Knowing the Caveats in Cloud Computing

Cloud computing has become such a buzzword in business circles today that many organisations both small and large, are quick to jump on the cloud bandwagon – sometimes a little too hastily.

Yes, the benefits of the cloud are numerous: reduced infrastructure costs, improved performance, faster time-to-market, capability to develop more applications, lower IT staff expenses; you get the picture. But contrary to what many may be expecting or have been led to believe, cloud computing is not without its share of drawbacks, especially for smaller organisations who have limited knowledge to go on with.

So before businesses move to the cloud, it pays to learn a little more about the caveats that could meet them along the way. Here are some tips to getting started with cloud computing as a small business consumer.

Know your cloud. As with anything else, knowledge is always key. Because it is a relatively new tool in IT, it’s not surprising that there is some confusion about the term cloud computing among many business owners and even CIOs. According to the document The NIST Definition of Cloud Computing, cloud computing has five essential characteristics, three basic service models (Saas, Paas and Iaas), and four deployment models (public, community, private and hybrid).

The first thing organisations should do is make a review of their operations and evaluate if they really need a cloud service. If they would indeed benefit from cloud computing, the next steps would be deciding on the service model that would best fit the organisation and choosing the right cloud service provider. These factors are particularly important when you consider data security and compliance issues.

Read the fine print. Before entering into a contract with a cloud provider, businesses should first ensure that the responsibilities for both parties are well-defined, and if the cloud vendor has the vital mechanisms in place for contingency measures. For instance, how does the provider intend to carry out backup and data retrieval operations? Is there assurance that the business’ critical data and systems will be accessible at all times? And if not, how soon can the data be available in case of a temporary shutdown of the cloud?

Also, what if either the company or the cloud provider stops operations or goes bankrupt? It should be clear from the get go that the data remains the sole property of the consumer or company subscribing to the cloud.

As you can see, there are various concerns that need to be addressed closely before any agreement is finalised. While these details are usually found in the Service Level Agreements (SLAs) of most outsourcing and servicing contracts, unfortunately, the same cannot be said of cloud contracts.

Be aware of possible unforeseen costs. The ability of smaller companies to avail of computing resources on a scalable, pay-as-you-go model is one of the biggest selling points of cloud computing. But there’s also an inherent risk here: the possibility of runaway costs. Rather than allowing significant cost savings, small businesses could end up with a bill that’s bound to blow a big hole in their budget.

Take for example the case of a software company cited on InformationWeek.com to illustrate this point. The 250-server cluster the company rented from a cloud provider was inadvertently left turned on by the testing team over the weekend. As a result, their usual $2,300 bill ballooned to a whopping $23,400 over the course of one weekend.

Of course, in all likelihood, this isn’t going to happen to every small and midsize enterprise that shifts to the cloud. However, this should alert business owners, finance executives, and CEOs to look beyond the perceived savings and identify potential sources of unexpected costs. What may start as a fixed rate scheme for on-demand computing resources, may end up becoming a complex pricing puzzle as the needs of the business grow, or simply because of human error as the example above shows.

The caveats we’ve listed here are among the most crucial ones that soon-to-be cloud adopters need to keep in mind. But should these be reasons enough for businesses to stop pursuing a cloud strategy? Most definitely not. Armed with the right information, cloud computing is still the fastest and most effective way for many small enterprises to get the business off the ground with the lowest start-up costs.

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How COBIT helps you achieve SOX Compliance

First released way back in 1996, COBIT has already been around for quite a while. One reason why it never took off was because companies were never compelled to use it ? until now. Today, many CEOs and CIOs are finding it to be a vital tool for achieving SOX compliance in IT.

Thanks to SOX, COBIT (Control Objectives for Information and related Technology) is now one of the most widely accepted source of guidance among companies who have IT integrated with their accounting/financial systems. It has also gained general acceptability with third parties and regulators. But how did this happen?

Role of control frameworks in SOX compliance

You see, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, despite having clearly manifested the urgency of establishing effective internal controls, does not provide a road map for you to follow nor does it specify a yardstick to help you determine whether an acceptable mileage in the right direction has already been achieved.

In other words, if you were a CIO and you wanted to find guidance on what steps you had to take to achieve compliance, you wouldn’t be able to find the answers in the legislation itself.

That can be a big problem. Two of your main SOX compliance obligations as a CEO or CIO is to assume responsibility in establishing internal controls over financial reporting and to certify their effectiveness. After that, the external auditors are supposed to attest to your assertions. Obviously, there has to be a well-defined basis before you can make such assertions and auditors can attest to anything.

In the language of auditors, this ?well-defined basis? is known as a control framework. Simply put, once you certify the presence of adequate internal controls in your organisation, the external auditor will ask, ?What control framework did you use??

Knowing what control framework you employed will help external auditors determine how to proceed with their evaluations and tests. For your part, a control framework can serve as a guide to help you work towards specific objectives for achieving compliance. Both of you can use it as a common reference point before drawing any conclusions regarding your controls.

But there are many control frameworks out there. What should you use?

How SOX, COSO, and COBIT fit together

Fortunately, despite SOX?s silence regarding control frameworks, you aren’t left entirely to your own devices. You could actually take a hint from the SEC and PCAOB, two of the lead organisations responsible for implementing SOX. SEC and PCAOB point to the adoption of any widely accepted control framework.

In this regard, they both highly endorse COSO, a well-established internal control framework formulated by the Committee of Sponsoring Organisations of the Treadway Commission (COSO). Now, I must tell you, if you’re looking specifically for instructions pertaining to IT controls, you won’t find those in COSO either.

Although COSO is the most established control framework for enterprise governance and risk management you’ll ever find (and in fact, it’s what we recommend for your general accounting processes), it lacks many IT-related details. What is therefore needed for your IT processes is a framework that, in addition to being highly aligned with COSO, also provides more detailed considerations for IT.

This is where COBIT fits the bill.

How COBIT can contribute to your regulatory compliance endeavors

COBIT builds upon and adheres with COSO while providing a finer grain of detail focused on IT. You can even find a mapping between COBIT IT processes and COSO components within the COBIT document itself.

Designed with regulatory compliance in mind, COBIT lays down a clear path for developing policies and good practice for IT control, thus enabling you to bridge the gap between control requirements, technical issues, and business risks.

Some of the components you’ll find in COBIT include:

IT control objectives

These are statements defining specific desired results that, as a whole, characterise a well-managed IT process. They come in two forms for each COBIT-defined IT process: a high-level control objective and a number of detailed control objectives. These objectives will enable you to have a sense of direction by telling you exactly what you need to aim for.

Maturity models

These are used as benchmarks that give you a relative measurement stating where your level of management or control over an IT process or high-level control objective stands. It serves as a basis for setting as-is and to-be positions and enables support for gap analysis, which determines what needs to be done to achieve a chosen level. Basically, if a control objective points you to a direction, then its corresponding maturity model tells you how far in that direction you’ve gone.

RACI charts

These charts tell you who (e.g. CEO, CFO, Head of Operations, Head of IT Administration) should be Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed for each activity.

Goals and Metrics

These are sets of goals along with the corresponding metrics that allow you to measure against those goals. Goals and metrics are defined in three levels: IT goals and metrics, which define what business expects from IT; process goals and metrics, which define what the IT process should deliver to support It’s objectives; and activity goals and metrics, which measure how well the process is performing.

In addition to those, you’ll also find mappings of each process to the information criteria involved, IT resources that need to be leveraged, and the governance focus areas that are affected.

Everything is presented in a logical and manageable structure, so that you can easily draw connections between IT processes and business goals, which will in turn help you decide what appropriate governance and control is needed. Ultimately, COBIT can equip you with the right tools to maintain a cost-benefit balance as you work towards achieving SOX compliance.

Migrating from CRM to Big Data

Big data moved to centre stage from being just another fad, and is being punted as the latest cure-all for information woes. It may well be, although like all transitions there are pitfalls. Denizon decided to highlight the major ones in the hope of fostering better understanding of what is involved.

Accurate data and interpretation of it have become increasingly critical. Ideas Laboratory reports that 84% of managers regard understanding their clients and predicting market trends essential, with accelerating demand for data savvy people the inevitable result. However Inc 5000 thinks many of them may have little idea of where to start. We should apply the lessons learned from when we implemented CRM because the dynamics are similar.

Be More Results Oriented

Denizon believes the key is focusing on the results we expect from Big Data first. Only then is it appropriate to apply our minds to the technology. By working the other way round we may end up with less than optimum solutions. We should understand the differences between options before committing to a choice, because it is expensive to switch software platforms in midstream. data lakes, hadoop, nosql, and graph databases all have their places, provided the solution you buy is scalable.

Clean Up Data First

The golden rule is not to automate anything before you understand it. Know the origin of your data, and if this is not reliable clean it up before you automate it. Big Data projects fail when executives become so enthused by results that they forget to ask themselves, ?Does this make sense in terms of what I expected??

Beware First Impressions

Big Data is just that. Many bits of information aggregated into averages and summaries. It does not make recommendations. It only prompts questions and what-if?s. Overlooking the need for the analytics that must follow can have you blindly relying on algorithms while setting your business sense aside.

Hire the Best Brains

Big Data?s competitive advantage depends on what human minds make with the processed information it spits out. This means tracing and affording creative talent able to make the shift from reactive analytics to proactive interaction with the data, and the customer decisions behind it.

If this provides a d?j? vu moment then you are not alone. Every iteration of the software revolution has seen vendors selling while the fish were running, and buyers clamouring for the opportunity. Decide what you want out first, use clean data, beware first impressions and get your analytics right. Then you are on the way to migrating successfully from CRM to Big Data.

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What Sub-Metering did for Nissan in Tennessee

When Nissan built its motor manufacturing plant in Smyrna 30 years ago, the 5.9 million square-foot factory employing over 8,000 people was state of art. After the 2005 hurricane season sky-rocketed energy prices, the energy team looked beyond efficient lighting at the more important aspect of utility usage in the plant itself. Let’s examine how they went about sub-metering and what it gained for them.

The Nissan energy team faced three challenges as they began their study. They had a rudimentary high-level data collection system (NEMAC) that was so primitive they had to transfer the data to spread-sheets to analyse it. To compound this, the engineering staff were focused on the priority of getting cars faster through the line. Finally, they faced the daunting task of making modifications to reticulation systems without affecting manufacturing throughput. But where to start?

The energy team chose the route of collaboration with assembly and maintenance people as they began the initial phase of tracking down existing meters and detecting gaps. They installed most additional equipment during normal service outages. Exceptions were treated as minor jobs to be done when convenient. Their next step was to connect the additional meters to their ageing NEMAC, and learn how to use it properly for the first time.

Although this was a cranky solution, it had the advantage of not calling for additional funding which would have caused delays. However operations personnel were concerned that energy-saving shutdowns between shifts and over weekends could cause false starts. ?We’ve already squeezed the lemon dry,? they seemed to say. ?What makes you think there?s more to come??

The energy team had a lucky break when they stumbled into an opportunity to prove their point early into implementation. They spotted a four-hourly power consumption spike they knew was worth examining. They traced this to an air dryer that was set to cyclical operation because it lacked a dew-point sensor. The company recovered the $1,500 this cost to fix, in an amazing 6 weeks.

Suitably encouraged and now supported by the operating and maintenance departments, the Smyrna energy team expanded their project to empower operating staff to adjust production schedules to optimise energy use, and maintenance staff to detect machines that were running without output value. The ongoing savings are significant and levels of shop floor staff motivation are higher.

Let’s leave the final word to the energy team facilitator who says, ?The only disadvantage of sub-metering is that now we can’t imagine doing without it.?

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