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Expert discussion

Outside views on the cloud

06/2016 - While some organisations actively utilise the cloud to complement their business strategy, others are not that aware of what the cloud can do. Cloud experts Dr. Denis Royer and Christian Kruppenbacher from consulting firm MHP Management und IT-Consulting discuss the importance and significance of cloud computing in an interview.

Both architects advise companies regarding the possible roads they could take to leveraging cloud-based computing and have already provided expert opinion on what is currently being established at DB at the DB Systel Technology Day event. In the interview, Royer and Kruppenbacher summarise the experience they have gained along with their own personal assessments.

digital spirit: Mr. Royer, Mr. Kruppenbacher, cloud computing is somewhat of an abstract term. What exactly does cloud computing mean in terms of everyday business at a company?

Denis Royer: The cloud is a strategy that offers a great deal of benefits in this day and age of digitalisation. One such benefit is that companies can use the technological infrastructure in a cost-efficient manner. Scaling IT capacity in line with current requirements leads to considerably fewer resources being used, which in turn avoids unnecessary expenses. Also, users can access the cloud network no matter where they are, and cloud infrastructures and applications experience little to no downtime. The end result is that IT systems are becoming more solid and reliable than ever before.

digital spirit: How is this level of fail-safe reliability achieved?

Denis Royer: For starters, it is possible to transition over to a newly started instance ─ such as a server ─ directly in the cloud in the event that another server has failed. Should this not be immediately possible for whatever reason, there are various tricks and ways of forcing this to take place.

Dr. Denis Royer (MHP)
© Mieschke Hofmann und Partner GmbH

Another aspect is that of application-side strategies like “graceful degradation” as employed on amazon.de. (Graceful degradation refers to the response of the cloud system to a single fault or partial breakdown, during which time an attempt is made to maintain operation of the overall system as far as possible.) If a recommendation for a product page is not displayed within a half of a second, a predefined advertising banner automatically appears. The customer does not even take note of this, and Amazon is then able to get out of the situation with its head held high. (laughs)

From “pets” to “cattle”

digital spirit: Whenever cloud computing is talked about, the term “microservices” inevitably arises. What is meant by this?

Christian Kruppenbacher: Both go hand in hand. Visually put, microservices, unlike monoliths, comprise many small constituent parts that ultimately come together to realise the application. Scaling therefore becomes very easy. One example of this is Netflix, which makes use of microservices for its online video platform. At 8 o’clock in the evening, when a large number of users want to watch their television series, Netflix can evenly distribute the sudden load increase across many different cloud resources thanks to microservices. This process is also referred to in a much more colloquial manner as the pets vs. cattle principle. Previously, a “pet server” was used for web applications, for example, and this server was actually given a name and cared for and looked after accordingly. The server used had a fixed capacity and level of performance, which made it inflexible or incapable of adapting to changes. Today, the clear trend is toward cloud-based applications (i.e. the “cattle” approach), which offer maximum uniformity and exchangeable, or swappable resources. When less capacity is then required after a certain amount of time has passed, the servers are simply shut down or, in the case of downtime, new resources are started. In the end, only the resources that are actually required at a given moment are used. Subdividing into small services also makes it possible to better manage the process of developing and advancing applications further, thereby also improving overall speed and agility.

There is no cloud

digital spirit: Turning things the other way around: What is the cloud not?

Denis Royer: This cloud is not a universal solution to all IT problems. In many cases, cloud-based technology is leveraged to promote innovation potential, optimise processes or lower costs. There are also companies, however, whose management staff actively follow the cloud trend without ever really thinking seriously about whether the cloud approach is practical or applicable to all departments. Another point I would like to make is that the cloud is not as complicated as many people often imagine. Only 20 percent of a cloud environment is the technology itself; the other 80 percent comprises organisational procedures such as operation, development processes and security aspects that require attention. The cloud is therefore frequently overhyped, which neatly ties in with the funny expression: “There is no cloud. It is just someone else’s computer.” The cloud is the vehicle, or platform on which an application can be used and operated, and the way this breaks down in each specific case differs for every customer.

digital spirit: Because different customers offer different products.

Christian Kruppenbacher: Exactly. And because they need different cloud types, depending on the business model the company has in place.

Christian Kruppenbacher (MHP)
© Mieschke Hofmann und Partner GmbH

A bank, for example, is required by law to follow strictly defined procedures. Ongoing control checks and monitoring are therefore absolutely essential. A supplier of car parts, on the other hand, may be looking for more of a turn-key solution (“cloud ready”) and is not interested in getting involved with the underlying technology. Hardware for this company is therefore just a means to an end ─ namely, to sell car parts. The wants and needs within the DB Group also differ greatly. No matter how varied and different these expectations are, the models available are equally diverse to match.

digital spirit: For whom does the cloud represent a viable technology?

Denis Royer: There is no clear, easy answer to that question as several different factors play a role. It goes without saying that there are small units out there for which investing in a cloud infrastructure would far outweigh the benefits. Specialist consulting is available, however, to determine if this really is the case. Other applications are nothing short of predestined for the cloud, such as web-based online portals and systems that encounter load peaks and therefore do not always require the same level of computing power. These peaks and periods of inactivity can be caused or influenced by the large number of employees who all leave work on Friday afternoon, for example, and therefore require considerably less server capacity on the weekend. Other factors include different loads created by the customer. Let’s take a mail-order business as an example, which experiences a surge in business in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

Adopting a frugal approach at the beginning can prove costly in the end

digital spirit: We’ll now assume that a company has found just the model that it needs. What are the next steps to take? What are typical mistakes made?

Denis Royer: The biggest mistake one can make at the beginning is to not take IT security seriously enough. A solution should therefore be found that is a good fit, or match for the company in question. Studies have shown that integrating security elements as a sort of retrofit measure costs ten to fifteen times more money than if the same measures were implemented at the very beginning. If one takes this into account, data protection does not pose a problem as all of this can be regulated by contract.

digital spirit: Cloud sceptics are also concerned with the possibility of automation or consolidation resulting in fewer total jobs available.

Christian Kruppenbacher: The requirements placed on technology will never stop intensifying as more and more applications come to the fore. This, in turn, points to the need for IT personnel to continue growing in numbers rather than levelling off. The job market, however, currently cannot keep up, and there is a great need for more specialists to step up to the plate. It is in this context that cloud-based approaches make it possible for IT staff to work more efficiently so that future digitalisation requirements can be met. Companies that do not have an IT programme trimmed for maximum efficiency will quite simply not be able to respond to the digitalisation movement in progress. The challenges will therefore be to make current IT employees aware of the need to stay in tune with the times and take the steps necessary to seek out and acquire new, additional specialists in the market.