As companies reconsider the cost and time associated with software implementation and maintenance, cloud computing services -- specifically, Software as a Service, Platform as a Service and hosted services -- have become attractive options.
For businesses with multiple software systems in place, the move to the cloud may mean a move to multiple cloud environments. How to best manage multiple clouds -- and whether manufacturers are considering such an undertaking -- is a topic of some debate.
To evaluate a business need for multiple cloud environments, start by evaluating how “high-level” your software needs are, said Tom Nolle, president, founder and principal analyst of strategic consulting firm CIMI Corp., based in Voorhees, N.J.
“I think it’s good to visualize cloud computing as a spectrum between highly specific and highly general,” Nolle said. “It’s probably not especially prudent to look to multiple cloud providers for general services unless you’re dealing with global environments. All you’re doing is complicating your management process and diluting your finances. Your need for multiple environments will increase as you move up the food chain to higher levels of service. Many of the vendors who offer SaaS offer very specialized services.”
But there’s good news for companies that need a higher level of software support and, in turn, multiple cloud services, according to Nolle. “Issues with integrating cloud become fewer as you go up the chain. At a low level, federation issues [involving cross-integration between clouds] will occur. At a high level, the chances of having to integrate ERP with spreadsheets or PowerPoint are smaller. The relationships between you and the cloud providers are where the integration is; the cloud environments operate independently of each other.”
With manufacturing cloud computing, start slow
Companies that are new to cloud may do best by moving slowly, rather than jumping into multiple clouds from the get-go. “The whole thing about cloud is not so much that you have to manage multiple clouds plural, but that it is a hybrid world that should be treated as one entity,” said Glenn O’Donnell, senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc., in Cambridge, Mass. “You don’t want to take a Big Bang approach to this. You want to dip your toes in and test the water and then expand from there. If you’re going to an external cloud, test it out first in your application and development environment.”
It’s also important to understand that multi-cloud doesn’t have to mean multi-PaaS. In fact, hosting corporate data on multiple PaaS services could make a manufacturer more susceptible to security risks. “I think as things develop, manufacturers will gravitate to as few cloud platforms as possible, using multiple [SaaS] applications but having all running on a common platform for security reasons,” said Bob Parker, group vice president at IDC Manufacturing Insights, a research firm based in Framingham, Mass.
Nolle cautioned against attempting to put all business applications in the cloud. “I can in theory take any of my internal virtual machine images and run them on a public cloud,” he explained. “The challenge is where the data is coming from, because while I can put the application on the cloud provider, putting the data on is a different matter.
“Businesses are generally saying that the core applications they have are not going onto the public cloud, because there are risks associated with that that are completely beyond their control. If those risks were to manifest, they could go out of business,” Nolle said.
According to Parker, many companies are already publishing cloud guidelines to measure potential vendors against. “It is important to be able to know and evaluate any key partnerships the primary vendor has,” he said. “There are a lot of partnerships in this space and the buyer has to be aware of any issues -- security, performance, financial -- with any of the contributors.”
Are manufacturers interested in multiple cloud computing environments?
While running multi-cloud services is certainly an option for manufacturers, whether it’s a good move -- or whether anybody is making that move -- is uncertain. “We haven’t seen a whole lot of activity to move manufacturing itself into a more cloud-like environment,” O’Donnell said. Most manufacturers are still based on legacy equipment -- the stuff that should have been retired years ago.”
Agile manufacturing environments are the most likely candidates for cloud, he said, because the daily processes have already been configured to adapt to changing demands -- the basis of cloud. “Even then, a lot of the apps are not suited for [a manufacturing] environment,” O’Donnell said. “Web-based, front-end apps are best-suited, especially marketing. But for the core of the manufacturing control, [cloud apps] are not well-suited.”
O’Donnell predicts that, if there is a future for multi-cloud manufacturing environments, it will most likely be in the private cloud. “The distrust [of cloud] is mostly in the public cloud. It’s irrational, but you can understand why people are afraid of putting their stuff out there. Anytime I put something outside my fortress, I get nervous.”
To Nolle, the biggest hurdle standing in the way of widespread cloud adoption in manufacturing isn’t technical -- it’s cultural. “Keep in mind is that in industries like manufacturing, there is a relatively large number of unempowered employees,” he said. “There’s a lot of labor involved that doesn’t have an IT component. That means that the IT-empowered workers are a smaller part of the workforce, and so it would be easier to make changes to their practices [than to non-IT-empowered workers']. If you could deal with that issue of political engagement, manufacturing could adopt to the cloud relatively quickly.”