James Savage is a sort of cloud evangelist.
His fast-growing Brookfield support services company, Concurrency Inc., is one of many capitalizing on a growing demand as companies transition to cloud services.
For Savage, the pitch is simple — “Cloud-based services can be as revolutionary for you in the 2010s as email was in the 1990s.”
Simply put, “the cloud” refers to externally hosted software, hardware or other applications, like Google Docs. The repository is servers in remote data centers with access through an Internet connection.
Cloud-based systems aren’t brand new, but according to Savage, “This year, it’s really hitting. It’s full force.”
Many large and midsize Milwaukee-area businesses are already on board, but some organizations face technological drawbacks, data safety and compliance issues that complicate the transition.
That off-site storage amounts to savings and, most important, flexibility for big companies with lots of data, like Johnson Controls Inc., the largest public company in Wisconsin.
“I think for any major company, they are all going to be affected by the cloud to some degree, and we’re no exception,” said Colin Boyd, chief information officer at Johnson Controls.
The Glendale-based company isn’t looking to house all its servers off-site, Boyd said, but blending software services in the cloud with the company’s own internally hosted software platform has served it well so far.
That kind of data outsourcing means Johnson Controls spends less on housing and maintaining on-site servers. If it needs more server space, the company can rapidly scale up or relinquish storage in the cloud, flexibility that translates into savings, according to Boyd.
Although Boyd said a specific number would be hard to calculate, those savings are “significant enough to merit the switch, but they’re not radical, they’re not cutting costs in half.”
“It’s not massive, but it’s significant enough that no CIO can disregard these possibilities,” he said.
At Johnson Controls, the cloud transition is an ongoing process that began about two years ago.
“The cloud” became a buzzword among businesses long before that, but for a company as large as Johnson Controls, Boyd said that being the first to plunge into such new territory wasn’t exactly advisable. In 2013, the global company reported $42.7 billion in sales, operating from 1,300 locations.
Companies, he said, should adopt new technology when it’s appropriate for them, when it’s robust and secure enough to pursue.
“As in all things, the art is timing,” Boyd said.
CHALLENGES OF THE CLOUD
At Roadrunner Transportation Systems Inc., the cloud is “purely a test environment,” said Jason Geuder, network systems manager for the Cudahy-based asset-light transportation and logistics services provider.
Geuder has moved some of Roadrunner’s data to Microsoft’s cloud storage service, but remains wary of transferring much more.
On the one hand, it saves him the need to build out the infrastructure; the flip side is that, given Roadrunner’s connection, if off-site data goes down, it could be inaccessible for hours.
“So it sounds really cool on the surface,” he said, “but nobody thinks about if you have to recover. I would not want my data only backed up out there.”
Inside the technical services department at Milwaukee’s Alverno College, assistant director for user services Lianna Croft is currently “in the throes of grappling with compliance.”
Alverno is transitioning students and faculty to Microsoft’s cloud-based email, calendar and data storage system, a big savings, she said, although she did not provide a specific dollar amount.
“The cost of Alverno providing that amount of storage with students is just exorbitant,” she said. “It’s just too good to pass up.”
But for a university, that transition gets tangled in regulations regarding information safety requirements for sensitive student academic data and medical information.
Croft is now tackling the question of how to navigate those waters and help students and faculty understand what they can and can’t store in the cloud.
“This is all new, and fast-growing, and people need to be sure they understand the difference,” she said.
RIDING THE TIDE
As more companies look toward the cloud, Milwaukee-area businesses on top of that trend are capitalizing on the rising interest.
“As a system integrator, we ride that tide,” Savage said of Concurrency, which assists clients such as Roadrunner and Alverno as they adopt Microsoft cloud software platforms and data storage systems.
Concurrency strives to demonstrate how companies can benefit by moving to the cloud, emphasizing cost savings. However, significant savings from the cloud aren’t “an apples-to-apples” comparison, and can therefore be hard to quantify, Savage said.
Despite concerns about privacy, regulatory compliance, safety and other issues, “we very seldom come up with a ‘no’” from clients, Savage said.
“Certainly there are questions, there’ll be challenges,” he said. “But what I can say is from a security perspective, from a data integrity perspective...every way we look at this thing, there are grand efficiencies to be made in moving to the cloud, for all these different organizations.”
Milwaukee-based CorvisaCloud is helping businesses tackle similar challenges as a cloud-based communications software platform provider.
“We’re investing very aggressively in both building, but then also educating businesses of all sizes of the advantages of building in cloud spaces,” said president and CEO Matt Lautz.
Associated Banc-Corp, Green Bay, is among CorvisaCloud’s clients.
The financial service and insurance industries are moving forward with cloud-based technology, despite initially adopting slowly due to regulatory and security concerns, he said.
“We saw a void for our product set in the market,” he said.
Lautz was among Corvisa’s original founders in 2009. In 2010, it was acquired by Kansas City-based Novation Co. Inc. CorvisaCloud and sister company Corvisa, also based in Milwaukee, have a total of about 130 to 140 employees, and are growing.
CorvisaCloud started slowly last year, followed by a “mass rollout” in recent months.
“I think (the cloud) is absolutely where software and technology is going, and as a company we are aggressively growing and expanding our offerings,” he said.
Behind the buzzword: understanding the cloud
Businesses have been barraged with the “cloud” buzzword for years.
But what, exactly, is “the cloud”?
“The cloud” isn’t as abstract as it sounds. The data stored there isn’t kept on-site at your office, but it’s not up in the air, either.
At Brookfield-based Concurrency Inc., infrastructure practice director Nathan Lasnoski analogizes it this way: “Computing is becoming a commodity” like electricity, he said. Rather than housing and maintaining big generators on-site, companies farm out their energy needs to outside service providers. That’s what “the cloud” is for companies’ data and software.
That data is kept in various kinds of secure data storage centers where layers of redundancy, safety and backups protect servers.
In Milwaukee, the newest cloud data storage center is Minneapolis’ Vaultas Inc. located in the old Blatz Brewing Co. washhouse facility. It’s a temperature-controlled gray-and-black room built to house hundreds of servers.
“Whenever we talk about the cloud, some people literally envision this puffy little white thing up there,” said Vaultas president John Unger.
He said it helps for people to see that their information is protected, to know their local vendor and cloud storage center.
- Scalability: Amount of data storage space can rapidly scale up or down based on demand.
- Cost: Not maintaining on-site server space cuts the cost of data storage.
- Predictability: Cloud-based platforms update in an automatic and unified way, taking the burden of updating off local IT providers, and ensuring a unified product rather than multiple versions.
- Redundancy: Cloud data centers back up and protect servers far more rigorously than most in-house IT departments can afford.
- Safety: The cloud is more immune from environmental variables like fires, floods and other natural disasters that could impact your office.
- Versatility: Automatic updates and changes limit local tweaks and specifications for cloud-based software.
- Security: Companies should work with legitimate cloud providers, and should consider working with a professional cloud consultant or other IT specialist before selecting a vendor.
- Compliance: Institutions subject to FERPA and HIPAA regulations may face compliance challenges to store that information in the cloud.
- Access: Outages can affect cloud-based providers, too; if they go down, you go down too.
- Privacy: Companies should carefully review a cloud service contract with an eye to issues, including who owns the data stored at a public facility.
Alison Bauter. “Business in the cloud ... with caution”. Milwaukee Business Journal. Mar 14, 2014. http://www.bizjournals.com/milwaukee/print-edition/2014/03/14/business-in-the-cloud-milwaukee-area-firms.html