CEO Perspectives 4: Leading the Transformation

Is cloud computing inevitable?  Some people seem to think so.  Try typing the words “cloud,” “computing,” and “inevitable” into Google and you’ll get millions of hits.  Last year cloud computing reached a peak on the Gartner Hype Cycle.  While the more conservative players are willing to sit back and take a wait-and-see approach, a growing number of companies are diving in, and leading the transformation.

According to Andrew McAfee in his article What Every CEO Needs to Know About the Cloud, there is a gradual but inevitable shift toward the cloud.  He expects those who get in early to be in an increasingly better position as time passes, while those who linger to be put at a greater and greater disadvantage, until they either join or get lost in the dust.  McAfee gives some general guidelines for starting a move into the cloud, which can be used by anyone interested in putting real-time data on the cloud.

Know Your Responsibilities
To start with, McAfee suggests becoming aware of legal implications.  Clouds in the sky have no respect for man-made concepts like country borders, but your data does not have the same luxury.  Some countries limit what kinds of data can be moved or stored outside their borders.  For example, the EU Data Protection Directive restricts data on personal status from passing through countries that do not provide an “adequate level of protection” for the data.  Other countries have  strict privacy laws for any data transmitted on a public network or stored in a cloud server.  You will need to verify that your system meets the legal requirements of all countries in which you expect it to function.

Understand the Risks
We talked about security risks last week, pointing out that they may be different than common wisdom would suggest.  Questions about cost and reliability were addressed in an earlier blog.  McAfee advises executives to become informed of the risks and limitations of cloud computing, involving their general counsels and compliance departments early on.  There are a few areas, such as data subject to export regulations or related to personal health information, that may warrant a conservative approach, but in general he advocates boldly moving forward.  Plant managers and engineers will of course need to take a close look at their specific circumstances to decide what parts of their data sets can be made available in a cloud application.

Evaluate Attitudes
As with any new undertaking, there will be different levels of interest and willingness to change, both within the organization and outside.  Those most eager to implement a real-time cloud system will need to gauge its appeal among key decision makers and managers who are expected to implement it.  McAfee says, “a CIO’s lack of enthusiasm about the cloud these days is about as red a flag as a factory manager’s disinterest in electrification would have been a century ago.”

At the same time, consider software vendors.  What is their attitude toward cloud computing?  What plans do SCADA suppliers and other providers of software for real-time applications have in place to support a move to the cloud?  Some may add the word “cloud” to their networked process control software, but does it really meet the core requirements for a real-time cloud system?

Having done your homework, you are ready to try it.  McAfee suggests starting small.  Experiment.  He talks about non-real-time business systems, but the principle is the same.  Don’t expect to immediately move a whole SCADA system onto the cloud.  Maybe you can implement a web-based HMI to present a limited data set to selected customers.  Or possibly connect remote field devices to a cloud server for monitoring in a web browser.  As you gain experience, you may want to set up a private or a hybrid cloud.  Then, as time passes and cloud computing goes even more mainstream, you’ll be in a position to consider expanding further.

It is still too early in the history of cloud computing to know with absolute certainty that this is indeed the way of the future.  But things have reached a point where it would probably be wise to consider it seriously.  As consumer and business applications increasingly move into the cloud, real-time solutions won’t be far behind.  Somewhere between head-in-the-sand and off-the-deep-end, McAfee suggests a cautious, realistic, small-scale, try-and-see attitude to gain experience and build capabilities that may prove valuable in the near future.