Creating innovation in the cloud
What does innovation in the cloud mean? Innovation is generally defined as the introduction of something new - whether that be an idea, method or process. Applying this to the context of cloud computing means using cloud platforms and services to solve business challenges in newer, better ways allowing them to stand out amongst their competitors.
Leveraging innovation in the cloud often allows Organisations to move into new markets or to create new service line offerings. As well as this innovation can also help to provide more powerful and meaningful insights into how an Organisation is performing and allowing data-driven decisions to be made. Take, for example, Machine Learning - Organisations typically had to make large upfront investments if they want to adopt it, which made the bar to entry for some too high and prohibited adoption for them. Nowadays, most cloud platforms provide mechanisms where Machine Learning is far more accessible. As a result, Organisations are able to, for example, offer innovative solutions to their customers that leverage Machine Learning, whether that be smarter, more tailored product recommendations and user experiences or generally building high-levels of intelligence into their systems.
Innovation using the cloud has become more accessible to all sized businesses, rather than just those that have the access to large investments. The cloud has lowered the bar to entry for organisations adopting different approaches.
Cloud providers allow businesses to experiment at much lower costs than having to build and maintain the underlying infrastructure themselves on-premise. Often, cloud providers offer an initial trial free tier to access their services. This gives Organisations the freedom to experiment much more freely, without the cost overhead. This unlocks innovation.
Trialling new cloud services in order to offer new or innovative customer services or experiences, provides Organisations with the chance to differentiate themselves from their competitors. Take for example new payment methods. If during the customer journey proves to be successful, it allows the business to instantly stand out from the crowd, putting strain on competition to catch up. The low cost of trial allows businesses to also stop trialling services if they don’t prove to be beneficial.
Cloud services to accelerate business Innovation
Understanding how using the cloud can accelerate business innovation is key. There are cloud services often overlooked that can help grow the business, solving issues that would have previously put strain on teams, preventing them from focussing on their core value proposition. Managed Services, for example, tend to be inherently elastic. If we take an example of a database, when hosted on premise there is a need of course to maintain that database. This comes in the shape of backups, disaster recovery planning, resource provisioning and so on. These activities all require effort and investment from an organisation but don't directly add any value, they are more supporting activities. If an organisation instead moves to a managed service database on the cloud many of those activities are handled by the cloud provider and often designed with scalability in mind. This gives organisations the ability to scale their services without the additional overhead of managing the infrastructure, as would have been the case before. This in turn allows them to reach new markets and create new service offerings for their customers quicker than before.
There are cloud services which from an operational perspective can optimise the running of the business, such as cost management tools which allow all of the services to be managed from a central location. By combining this with good infrastructure management practices (such as appropriate resource tagging), this can give Organisations a great insight into their cloud infrastructure costs and possibly offer up innovative solutions.
Similarly, most cloud platforms offer services around monitoring of infrastructure and services. This allows organisations to have a comprehensive observability setup for their systems, allowing them to understand the state of those systems at any time and perhaps more importantly, reason about why they are in the state they are. These sort of practices might not sound overly exciting, but they are majorly important. Done correctly, it allows organisations to proactively address any issues in production systems before they widely impact on customers.
Blockchain is fast becoming a technology trend that many organisations are either placing firm bets on or are wanting to experiment with. For companies that want to play in this space cloud providers are rolling out services to allow organisations to integrate their systems with the Blockchain. Providing the APIs to interact with these rather than having to do it themselves. This is opening the door to further innovation, being able to solve real world problems with technology that wasn't previously available. For example, with blockchain we’re seeing the issues of land ownership in Africa being helped, using blockchain as a way of showing who owns what part of the lands
How to drive cloud innovation
The possibility of innovation using the cloud is a reality, but being able to drive it forward as a business is often the hurdle businesses face.
Ensuring teams have enough space and time to innovate is vital. If teams are able to spend time looking at new tooling there will be the opportunity to understand where innovation is possible. Often, the business and therefore teams, are so focussed on the short-term, there is often little or not time allowed for understanding how business problems might be solved in new and different ways or if newer technologies unlock new possibilities and opportunities. Google for example, previously used to have time dedicated to innovation - known as googles ‘20% time’ it was a policy of which 20% of an engineers time could be spent on their personal projects, allowing them to trial out new, creative and innovative ideas, looking into new technologies, or upskilling themselves. This allowed new ideas to be brought forward to the company as teams were invested in the research and development of making the company better.
Having a clear technical vision is vital for any organisation. However, often many fall into the trap of building a technical vision that is then not adjusted and evolved over time. It's important to outline a general direction or "North Star" as part of a technical vision, but it is also important that it is constantly evaluated to allow for changes in the organisation but also to keep pace with changes in technology. Without this, it’s possible to set out a ‘grand vision’ where you’ll miss out on new technologies. This is how businesses get stuck and fall into the trap of needing to embark on a large scale software modernisation effort. By constantly reviewing your technology vision and roadmap, you can ensure that it is aligned with the business goals and needs.
Upgrading skills and creating adaptable processes - this forces businesses to look at how they do things, and understand innovation and efficiency. As well as, having people look at innovation rather than firefighting - once you migrate to the cloud, what you used to do on-prem (low level management) it frees up resources to look at innovation rather than firefighting. By understanding teams roles, and the patterns in what they do allows skill sets to be moved where they’ll fit the best. For example, someone who previously looked after the database, how does their role change when you migrate to the cloud? Would it be the right fit for them to now focus on data science?
Common challenges to avoid with Cloud innovation
Dan McKinley back in 2015 spoke about "Choosing Boring Technology", and how it is often a far less riskier strategy than adopting newer, perhaps less mature technologies. Whilst this is largely true, this approach can stifle innovation. The challenge organisations face is to understand their level of risk and how much they are prepared to invest in innovation. Some organisations choose to be very early adopters in new technologies. This is fine but it is important to make that decision, fully aware of the risks and trade-offs involved. For example, newer technologies by their very nature haven't been widely adopted as yet so there are less examples of using them and therefore perhaps not as mature or "battle-hardened". Some use cases you may need might not be fully supported or documentation may be very light.