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The latest infotech nightmare? Cloud sprawl!

As cloud computing spreads, so does your company’s data.


Tobolski: The cloud also has a dark side. Photo: Accenture

By Joseph F. Tobolski, director of development, Accenture Technology Labs

It often starts off innocently, say with a twentysomething employee seeking additional servers to do a data analysis project.  Studies show, after all, that it’s these “millennials” who expect to use their own preferred technologies for work rather than those supplied by their employer.

Anyway, he can’t get this from IT, so he goes and loads data on a server he rents from a “cloud” service provider.  He later completes the project, but neglects to delete the data.  When he leaves the company the following year, the corporate data he has in the cloud has been long forgotten and it’s now impossible for his employer to corral.

Meanwhile he tells his colleagues how easy it was to procure servers and storage from the cloud.  Pretty soon, his associates follow suit and build applications in the cloud, several of which go viral within the company.

It doesn’t take long before ad hoc cloud services are used throughout various departments without any comprehensive strategy or formal program in place, without anyone having a handle on what exactly is going on or where corporate data resides. 

The tech equivalent of urban sprawl

It’s called cloud sprawl, a result of the new-found popularity and ease of use of cloud computing, in which people store information and applications in remote data centers instead of on their own PCs.  The demand for cloud is not surprising, as it has proven to be faster, cheaper, easier, and more responsive.  It’s so attractive, in fact, that anecdotal information suggests that companies today use the cloud without even realizing it. 

It is as though– perhaps not coincidentally on the 40th anniversary of Woodstock – a “free love” environment of everyone seemingly doing their own thing is taking place when it comes to tech in the workplace. 

As a result, there is the potential for enterprise data ending up all over the place, without strong control or even knowledge of the IT department. But this uncontrolled approach to cloud can cause IT headaches —violating departmental borders, duplicating services, and operating outside the auspices of the IT shop.  In other words, the simplicity of cloud computing can spur a sprawl that has the potential to run amok. 

This negates the efficiency gains that cloud can bring and worse – if organizations look to change how/where their data is stored; the ad-hoc approach to usage could cause a logistical nightmare for CIOs as they seek to move to a new provider.

What to Do

The reality is that businesses crave compute capacity.  If IT shops can’t provide the benefits available in the cloud, people will seek to get the services by a back door. 

Before, in the ‘90s, it was very difficult to do this because you couldn’t buy or rent servers without raising capital requests. That’s not the case here.  The IT department can try to block it, in effect try to put the genie back in the bottle. 

From a business perspective, however, it is very difficult to prevent people from taking advantage of something that’s cheaper, faster, and more efficient.  The right approach is to try to co-opt services from the cloud providers, to use them as the basis of IT services, to make the internal IT shop just as fast, just as nimble, and just as elastic as any of the cloud providers. 

While being rigid and inflexible is a mistake, so is doing things willy nilly without some sort of management control.  There needs to be a meeting somewhere in the middle.  The onus is on the CIO, who can begin by offering these services straight away.  CIOs have to provide an ease of consumption that rivals or exceeds that of the cloud providers.   Right now, they are not in position to do this. 

The end goal is to adopt a more cloud-like approach inside the corporation’s own data center.  CIOs shouldn’t resist, as there are valuable lessons to be learned from what the cloud providers are doing.  Yes, they may not have all enterprise capability, but they are doing things that are very interesting and certainly demonstrate the art of the possible. 

It’s all about being flexible and nimble and responsive to your customers, characteristics that, in the long run, increase the value of IT.

Tobolski is the director of development,
Accenture Technology Labs
, the technology research & development organization for global consulting and outsourcing firm
.  He is based in Chicago, and he can be reached at