this by inviting us to attend a company party at Seasons52 in Rockville, MD to celebrate the successful conversion to their new gift card vendor, which included our efforts in re-designing their U.S. gift card site. The event marked a celebration of a successfully completed, 9-month project that required us to streamline the e-commerce process, establish interfaces to Marriott’s new gift card vendor, and enhance the existing robust administrative portal used for servicing customer purchases for its gift card site.

Marriott originally approached us in 2005 to fully re-design the gift card site for the U.S. market, improve on the original site’s functionality and increase revenue.  In the last six years, the additional websites and applications we have created and maintained for Marriott’s global gift card offering has resulted in more than $35 million in revenue.  More importantly, the new system architecture provides condensed time-to-market capabilities to undertake online opportunities in new geographical regions.

Knowing that we have significantly helped Marriott grow their business is extremely rewarding for our organization.  Being invited to celebrate as a partner thought of as integral to the success of a significant company-wide effort is a gesture that makes us feel greatly appreciated.

Posted by: Steve Short, President, NetLink Resource Group

It’s Business Time: Critical for IT to Support Overall Business Goals

By providing unique offerings to the markets they serve, companies and organizations can become truly competitive, and even reach unprecedented levels of success.  For example, Apple has created a pioneering product – and sparked major consumer demand — with the iPad.   Competitive tablet makers are frantically playing catch-up.  And, will they ever catch up?  Do you recall what happened with Microsoft’s Zune?

Whether your offering is business- or consumer-based, a product or service, differentiation is the key to gaining competitive advantage.  And, a major driver for this differentiation is information technology.  Moreover, when IT is completely aligned with an organization’s business goals, then the opportunities are limitless:

– Internal and external business processes are improved

– Companies operate in a more effective and efficient manner

– Better access to the right information for making key decisions

– More market opportunities are identified

– Competitive differentiation increases.

While the concept of IT and business goals being aligned seems simple, it is often a rather elusive thing for many IT people to grasp.  Why?  Because most technology folks are focused more on the implementation, or the technology itself, as opposed to focusing on how it will impact the business.  I have seen this throughout my career, a great deal of which has been spent in large corporate IT departments supporting internal clients, but also while providing software and consulting to outside clients.  A common mistake is that many IT people tend to stab blindly in the dark to determine solutions first without really listening to the client’s requirements and business needs.

Unfortunately, my experience indicates that most business and IT people do not understand the difference between requirements and solutions, which causes a problem from the onset of a project, when needs and goals are initially being discussed.  I have been involved in projects where the business sponsors come in with detailed screen mock-ups and expect the IT team to develop the application based upon them.  This is an immediate red flag for me, because I believe the IT team needs to start at a high level of understanding the project’s business goals and progressively dig into the details so they can use their many years of experience developing applications to interact with the client to formulate better solutions, in terms of functionality, usability, and architectural flexibility, than what was originally conceived.

The opposite end of the spectrum occurs when business people indicate that they have no understanding of technology.  We sometimes hear a sponsor say “I’m not technical and I can’t talk about IT details.”  That’s alright from my perspective because it’s my responsibility as the lead consultant to bridge the gap between the business and technical side of a project.  We start with understanding the basic goals and requirements, then allow our development team to provide solutions in an iterative manner to ensure we are on the right track.  When this happens, it’s amazing how often we get a response of “Wow, that’s great and really close to what we envisioned.”

So, if you are a business sponsor of an IT development effort, regardless of whether you are using internal or external resources, you need to be confident that your IT team first understands the business goals of your project.  Next, they should be clarifying your requirements before they are jumping to suggesting specific solutions.  And finally, there needs to be some discipline in the project approach, so that a project plan and requirements document are written, kept current, and used as a true tool for the entire team so those business goals can be met.  It’s easy to talk about approach, but there’s really no substitution for good execution.  If you’re not getting these things from your IT team, it’s likely that your effort will fall short of your expectations.

I simply believe that any IT effort that does not align with business goals will waste a client’s valuable time and resources.   And, when companies and organizations make such a significant investment in IT, the results have to move the needle when it comes to business growth.  Otherwise, why are we doing it?

Posted by: Steve Short, President, NetLink Resource Group