We recently had the pleasure of having an extended conversation with United States Tennis Association’s Chief Information Officer, Larry Bonfante. Our discussion covered a range of topics, including the changing CIO role, how cloud is changing the way businesses function, and cloud migration challenges.
Gathering Clouds: As a technical leader, what is your perspective on what managed services bring to the cloud paradigm?
Larry Bonfante: I think, like anything else, it is going to go through an evolution. I think you can get to a point where most of what we do will be in a managed-service kind of environment. I am looking forward to getting to a point where most of the software we use is in a managed-service environment. Right now we are doing software-as-a-service for email, but I would like to be able to do software-as-a-service model for most of our core applications, whether it is CRN, URP, or whatever the case may be. And I think that will be really beneficial because how many horror stories have you heard about people rolling out FAP and taking three years and tens of millions of dollars and implementation didn’t go the way they wanted? I think the days of these behemoth projects where you make those kinds of internal investments in software [are over]. I think to be able to go to a mass service for software delivery will be a tremendous benefit to most CIOs.
GC: When you saw the value of cloud for your organization, how did you go about convincing your chief decision maker that it was the right way to go?
LB: Very simple, I told them if I could save them 70% of our hosting cost, would they be willing to split the savings with me? They said yes and we shook hands. What I promised was that, from a delivery perspective, from a reliability perspective, and from a security perspective, I would not put things at risk. All I would do was create efficiency, which was obviously a valuable benefit, and they were happy to buy into.
GC: What’s your perspective on the security aspects of cloud, overall? It seems your organization was hesitant to move proprietary data and applications to the cloud. Where do you stand on how secure cloud is on premise?
LB: I think it is getting there. Again, I haven’t put any of my consumer-facing stuff in cloud yet. But I do think it is getting there and you also have to realize that … we are a midsize company. So to think that a company of our size is going to have better security expertise that a company the size of Amazon is hubris, quite frankly. Now maybe the FBI does, maybe the FDA does, maybe Goldman Sachs does, but for most companies, they are not going to have the union capital to have the same kind of expertise that some of these companies can now. I don’t think it is all there yet, I think it’s evolving, but I think they will get there before we could.
GC: Amazon itself is public cloud, and though secure and reliable, it is not considered a highly compliant cloud. How do you account for compliance concerns and requirements for your business?
LB: Like I said, we haven’t put anything in the cloud that is consumer-facing because with PCI compliance issues we don’t feel comfortable doing that. So everything we put in the cloud is back-end stuff. Our consumer-facing stuff is still done with partners who are not putting any new technology in the cloud, but I do think the day will come where they will address those issues to everyone’s satisfaction because [of] the economics of it — there is so much money at stake that they would be fools not to invest what they need to not address the compliance issues.
GC: When considering what it takes to formulate a robust cloud strategy, what are some of the things that any CIO has to determine?
LB: You have to understand how your applications are going to work in that environment. You have to understand what impact it is going to have on your clients. You have to understand the security and compliance implications and know you have the right personnel to chart a tap to the cloud and what’s going to happen to those people afterward so you are not putting them at risk. So I think there are human resource implications, there are financial implications, there are security implications, there are compliance implications, and there are technology implications.
GC: Earlier you had talked a little bit about how the promise of cloud had altered the way businesses approach this notion of data center usage. But how do you see future architectures, cloud instances, manifesting for businesses? Are they going to be centralized or dispersed? What is the value of either approach?
LB: I think it depends on the application, but certainly from a business continuity perspective, and from a security perspective, the idea of having this dispersed over multiple data centers is attractive on a certain level, it depends on the size and the scope of the application. So I don’t think there is a binary answer to that question, quite frankly.
GC: You also spoke about how you see this premise of ‘everything-as-a-service’ developing. How far do you think that is going to go? At what point does the basic application get outsourced? Is it realistic to believe that everything could move that direction?
LB: It is realistic to think that could happen over time. I don’t think it’s going to happen next week. I think that there is an opportunity for that to happen, and more and more you will see that being the direction, but I think we’re probably a few years away from that being the case.
GC: How do you stay abreast of the technical developments in the space?
LB: I’ve got people on my team who are really much more focused on that. I stay abreast at a 30,000-foot level, but if your CIO is spending his or her time getting into the weeds of the technology, then I would question how that individual is investing their time. You need to have that expertise on your team, but you need to take a team approach to it. I understand the high-level machinations of the technology, I understand the direction the technology is going in, but I am not the guy or gal who’s really got to understand the inner workings of it. I’ve got people on my team who do to keep me apprised of that, and I think in most organizations you probably see that model.
GC: How do you see the technology end of the cloud industry developing?
LB: I see the opportunity that over time, quite frankly all you are going to need is a device with an Internet browser and you won’t have to build an infrastructure. I could see a scenario where, whether it is Google, with their apps, or Microsoft with their apps, if I’ve got a tablet device or a laptop device and I could have a wireless connection and a browser anywhere in the world I could do business. I see that empowering people in a huge way and eventually I could even see the laptops going away and you have people doing that off tablets and their phones at some point. Now for somebody as old as me, who’s got fat fingers and doesn’t see that well, doing it on the phone kind of scary, but I can see a scenario where that will happen over time. So literally all we have to worry about is providing the client device. You may not necessarily have to provide it because with BYOD [bring your own device], people are bringing their own phones, their own tablets. As long as you enable them securely to do business on those devices they will have access to back-end infrastructure that will give them whatever applications and whatever data access they need.
GC: How important has marketing been to the cloud industry? How, as a decision maker in your organization and a cloud customer, do you navigate that?
LB: I think one of the challenges these companies have is they have to decide who their target audiences are. If your target audience is me, then there is a certain kind of messaging that would be effective. [If the] target audience is the business executives that try and make an end run on around IT, then their message is very different because I think they are trying to market to two very different audiences. It muddies the water. I think it scares CIOs and puts the others on the defensive, so I don’t think they have done a very good job of marketing it to CIOs. I think they have done a good job of marketing it to business executives, which is starting a new dialogue, which could be a healthy dialogue. It could also put CIOs in a defensive mode, which makes them kind of bristle against some of these companies, so it is a delicate balancing act and I don’t think [they've found] a middle ground that is working for both audiences.
GC: What do you feel is missing in terms of the messaging you are being given as a CIO?
LB: If it was me selling these services, I would try to be pitching for the CIO how these services can enable them to deliver services efficiently, more effectively, and get themselves out of the boiler room and into the executive suite.
GC: What is missing for you in terms of cloud, both from the technology perspective but also from the services in terms of how you are applying them to your business and strategy?
LB: I think that right now it is more of a generic offering, that people aren’t in a position to carry over to specific industries, specific offerings to specific applications. I think that will evolve over time, so it is just a natural evolution of any market, quite frankly. I just think it is a matter of maturity and time to get there, but right now it is kind of a one-size-fits-all approach to cloud. And first of all, one of the problems they have is they use that word [“cloud”] for everything, so anything from hosted applications to public cloud to private cloud to just data sending services is getting labeled software. I think there is going to be an enormous amount of confusion in the market place and in the industry because people are just trying to grant their services in such a way that they get a buzz.
LB: I agree with that; it is not your asset. If you are worried about the asset thing, then it is not cloud in my opinion. So I agree with Ken. I think the way he is looking at it is right.
GC: So, then, what accounts for things that aren’t cloud and are being called cloud — so-called cloud washing?
LB: It is marketing. People don’t want to be left behind, and if they don’t have a great service offering, I think it is a marketing ploy more than anything else. It gives them the opportunity to see they are in the game while they try to play catch-up.
GC: How do you separate that for the less-technical consumer? They are being sold something that’s not what it claims to be.
LB: The trouble is if the business people are going out to do this on their own without expertise. It is like somebody going to buy a car who doesn’t know anything about cars — they can get taken for a ride, no pun intended. So I think that is where the CIOs [who] have partnerships with their businesses can kind of help reach through the BS and get to where it really is of value, whereas the ones with businesses going out on their own because they don’t have trust or value in the IT organization can get burned. Because they don’t know, they can’t separate the truth from the BS.
GC: So it sounds as though, from your perspective, cloud has actually created a situation where IT is increasingly relevant.
LB: I think if you are truly adding business value to your business partner that creates a tremendous opportunity to be more relevant, but if you are not it creates a greater opportunity if you get whatever business.
GC: Looking at Amazon vs. any of the other major cloud providers, what’s the opportunity against the mega clouds for smaller cloud providers? How can they truly differentiate themselves?
LB: You should be more nimble; you can be more flexible; you can adapt a solution to a specific application or a specific industry. It is harder for those big monsters to be as flexible, so I think that, especially in the SMB space, there is enormous opportunity to work with midsize companies. I think that there’s a huge market there for [smaller providers], because you can be more flexible and you can adapt, whereas the bigger guys can only really put out kind of like the old Henry Ford: ‘Any color you want, as long as it’s black,’ because it is harder for them to have malleable solutions.
GC: Looking at all these providers, who is doing it right and who is doing it wrong?
LB: I think Amazon has been doing it right. I worry about them from the perspective that an entrepreneur company grows and they try to professionalize their management they have a tendency to have people come in from a different type of culture so what you’ll see is a company like Amazon hiring people from Microsoft or IBM to manage and “professionalize” their organization, but then got oil and water. You’ve got entrepreneurial people, which is what Amazon [was] in the first place, mixed with people from Fortune 100 companies who are old school and that could be a mix of culture,s so I think that’s what the challenge is to make sure you keep an entrepreneurial edge while at the same time getting to a scale and an approach that is professionally managed.
GC: In the nearer term, how do you see this industry changing? How would you like to see it change?
LB: What I would like to see is more and more services available and more and more of them built around the needs of the customer, so it is less vanilla and more Baskin Robbins. And it is more where the people on the cloud side have people who connect the solution providers as opposed to selling generic product offerings.
By Jake Gardner