Monday, August 13, 2012

thoughts from a cloud start-up...

Flight Image GalleryOver the past couple months I have got involved with a cloud start-up project with the ambition to build a simple and cheap cloud solution that supports the one-man/two-man/small business order-to-cash process. One thing I've noticed that differs in the start-up situation vs. the usual enterprise conversations that I deal with is that options are both the friend and enemy of the start-up situation. In enterprises certain technical options are usually off-limits due to constraints posed by the business strategy or the business options are hampered by what technically can be supported. In the start-up discussions I have recently been involved in however, all options are open and you can end up in a  "chicken and egg" discussion very quickly. 

Remaining business-focused.
Working with this newly forming project team I found early discussions full of energy but often lacking in structure. Structure in approach with some principles agreed by all participants is necessary to ensure that discussions don't flit around from topic to topic without making progress. As a business technology consultant, my training and experience always keeps my thoughts business focused - what does the market want? what will customers buy? what challenges are they facing? who are they? These are the questions that I depart from and which we sprinkled into our conversation in order to develop a guide for our decision-making. For instance, at the start we had a lot of discussion around the actual solution functionality that we should build. There was discussion about all kinds of apps including eBay add-ons, CRM, inventory management and eCommerce solutions as well as whether integration points to existing solutions were important. Tackling this question from the customer perspective, we did a bit of early market research. Our findings pointed us towards two customer (buyer) perspectives towards today's order-to-cash solutions for  small businesses. The first perspective is from the traditional store that is selling goods through a physical shop channel. They buy ePOS systems and usually as a by-product of these systems comes order / inventory / fulfilment and payment management necessary to support the downstream value chain. The other perspective is from the eCommerce channel where solutions can also provide nice looking web front-ends as well as the critical transactional  payment and fulfilment functions. Originally, we started with the idea of creating a standalone inventory / fulfilment solution but since doing this quick market research it has become clear that the successful offerings for these smaller businesses are end-to-end. As a small business owner, people are not interested in buying several solutions to support the value-chain they want a simple one-stop solution that will let then focus on their business. So this is what we have decided to now provide. Taking the market perspective into account has changed us to develop an offer that we believe the customer is demanding, rather than  what we thought was interesting to provide.

Flexibility in Amazon EC2 / S3 was a deciding factor
When we set out we had  (and still do) a plethora of technical options to choose from. Our team is from the java background so they have looked at Google App Engine, Heroku and building directly on Amazon or Rackspace stacks. In the end we have gone for the Amazon choice as it gave us the most flexibility. Heroku was also a final contender with Amazon but their constraints ( in particular their lack of support for sticky sessions put us off that choice. This does mean more for us to do in terms of building out a good framework for development but we found that the flexibility on offer here far outweighed the disadvantages. It is still early days but our architecture plans utilise the options available from HTML5 to the max and use a WebSocket layer to provide rich functionality with good performance. The WebSocket protocol is very basic so we will need another layer over the top. One of the ones we are considering is Nirvana (now part of SoftwareAG webMethods suite ) but the jury is still out. Basically we want to ensure guaranteed message delivery, cope with timeouts and reconnect etc... I'm sure there are some standard ways to tackle this out there but haven't found them yet. (So if there are any other ideas you can suggest then we'd be very interested in hearing your view!) With this set-up there is a risk in my mind about the lack of cross-browser support for the HTML5/WebSockets combo particularly in the IE8/9 domain that are still a large  proportion of internet users. However, I'm telling myself (hoping?) that this industry is moving so quick by the time the project is into production the vast majority of users will have upgraded browsers or be able to. (Should be noted that we did this analysis before Google Compute Cloud was launched - maybe we will evaluate Google in due course but for now we aren't going to revisit our choice.)

The challenge of virtualisation and building for the web
Final thing I'd like to remark on before signing off is something I now find so obvious I'm surprised it didn't occur to me until we actually started to look into building our own cloud service. In building a cloud application the technical challenges encountered are basically the same as for developing a web app on virtualised server resources. So on the front-end you need to deal with the challenge of developing a web app (so thinking about browser compatibility for instance) and on the back-end the virtualisation aspect means you have generally weak IO capacity and need to figure out some tricks around that. In addition, you have to assume that the resources are transient and subject to failure and you have to build a robust framework to deal with this.  Like I said blindingly obvious, but for some reason I wouldn't have explained it so simply until I actually got to work on this project.

On the look-out for collaborators...
I didn't have any specific purpose to writing this post. It's just been a long time and I wanted to share some of the stuff I am working on at the moment. However, now I get here I think it's a good time to ask if there are is anyone out there wanting to collaborate with us on this. There are two particular areas I would love to chat to someone on. The first is on the technical topic around using HTML5 & WebSockets - this is something we are working through now. The second, is on the business side of running a small business managing inventory. I would be really interested in talking to you on your challenges and requirements to feed into our design. Perhaps you can benefit from our first (production) release. If you are interested, then don't hesitate to get in touch through LinkedIn or Twitter.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Cloud Computing + Consulting 2.0 = Data Driven Consulting

Since the term "cloud" became a common industry term almost 5 years ago now, I've been a passionate believer that it would significantly change the way we do business. The economics and logic of the model was so self-evident it seemed to me an inevitable reality. However, even though the answer felt so obvious, it was much more difficult to imagine all the market implications it would have. Slowly over time this has become clearer. Now we see that Cloud is at least:

  •  an enabler for Social
  •  an enabler for Mobile
  •  an opportunity to offer services as well as a different way to deliver IT
  •  enabling new business services and models that would not have existed before

The final bullet is the topic of this blog post. I think that the coming together of trends in consulting innovation along with the opportunities provided by cloud computing can enable a better form of consulting services. Let me explain how.

The use of data analysis to support consulting recommendations is not new. McKinsey is well known for its fact-based consulting methods that draws heavily on data gathering and analysis. Deloitte (where I work) is also a well-known business consulting firm that uses a robust data driven approaches and benchmarking for developing strategic recommendations. However, the achilles heel for such data-driven consulting has always been the difficultly to get a representative data sets for comparison. In the past, we have had to compile data manually from numerous sources. Often the sources would be structured differently and not give the same perspective across companies in a given study. Internal company taxonomies had to be understood and translated so that the data was interpreted accurately. Due to these challenges, it can be very difficult to get large numbers of companies involved in any kind of benchmarking comparison due to the time-consuming and sometime subjective nature of the data gathering and analysis process.

So how does cloud help?

Imagine the 100,000 customers today running in the multi-tenant database architecture of While the exact configuration of each customers' application will  vary slightly in specific places , the majority of those customers are running a high-level standard model that can be compared. Every opportunity management processes divided into a number of clear stages, data is structured in the same way, accounts are related to opportunities which in turn are related to sales reps. Due to this standard model, we can (or could) very easily create an analysis across this data set to show key metrics across the sales domain. Important metrics that show insight into the performance of the business such as:
(1) the average time taken for a newly created Sales Qualified Lead to reach a Closed-Won deal (velocity of the pipeline)
(2) the average number of opportunities at each stage of the pipeline (the shape of the pipeline)
(3) the average revenue of an opportunity and value of the pipeline for a given quarter in a specific industry (the size of the pipeline)

With a bit of work from customers and population of a few additional fields in database, users could help automatically interpret the data so that more detailed metrics could be gathered, like the number of sales managers vs. sales admin or the velocity of sales through sections of the pipeline. And did I mention you have 100,000 data sets here? This would give you a representative data sample and metrics for almost any industry.

This idea itself isn't new. I chose as an example because it's the most populous SaaS solution out there. However, the cloud vendor Eloqua has already tackled this market with their Revenue Performance suite that measures marketing process metrics. But it doesn't stop there. As the industry continues to migrate to cloud-based solutions, there will be many organisations running large portions of their  business with cloud providers in the future. HR processes might be supported by Workday. Perhaps financials will be run on FinancialForce. Netsuite might take on Order Management and Supply Chain. With all of these cloud solutions, customers will store their data in a similar way in the same cloud database which in turn can churn out a decent set of comparable benchmarks with little effort.

The final link becomes interpreting the metrics and turning the insight into action. The ability to do this and improve business performance will seperate the leaders from the followers and this is where consulting 2.0 comes in. The business consulting field has changed very little since over the last decade with the key progression being "outcome-based consulting"where a consulting firm links its fees to improvement in an agreed metric of business value like cost reduction for example . There is much more innovation to come in the consulting model given the competitiveness of the market - see this post by Daniel Krauss. One way for consulting firms to address this is to move further towards recommendations based upon deep data analysis of the specific client and industry. By partnering with the cloud vendors who can produce the metrics, a consulting company could utilise the data and metrics available in the cloud data sets and provide consulting specialists to interpret these results through statistical analysis and mathematical models. In addition, leveraging the powerful but affordable burst processing power the cloud offers and utilising services like Hadoop, Teradata and Netezza, consultants could utilise the enormous data sets (so called big data) available from the cloud. The specialist skills required to carry out this type of work would be of clear value to a purchasing organisation when embarking on a performance improvement exercise. 

To get an idea of the possibilities, just look at what Pete Warden has done scraping 220million Facebook profiles and analysing the data. Building business strategies founded upon the insight provided by this kind of analysis turns consulting advisory work into much more of a science. Furthermore, we can use outcome-based commercial models to link payment for our services back to the metrics we are improving. This all might send shivers down the spine of some consultants but only those that are afraid to be judged on their results. Probably a good thing for the market as a whole.

So there it is... a new (or at least much evolved) business service for the consulting industry enabled by Cloud Computing. 

That's why Cloud Computing + Consulting 2.0 = Data Driven Consulting :-) 

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Keynote presentation from Oracle CRM day

Hi folks, 
A quick note to link out to my Prezi that I presented for a keynote at the Oracle CRM day in Almere last week

Message is simple "cloud is already here so get stared but understand the realities and adopt wisely". Am looking forward to seeing more from Oracle Fusion and understanding further the full Oracle play in the cloud soon. That's all for now folks, will write a full post soon.


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Adopt the cloud and plan for it's failure

Hi folks. Long time no see. I've been swamped with work in recent weeks without a moment to switch into blogging mode but a couple recent events of highly publicised "cloud failures" have prompted me to briefly take to the soap box.

The events I'm specifically referring to are the disruptions to Gmail and AWS services. What do these news reports mean to the the market? Have we suddenly stumbled on to the realisation that the cloud is too risky for enterprises to adopt?  Will I now be advising my clients to avoid the cloud route?

Well my answers are "not much", "no" and "no - not at all". The reports of service failure by media channels are dramatised to draw readers, not necessarily reflecting a balanced assessment of the actual maturity of today's offerings. What the reports do serve to remind us, however, is that the adoption of cloud does not promise a perfect utopian world. Even well-known providers will have service interruptions and enterprises need to have plans in place for when they do. As Amazon architect Jinesh Varia is well known for pointing out - "design for failure and nothing will fail". Being a  pessimist about the reliability of the cloud services that you combine and integrate and ensuring a good level of exception and error handling will help shore up the vulnerable points in your architecture. Furthermore, on the non-technical side, business continuity planning should not be seen as an optional step when it comes to deploying cloud services into critical process areas of your business.

Of course services fail and they do so at even higher rates in a local IT department near you today.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Now with and heroku - how does stack up in the PaaS market?

While collaboration was a clear theme at Dreamforce with the launch of Chatter Free, Dreamforce ‘10 will be remembered for the serious play into PaaS. Over the course of just two Dreamforce keynotes, the PaaS market altered dramatically. launched a database-as-a-service offering and announced the acquisition of Heroku a small but well-known Ruby on Rails cloud service. Along with some enhancements and re-organisation of offerings under the label, invested their brand fully into the PaaS market.

While SaaS serves the end user, PaaS serves the developer community enabling rapid solution delivery on an elastic infrastructure. However, the audience for PaaS is somewhat wider than the traditional development community. In addition to the usual Java and .NET code junkies, some PaaS offerings such Workxpress and Orangescape strive to make development more simple through “drag and drop” style configuration. Such configuration tools will appeal to the cottage industry of developers that work "on the business side". Just as MS Access and Excel enabled Andy in front-office to build that interim project app which ICT have spent the last years trying to kill off, the cloud gives more powerful and easier to use options (that ICT could spend many more years trying to bring under control!).

So having set the standard for software-as-a-service, how does now stack up against the competition in the PaaS market? It’s a perfect time to take stock of the present landscape and what it offers.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Cloud Adoption Roadmap: How do you make the choice between SaaS, PaaS and IaaS?

I've been extremely busy at the office the last couple of weeks fire-fighting infrastructure delivery issues. There were quite a number of times, I wished I could fast-forward to the future and switch on the whole production environment on Amazon Web Services instead of entering yet another painful procure and install saga. Anyhow, I'm back here to spend a few precious moments of my so-called spare-time to pick up on one of the five questions posed a couple posts ago.

3) How do you make the choice between SaaS, PaaS and Iaas?

My first response on receiving this question was that it (the question) was obviously "wrong". SaaS, PaaS and IaaS are technology categories that can be useful for discussing the solutions available. However, these are not binary (or should I say ternary) choices and our clients are often going to adopt solutions across all these categories.

On further thinking, I think the question behind this that we are all trying to grapple with is how to figure out the best roadmap to the cloud future. Let's spend just a few moments working this one. 

Friday, October 29, 2010

"Dawn of a New Day"- Microsoft's Chief Software Architect support for the Cloud

Just a couple weeks back, Steve Ballmer announced Ray Ozzie's departure from Microsoft. Ray was the creator of Lotus Notes and assumed the post of Chief Software Architect back in 2006 where he drove Microsof't's overall technical strategy. Back then, Ray was already a clear proponent of the cloud and published a now well-known memo"The Internet Services Disruption". In it, he identified a number of changing trends in the industry and heralded the age of the online services and the challenge to Microsoft's grip on the market. In response, Ray initiated and led Microsoft's programme to develop the Windows Azure platform.

Today, Ray published a blog post entitled
"Dawn of a New Day". It's a long post but if you have time, it's worth a read. He discusses the coming of the post-pc era where computing will be delivered through continuous services (scaleable and always available) to connected devices (which are simple appliances to use that just work).

Friday, October 22, 2010

How do you determine if your business is ready for the cloud?

Last week, I was asked by my team for input on five questions. In this post, I’ve written-up my answer to the second: 2) How do you determine if your business is ready for the cloud?                                                                    
A variety of factors will influence how much benefit there is for a company to adopt cloud solutions and also the best adoption roadmap for them to take (which also answers if you are ready for the cloud along the way). It is a new and confusing landscape for organisations with many options and factors that can be taken into account or (explicitly) ignored. Decision makers need a blend of business and technology understanding in order to make the right choices. While the decision making process can be complex and requires detailed analysis I’ll lay out what I believe are the main areas that need to be addressed:

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Is cloud just hype or is it here to stay?

Just this week I was asked by my team for input on five questions. In this post, I’ve written-up my answer to the first.

1) Is cloud just hype or is it here to stay?

There’s no doubt that cloud is here to stay. Major enterprises have put down serious investments in this space including my own employer a major consulting firm who is making significant investment of time and skills in the cloud.

It is easy to see why people feel that Cloud might be all hype. Since the initial simple web-based CRM offering from SFDC announced at the start of the last decade, the promised dream of cloud computing has been well publicised while real offerings were pretty scarce. There’s no wonder that many people taking a look at the offerings back then, may have concluded that there was a lot of talk and not much “behind the curtains”. While a lot has been written about cloud computing over the past years, it is only now that the model is really providing enterprise-level alternatives to businesses. There have been some significant developments in 2010 that lead me to conclude that options are now real enough to prompt all enterprises to take a look. The Google Atmosphere event that took place in April this year is a case in point. Around 300 business executives (many of those CIOs) assembled at the Googleplex to hear leaders in the IT industry share real examples of enterprise adoption of cloud solutions. And recently at

Friday, October 15, 2010

Five simple questions

Just this week I was asked by my team for input on the following five questions:

4) Does vendor lock-in become stronger with the cloud?
5) Security seems to be a barrier for users, how safe is the cloud?

I only got half an hour to pen my answers so just jotted down a few notes and passed them on. Over the next few posts I’ll write-up my notes and share with you my full answers on each of these questions.