How a CIO made a business case for a cloud computing solution

A cloud computing solution at Harvard Medical School illustrates the need for CIOs to articulate the business case and bring everyone into the process.

The business of Harvard Medical School (HMS) is research, "like big pharma," according to Marcos Athanasoulis, CIO of the institution, which is based in Boston, across the river from its parent university. Historically, the biomedical scientists at HMS have been allowed to design their own systems for cutting-edge research. As a result, the IT department was scrambling to support a variety of standards, systems and protocols in an environment that was growing like a sci-fi nightmare.

"It was like the land of 1,000 CIOs," Athanasoulis said. "For IT to be successful, we have to serve the user," but he couldn't force HMS users to adopt preferred systems. To rein in the increasingly complex technology configuration, he went to HMS senior business leaders and made the case for a cloud computing solution, telling them, "We're going to have to spend money." His experience illustrates how, in building the business case for the cloud, the IT department can become a business partner, as well as a service provider.

HMS built a cloud computing solution based on user participation. The idea was that IT would charge a usage-based fee for storage and computing services, and a separate fee for a network node. Users of existing equipment could reduce their fees by donating computing resources to the cloud. This works well within the burst-y field of scientific research, Athanasoulis said, where one person's computing needs might be high and another's computer idles.

The HMS cloud was small initially, but is growing by orders of magnitude, according to Athanasoulis. By making everyone part of the computing solution, he built trust among the users and got them engaged in requirements. "We created a personal relationship," he said. It's not seen as a black box over which the users have no control. Instead, he employed an iterative development process to address concerns specific to the biomedical area. As a result, "people are moving from designing giant projects to taking chunks and seeing how it works in the cloud."

Athanasoulis, who also chairs the Biomedical High Performance Computing Leadership Summit, which will take place at HMS in October, recently appeared at The Open Group's annual conference in Boston, where the San Francisco-based international standards body released four white papers to help IT leaders build the business case for cloud computing.

The on-demand revolution

The cloud "is a change in our environment toward industrialization, providing services on demand," said Mark Skilton, global director for consulting firm Capgemini U.S. LLC and co-author of The Open Group's white paper "Building Return on Investment from Cloud Computing".

"We think there's value in taking people into the cloud, but how do you negotiate that process?" Skilton said. The Open Group recommends that CIOs use questionnaires and scorecards to assist with a quantitative analysis of the current cost of IT compared with the cost of cloud services. That's only part of the picture, however; they also need to do qualitative and risk analyses to move forward with a "scientific basis for change," he said. Then, "see where you can bite bits off your estate and start to move to a public or private cloud."

When moving to a cloud computing solution, remember best practices, Skilton advised: Learn, pilot and practice -- and test on an internal business process. Or, as Athanasoulis put it: Pilot, [encourage] participation, produce results and promote.

We think there's value in taking people into the cloud, but how do you negotiate that process?

Mark Skilton, global director, Capgemini U.S. LLC

ROI models will evolve as the technology matures, Skilton said. When building the case for the cloud, CIOs should use terms that business users can understand and relate to, such as investment, cost improvements or business performance. One argument the CIO could use, for example, is that cloud computing will enable the business to:

•         Optimize the total asset portfolio

•         Deploy infrastructure and services in a more rapid and proactive way

•         "Land and expand" in markets with an infrastructure and service capacity that can grow with the business

•         Improve its carbon footprint

In addition to its white paper on ROI, the Open Group's Cloud Business Artifacts working group released a paper that describes a cloud buyers' decision tree that will help IT executives see where cloud solutions might fit into their organizations; a paper that includes a requirements questionnaire to help them identify their cloud computing goals; and a collection of cloud business use-cases, findings and conclusions.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Laura Smith, Features Writer.

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