The cloud is a concept that’s been around for some time. Its name is quite fitting because what it is and how it applies to agencies can be quite cloudy. As with many technology trends and fads, the cloud promises to revolutionize our interactions, automate our processes, create efficiencies and lower our costs.

It promises to do this through techno-magic and wired wizardry about which agency leaders likely will not have a clue. As with most nebulous ideas, some of those promises will be fulfilled; others will not. And you’d better get a solid grasp on cloud technology before you sign on the dotted line.

What is the cloud, really? In a nutshell, the cloud is akin to outsourcing. Only in this case you aren’t outsourcing people, you are outsourcing infrastructure. By doing so, you may eliminate the need for certain human resources, but the emphasis is on networks, servers, services and software. What you outsource, and how, is a combination of choice, expertise and tolerance. While cloud computing is an evolving industry, there are a handful of accepted categories. For agencies, the most relevant types include software as a service and infrastructure as a service.

Software as a Service (SaaS)

SaaS has been around longer than its acronym. SaaS is hosted software. An agency running AMS360 online, EPIC Online, NexSure—or any other online version of an agency-management system—is utilizing SaaS. By subscribing to hosted software, an agency does not have to worry about maintaining servers and networks or having the hassle of updates and system maintenance. Agencies with a wide geographic footprint will find they need less complex wide area networks. Non-agency specific examples of a SaaS system are Facebook and Gmail. When we use these systems, the location of the servers and data is rendered irrelevant. All of the technology associated with the software is delivered as a service.

Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)

Even the most progressive agency that fully adopts SaaS software will always have a need for general servers. Most agency leaders define a server as “an expensive box with blinking lights that sits in an expensive locked room that I’m told I have to have.” For our purposes, there’s no need to change the definition. Infrastructure as a service outsources the blinking box. Rather than purchasing a physical server, an agency can lease a virtual server that is physically located in a secure bunker run by the cloud service provider far, far away. From the perspective of your technology team, the IaaS server is identical to a physical server. Your service teams and customers won’t notice the difference.

Residing on the Cloud

The discipline of cloud computing is evolving rapidly, but there are still areas of proven value and low risk for most agencies. Hosted versions of all major agency management systems are available, some only via subscription models. This shifts responsibility of system management to the vendor and requires a different financial structure. Most in-house systems require a large upfront investment with a standard monthly or annual maintenance fee. Subscription models typically involve a lower upfront investment and a higher monthly fee but come with greater flexibility.

Any commoditized components of your technology infrastructure should be considered for the cloud. First should be your email systems, which are complex and usually require regular attention and maintenance. Moving the email system to the cloud moves the maintenance and complexity out as well, freeing your technology people to focus on agency-specific automation.

Most agencies run Microsoft Exchange as their back-end email system. There are a multitude of vendors offering Exchange in the cloud, including Microsoft. It stands to reason that Microsoft can manage Exchange servers more effectively and efficiently than our agencies can.

ROI

The financial return on a cloud strategy is recognized in a number of ways. In many cases, a cloud strategy is less expensive than staffing and scaling an IT department. People, real estate, equipment, power and redundancy all factor into the equation. An effective strategy often improves service, speed and reliability. A cloud strategy can give an agency access to equipment, services and specialized expertise that are hard to find and expensive to maintain internally. In addition, a well-executed cloud strategy frees your IT personnel from the bounds of infrastructure, allowing them to interact and address automation from the agency and industry perspective.

As with all technology solutions, your cloud strategy needs to be well planned and well executed. Cloud services deal with your infrastructure. Your infrastructure is an automation foundation, so avoid being tempted by quick fixes. Are you attracted to the idea of hosted email?  Explore options while also thinking through a hosted model for your agency systems. Develop a thoughtful, carefully designed strategy. The return will be well worth the effort.

And Data?

Facebook and Google retain rights to all data moving through their systems. They use this information to create targeted ads and other sources of revenue. The tradeoff is usually made because these services are free. In an agency environment, this type of data use by the software or cloud vendor is not something that should be allowed and should be explicitly addressed. In most cases, the data our agencies are pushing through our software systems are not ours to release. That information belongs to our customers.

What is the cloud, really? In a nutshell, the cloud is akin to outsourcing.