Vendors are currently marketing the concept of cloud computing in a big way, but it's really not new – it's the natural evolution of services from the distributed computing or hosted environments – that made an appearance a decade and a half ago – to the Internet.
What's different today is that the computing capacity provided "out of the cloud" focuses less on processing and more on services. In South Africa, cloud computing is becoming viable.
However, according to Spescom DataFusion, users must ensure that they understand the implications of cloud computing and find a solution that works for their business.
"Previously, low bandwidth availability, high cost and variability of throughput reliability made cloud computing a risky venture locally," notes Pieter du Preez, group executive: business solutions development.
"Today, with more bandwidth available at lower cost, it may well be a more cost effective solution than owning infrastructure and software – especially when you add licences, upgrades, integration and maintenance expenditures to initial purchase and installation costs. However, a hybrid solution may be what is needed at the outset.
"A hybrid solution is when you combine your own infrastructure with a cloud infrastructure and services. It will allow you to test the waters, retain data, transaction and customer privacy security, and fully understand the benefits and limitations of this environment," he suggests.
"And while the business model driving cloud services suggests that only standard 'off-the-shelf' solutions may be available, it may be well worth your while to find a provider that specialises in a particular service or industry and will tailor or customise a solution to suit your needs.
"For a contact centre, for instance, the organisation would need cloud services that use suitable computing power and applications. In this scenario, the contact centre is likely to 'own' the people and create the processes – these being the two components within contact centres that enable the greatest competitive advantage.
"The technology platform can sit anywhere. The contact centre then has the choice to invest in technology and in-house skills or buy in a hosted service, where the functionality is obtained via a network – or make use of cloud computing services."
A hosted service provider of the traditional kind is likely to have physical premises housing servers and other computing equipment close by, providing a dedicated network with guaranteed service levels.
Hosted services obtained in the cloud may come from anywhere and will rely strongly on bandwidth and throughput available to the user.
"The challenge is to ensure reliability and cost of the network and services are in line with budget and risk appetite," notes du Preez.
"Advantages of cloud and hosted services include use of opex rather than capex, the vast functionality that is available at a fraction of the cost of outright purchase, and of course, the flexibility of being able to scale services up or down as customer or business service requirements change.
"Making use of a specialist will additionally allow the organisation to, for example, gain access to advanced functionality that will allow it to enhance its service offerings and effectiveness, like automation of campaigns and predictive dialling.
"However, without some customisation, the contact centre may never get access to the 'right' data it needs from the cloud service provider to identify key indicators like performance shortcomings or perhaps trends that indicate future opportunities."
Furthermore, there are security, privacy and governance issues that need to be taken into account.
"In the cloud, someone else is responsible for your data security. You cannot abdicate this responsibility – accountability must remain with the organisation," says du Preez.
"This means you need to be very sure your service provider can live up to its security claims. Don't let this scare you off, however – hybrid solutions are often the answer."
One good example is where contact centre agents need to dip into a CRM system to service customers.
"You may not want that data to reside with the cloud service provider. A hybrid solution would see the contact centre application located in the cloud, and the CRM solution within the organisation itself, behind a firewall. Thus, client data risk is minimised."
A hybridised managed service where the vendor owns the equipment and a contract governs usage, coupled with a cloud service for application or specific solutions may also be cost effective, depending on the business model, he notes.
"Don't be afraid to ask questions – and keep asking them till you are satisfied you will get the best solution to suit your organisation," reiterates du Preez.
"Cloud computing is inevitable – it's the next evolutionary stage in computing. CIOs that ignore the cloud ignore major opportunities to differentiate their businesses.
"A recent Gartner report puts South Africa 15 years behind the United States, but that doesn't mean we will take 15 years to get where they are now – with all the bandwidth now becoming available, we have much less time to adapt.
"Exploring the options now with a trusted provider that can offer the insight and expertise will stand organisations in good stead."