Is the cloud an enabler or a disruptor of your digital transformation?

When it comes to evaluating the impact that cloud will have on your digital transformation, there’s no easy answer. The response mostly depends on who you ask.

For C-level executives, cloud is most certainly an enabler. It allows business leaders to adapt their organizations to shifts in markets with speed an agility. Executives moving their companies to the cloud often find that they innovate and seize competitive advantages much faster.

For users—whether employees, consumers, or B2B customers—cloud is also a major boon. It offers exciting on-demand services across a broad array of categories. Employees get cloud-based enterprise applications that allow them to do their jobs better and more efficiently from anywhere. Consumers get the likes of Spotify and Uber at their fingertips 24x7. B2B customers get on-demand CRM, HR, and data backup.

But for IT architects, things aren’t always so simple. If you work for a new enterprise that has built an IT infrastructure from scratch within the last few years, it’s easy: cloud is the ultimate enabler. Go for it.

But if you’re an architect for a business that has an installed base of legacy infrastructure technologies—and face it, that’s everyone else—the situation is very different. Cloud can be a major disruptor, because your current IT ecosystem is likely a delicate balance of interconnections. That means you probably need IT review board approval to make any infrastructure changes. Otherwise, you run the risk of breaking five things for every single component you touch.

If you work for a new enterprise that has built an IT infrastructure from scratch within the last few years, it’s easy: cloud is the ultimate enabler. Go for it.

Architects don’t have the option of forcing an abrupt migration of legacy technologies to cloud-based infrastructures. Some of those old architectures don’t scale so you’re stuck in the middle: needing to keep your legacy infrastructure stable while satisfying cries from the lines of business to innovate.

Your dilemma: How do you build an architecture that responds to business needs—which often means finding opportunities to become more cloud-like—without disrupting the business?

Abstraction, automation, and APIs

You have already put some of the tools in place by virtualizing your environments. Abstraction is the basis of cloud, after all. It is a step toward an API-enabled infrastructure that helps you automate. It can become cloud, but it can also simply help you improve individual processes.

Your business needs will dictate how much you can automate and how quickly. A good place to start is to identify specific, repeatable manual processes for automation using API calls. Make your case to your IT change review board, use that success to demonstrate value, and get support to automate additional processes.

What to demand of your infrastructure vendors

You’re not alone in this. Your infrastructure vendors have to step up to the plate.

But how do you know that the technology you pick will have APIs that are robust? How do you know that your new technology will play well with the rest of your infrastructure? How can you ensure that it will all be sustainable in a rapidly changing IT ecosystem? How do you ensure that you will be able to delicately balance all the moving parts of your increasingly hybrid (part cloud, part on-premises legacy) infrastructure in an automated and programmable way?

Here’s one approach: Request that your vendor fill out an in-depth "programmable capability survey."

This survey should ask your vendor questions like this:

  • How do you perform lifecycle management?
  • What is your support model for your API?
  • How do you ensure a continuous deployment toolchain?
  • What is your deprecation policy?

If your vendor can’t answer your questions to your satisfaction, it’s a no go.

You must, in effect, treat programmable infrastructure like code, with the main question being, “Will my infrastructure break if I change something?” Think of it in terms of software lifecycle management, where it is forbidden to make a breaking change to a toolchain.

Welcome to the API economy.

Cloud: both enabler and disruptor

So, the answer to whether cloud is an enabler or a disruptor is: it depends on the technology investment choices you make. Disruption can lead to enablement. If you hold your vendors to a higher standard—one in which they have to answer your programmable capability survey to your satisfaction—cloud is the ultimate digital transformation enabler. You’ll have a flexible and agile IT architecture driven by APIs that can change quickly depending on how the unpredictable IT innovation winds blow. For traditional IT, this is disruption that can ultimately result in a better, more scalable, and resilient infrastructure. To get there, however, you need to ensure that the technology investments you make today will support your infrastructure needs over the next two to five years.