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How to build a custom cloud minus the expense of customization

CTO Niel Nickolaisen explains how a custom cloud met changing customer demands, and how he pulled one off while sidestepping the evils of customization.

Let me start by declaring my undying dislike of customizations. I have spent much of my IT career unwinding customizations that made no business sense. Who in the world needs to customize their invoicing process? The goal of any invoicing process is to send an accurate invoice so that you can get paid. Why would you ever waste any innovation or creativity by thinking up unique ways to send an invoice -- just do invoicing the way the rest of the world does invoicing. In spite of my keen dislike of customizations, I sometimes need customized solutions. In these cases, I look for service providers that can give me the discrete components I need, as was the case recently when a customer request led me to a custom cloud solution.

The customer, one of our largest, told us that they had a new regulatory rule to follow: none of their organizational data could ever enter the United States. Since all of our hardware and applications reside in the United States, I faced losing this large customer (and their revenue) unless I could come up with a design that met both the needs of this customer and those of my thousands of other customers. My first option was to engage with a cloud provider and simply move my entire application stack to a public cloud someplace other than the United States. While that met the need of my one customer, it could create latency for everyone else. My second option was to create a slice of my entire application stack -- a slice large enough to support this one customer -- and put that onto a public cloud in another country. This hybrid cloud solution (all but one of my customers on my current, private environment and this one customer on a non-U.S. public environment) met my needs. The third option was to use a different cloud service to mask the organizational data and have the masked data pass through a combination of private (my existing environment) and public (the non-U.S. public and masking cloud providers) environments. We are currently testing options two and three to determine which is the best, safest and least costly alternative. My point in giving this example is that with today's wide range of cloud services, we can assemble the blocks to get to a specific and somewhat custom approach, but without customization.

As you approach your own custom cloud decisions, here are some things to consider:

1. Always start by defining what you want to accomplish. Sometimes, we IT types get more interested in the technology than in the desired result. At the beginning of every project, I like to define the end-in-mind and a small set of acceptance criteria. For our custom cloud project, our end-in-mind is that no organizational data ever enter the United States, and our acceptance criteria included:

  • We will not make things worse for our other customers.
  • We spend as little money and use as few resources as possible to make this happen.
  • Our solution will work for others should they have the same requirement.

These guidelines kept us on track and we used them to filter our options.

2. We live in an age of IT specialization and my staff and I are generalists. Because of this, I should not think that we know everything. In practice, this means that I rely on the expertise of others. For our project, we leveraged the skills and knowledge of outsiders as we crafted and are now testing our options. Too often, we limit our choices when we rely solely on expertise that we do not and should not have.

The range and diversity of cloud offerings opens doors to solutions that we otherwise could never pursue and gives us the chance to create custom solutions without the evils of customization.

About the author:
Niel Nickolaisen is CTO at O.C. Tanner Co., a Salt Lake City-based human resources consulting company that designs and implements employee recognition programs. A frequent writer and speaker on transforming IT and IT leadership, Niel holds an M.S. degree in engineering from MIT, as well as an MBA degree and a B.S. degree in physics from Utah State University. You can contact Niel at

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When is cloud customization necessary?