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Organizations adopting the 'hybrid cloud'

Cross Country TravelCorps is using some software in the cloud, while maintaining some on its own servers. It expects to migrate more of its operations to cloud systems as companies like Perceptive Software develop programs that more easily integrate between on-premise and in the cloud.

A couple of years ago, everything – but everything – was moving to the cloud. Companies, it was predicted, would flock toward the efficiency of putting their computer muscle on the Internet. This, it was thought, would save time and money and give companies the most up-to-date software available.

But reality set in and many companies found reasons for keeping much of their software and data on premise. Today predictions still are for companies to turn to the cloud, but now expectations are slightly more muted, as companies figure out what of their data and information can satisfactorily be handled with software-as-a-service (SaaS), and what they want to keep on their own servers. Implied of course is also how they are going to move some data from the cloud to their servers and back again.

“It is a hybrid model,” said cloud expert David Linthicum, chief technology officer and founder of Reston, Va.,-based Blue Mountain Labs. “But it’s primarily around need. It’s about leveraging the cloud.”

The Revolutionary Becomes Evolutionary

It’s not surprising then that the pure-cloud model originally envisioned hasn’t come to fruition.

Like the personal computer revolution of the 80s and 90s, it will take time for companies to realize the efficiencies that can be gained by converting to cloud computing, Linthicum said.

“It’s an evolutionary process. It takes years.”

There are several reasons earlier predictions did not pan out and why companies found that moving everything to a cloud vendor’s servers just wouldn’t work.

Document retention requirements, for example, meant some companies needed to hang onto certain data in house. Putting it in the cloud would be putting an outside vender in the control of the data. Other companies worried about security risks involved with moving entirely to the cloud. They found that certain documents felt more secure if they were kept on premise.

And then there were practical concerns like how to move data from in-house servers to servers in the cloud. In fact, that integration piece still is an issue as companies look at the newer hybrid cloud model.

A “hybrid cloud” model – using some applications in the public cloud while keeping other applications in house -- is gaining steam, though.

According to industry predictions published in December by research firm Gartner Inc., at the end of 2016 more than half of Global 1000 companies are expected to store some customer-sensitive data in the public cloud. Already more than 20 percent of organizations are relying on a hybrid architecture.

Some companies, like content and process management software developer  Perceptive Software are developing cloud products that  help their customers integrate some cloud applications into their business systems. The company offers several iterations including software-as-a-service and a “hosted” system where companies own the software but Perceptive hosts and maintains it for them.

Companies like Cross Country TravelCorps, a Florida company that supplies temporary nursing staff to hospitals around the country, are turning to the cloud for certain services. 

Brandon Friedlander, corporate accounting and accounts payable supervisor for Cross Country, said the company’s employees already rely on Salesforce, a cloud application.

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In some ways, Friedlander says, it’s like the old style of dummy terminals running on a mainframe.  It’s good for the company’s sales team, he said, because they can access the same application whether or not they can log into a company network.

“They can be on the road and they can access anything they need right there,” he said.

With cloud computing, all they need is a Web browser. And Cross Country doesn’t have to purchase and maintain servers, upgrade software or worry about any of the overhead associated with hosting its own software for its 1,200 employees, Friedlander said.

Other Key Advantages

When standardized areas can be found, though, there are clear advantages to going with the cloud.

For one thing, a company doesn’t have to come up with the hefty capital outlay required to set up a new business application. By jumping into a cloud application, the company just has to buy the number of shares it needs.

When it’s time for a new version of the software, an upgrade is immediate, whereas traditional business applications can be expensive and burdensome to upgrade.

And if a business grows quickly or needs to scale back, cloud applications are highly elastic and easily scalable.

Performance on things like back-end processing can also be far more efficient in the cloud, said Linthicum. A company with a big heap of data to process could rent 1000 servers for one minute, rather than relying on one server, which would take hours to do the same amount of work.

Linking Systems is a Challenge

But those are the advantages of the cloud model. There are also clear disadvantages.

One of the big ones, which may be keeping many companies from moving more data to the cloud, is the cumbersome work of linking on-premise data with cloud data.

Large data transfers are still being done in archaic and insecure ways, experts said, because an easy link isn’t always available.

“In many instances data sets are transferred around on disks by federal express,” Linthicum said.

But many companies are working on solutions to this problem. Perceptive Software is one of them.

“Integration is a core competency of Perceptive,” said Hugh Khan, vice president of engineering with Perceptive Software. “Content is everywhere. In order to access content, we have to be integrated.”

Eventually, Khan said, he expects to see some kind of standard integration mechanism that will easily allow applications – whether they reside in the cloud or on a company’s server – to talk to one another more easily.

Friedlander said TravelCorps, a customer of Perceptive, looks forward the day when these kinds of integrations are easier. It will probably move more to the cloud when integration is easier.

This may be true for many companies. But even if integration gets easier, most experts agree that cloud computing isn’t appropriate in every situation, especially one that needs to be highly customized.

Everything done in the cloud must be highly standardized. So a cloud application can’t be modified to fit a company’s processes. The company must fit its processes to the cloud.

“In the cloud you can’t customize it,” Khan said. “That’s been the barrier: Finding business areas that are highly standardized.”

Everything simply doesn’t fit that description, Khan said.