Tale of an accidental cloud leader

With three major cloud platform implementations under our belt, we've heard more than once we're considered a cloud leader. It wasn't our goal, but with resources constrained and the call from business leaders to deliver several key transformations over the last few years, we turned to cloud computing for answers.

FAQ: Cloud computing, demystified

Brady Corporation is a public company with 90 locations in 29 countries, 7,800 employees and $1.2 billion in annual sales. We manufacture solutions that identify and protect premises, products and people, and from what we've been told, we're on the leading edge of cloud adoption for a company our size.

Like IT organizations in many large enterprises, our team is tasked with evaluating and implementing systems and applications to fuel the company's growth and give employees the information they need, when they need it, so they can make the best decisions -- all while keeping operational costs as low as possible. Our internal requirements, existing IT environment and business processes may be unique to Brady, but I'm guessing our IT group's mission and motivations to leverage cloud-based technologies are probably similar to many other enterprises.

On-demand transformation

In the last two years, we have deployed three significant cloud computing solutions globally: salesforce.com, Workday.com and Google Apps for Enterprise.

These three platforms are at the core of our on-demand transformation strategy to reduce complexity, deliver new innovative capabilities to business users, and prepare for scalable growth at a predictable cost. We have implemented these three platforms simultaneously while maintaining "business as usual", which in our environment means seven SAP deployments, 15 Web site deployments, numerous projects and enhancements, and a flat budget over the last year.

Increasing sales and decreasing costs is a way of life in our IT group. We have created business value with on-demand  computing by transforming our operating model and enabling innovative ways to prepare for scale and growth.

Preparing for growth starts with effectively managing human resources. Prior to our Workday implementation, we had over 30 human resources systems, making it difficult to manage resources and talent globally. Simple questions such as "How many employees do we have in Asia?" were hard to answer accurately and required significant manual effort to collect and validate. We now have one global system of record providing visibility, consistency and control of our HR processes to manage more than 7,000 human resources across our 90 sites. Workday was deployed on schedule and under budget, giving us a global view of our talent, which is critical in this tough economy.

Growth requires getting the most out of our sales resources and available opportunities. Prior to salesforce.com, sales force automation capabilities were limited, non-existent or non-standard around the world. Now our sales representatives have a common tool, integrated with SAP and accessible from anywhere -- including through their mobile devices. We have deployed 750 seats of salesforce.com globally. This capability has enabled our sales teams to share wins globally and accelerate lead conversion, which is positively impacting sales growth.

With over 90 sites and many multi-functional teams spread across the world, effective collaboration tools are essential. Our previous mail and collaboration platform (IBM Lotus) was costly with limited functionality for our global workforce, particularly for collaboration. To overcome these limitations, we deployed Google Mail, Calendar, Sites and Docs to our 6,000 users globally.

The project took seven months from approval to company-wide "big bang" deployment over a single weekend. External spend was less than $100,000. Annual savings on our current user base is $300,000 a year, and we can add new users to the system at less than 1/4 the cost of our old model. We consider Google to be a next-generation platform upon which we can build. Our users have adapted to the change well and many are excited about the new capabilities we have given them.

We intend to continue our on-demand journey as more IT services become available and mature in the cloud.

The hype and reality of cloud computing

There's been a lot of hype around cloud computing and it's tempting to grab at the next shiny object -- even if it's not the right thing for the company. We were conscious of this and made our decision to move these three core business processes to the cloud after much debate and a number of pilots with alternative technologies. It wasn't until our move to Google that our on-demand strategy really took form and became a focus inside Brady.

Of course, there are pros and cons with any new technology paradigm. With software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications, you have to understand the financial and budget impact of shifting significant IT spend from capital to operating expense. SaaS applications become annual fixed operating expenses, which eliminates the option to starve a particular IT platform to focus investments elsewhere for business reasons -- a strategy employed by many IT organizations constrained by tight budgets.

If you build an application on some cloud platforms, you may also need to license all or a large portion of your organization to access the platform, which could add significant costs. Finally, some cloud technologies are more mature than others and careful evaluation and diligence is always required.

In Brady's case, we've hit the big three applications that are the most mature in the SaaS model -- HR, CRM and collaboration. Our focus now is to fully adopt and leverage these platforms across our organization. Even if the SaaS model was fully mature and viable in other major categories like e-commerce and ERP (which will take some time), we have to be careful not to rush forward with too much change at once.

We don't need to mimic the application sprawl that's plagued many an IT department, and we don't want SaaS silos. We can solve a lot of business problems with the three major platforms we've deployed. It would be a missed opportunity to rush forward to the next "shiny object" and not invest time and resources in these very powerful platforms.

One of our partners, Appirio, a cloud solution provider based in California, is helping us connect our Salesforce CRM and Google collaboration platforms so if employees are in one system they don't need to re-enter or change information in other systems. We think this is a way to make our employees more productive, encourage even greater adoption of the systems we have, and improve the quality of data we have in these systems at the same time.

We're also looking at ways to expand our usage of existing cloud platforms, not just connect them. We are experimenting with Google AppEngine, and are investigating the possibilities of salesforce.com's Force.com platform for custom development. Google Sites could be a great, low-cost option for our company intranet, and technology like Secure Data Connector and iGoogle could form a foundation for a lightweight next-generation portal hosted in the cloud.

The speed of innovation on these platforms is staggering. The key now is keeping pace with these changes and leveraging these technologies to improve the business.

So while we didn't set out to be a cloud enthusiast or leader, right now it's a good place to be.

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