How to staff the hybrid cloud

IT leaders share their advice for getting network and infrastructure teams ready for hybrid cloud environments.

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The IT team at Perkins+Will used to support a sprawling SAN environment for its complex commercial-building renderings.

When the Chicago-based architecture firm – which has 2,500 employees in 30 locations around the world – outgrew its SAN environment, Perkins+Will chose to migrate away from on-premises data centers and edge devices to a cloud-based storage system. Suddenly CIO Murali Selvaraj faced a difficult challenge: How to restructure the firm's 50-person global IT organization to meet the needs of the hybrid cloud.

The new environment, Nasuni Cloud File Services, backed by Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3), only required three full-time people, leaving the rest of IT with far more time on their hands.

“We are not a firm that fires people willy-nilly,” Selvaraj says. With no industry best practice for how to rethink staffing in this new era, Perkins+Will charted its own course, following a cultural philosophy Selvaraj sums up this way: “When people are happy, motivated, and educated, they adapt to new technologies and we get the best out of them.” His task was to reimagine IT, drawing on time- and cost-savings of hybrid cloud, to add greater benefit to the business.

For instance, IT can now take on “innovation projects” in application, product and customer development, as well as process-oriented efforts such as onboarding of new employees and firms that come from mergers and acquisitions. “We are recalibrating from local thinking – how to make the edge devices work – to global thinking of how we can add value,” he says.

Scott Terrell, CIO and senior vice president at insurance platform provider HealthMarkets in North Richland Hills, Texas, says the hybrid cloud demands that IT attain hybrid skills and take on hybrid roles.

“We were staffed as traditional IT with development teams and infrastructure teams kept separate,” he says. Now, in a hybrid environment, he finds skills are less about silos such as hard-core server configuration and more about how everyone uses cloud-based tools such as the Microsoft Azure platform to manage and monitor scalability.

HealthMarkets started progressing towards the cloud five years ago, driven by the seasonal demands of the then newly released Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

“We wanted to be able to scale up for demand and scale down to control costs,” Terrell says. December 15 is the highest demand day of the year, with open enrollment for the ACA sparking 10 times the usual call volume to the now cloud-based call center, while December 16 is the quietest day. “I simply couldn’t affordably scale the data center to handle that situation.”

The 70-member IT team supports a hybrid environment for back-office applications as well, with the phone system and Microsoft Office365 moved to the cloud while the commission processing and administration platforms live in the data center.

“The move to the public cloud changes the paradigm from not just how IT engineers do their work, but understanding the business behind it,” says J.R. Storment, who worked with large enterprise customers for eight years as co-founder of Cloudability and helped to found the newly created, FinOps Foundation, a nonprofit trade association focused on codifying and promoting cloud financial-management best practices and standards .

He believes rules, mindsets and perceptions all have to adapt to a world of operational expenditures (vs. capital expenditures) and real-time scalability (vs. lengthy procurement cycles). “It can be a painful transition because there is a tremendous amount of new knowledge that has to be understood and new skills that need to be obtained. It’s a lot like drinking from a fire hose,” Storment says.

Each of these experts in cloud transformation, along with others, share their experience and advice for staffing the hybrid cloud.

Consider the end game: full cloud or hybrid cloud?

To be successful at hybrid cloud, companies need to know if hybrid is a pit stop or a destination. Selvaraj considers the hybrid cloud a pit stop to full cloud transformation, while Terrell believes highly regulated industries such as healthcare for now must consider the hybrid cloud a destination.

Christopher Gerhardt, president and managing partner at GrayBeard, a consultancy in Richmond, Va., calls the hybrid cloud “an illusion”.

Gerhardt assumes executive roles for large IT enterprises such as gaming companies and financial institutions, on a fractional basis, and helps them make the transition to the cloud. He says hybrid environments force companies to contend with all the problems of running a data center and staffing a data center, as well as the footprint.

“You’re stuck needing new skills and old skills, so you’ll never get to the full benefits of the cloud if you aren’t willing to disrupt the organization,” Gerhardt says. That includes disrupting the staff – a necessity if a company want to go all the way to the cloud. “Workforce transformation should never be the barrier to the cloud.”

Communicate enterprise cloud strategy

Instead of being deep matter experts on one layer of technology, Storment says many companies are moving IT towards product-oriented development and asking everyone to be a jack of all trades, full-stack engineers, and full-minded business leaders. “This change has to be carefully navigated, and all voices have to be at the table,” he says.

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