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Use cloud computing to drive IT innovation

Cloud computing is not just a cost cutter -- it's also a platform you can use to innovate with less risk.

Based on the number of articles and columns on IT innovation, you might get the impression that IT lacks innovation. Google IT and innovation (more than 30 million returns) or do an advanced search on the exact phrase IT innovation (down to around a half million returns) and it's clear that there are many experts and pundits telling us IT needs to be much more innovative.

Niel Nickolaisen
The Real Niel
Niel Nickolaisen

You can also read a lot of articles these days that suggest that CIOs may not need to drive innovation anymore. The cloud will do it for us, just like managed services, outsourcing and a list of other magic bullets that were going to do it for us.

I beg to differ on all counts. If IT were not a model of innovation, Al Gore would still be inventing the Internet and my FORTRAN programming skills would be in high demand (by the way, if you need someone who has mastered spaghetti code using conditional do statements, I am your man). And each time we create a new technology, the ripple effects allow even more innovation.

Take, for example, how the Internet has changed our lives and enterprise IT. The Internet enabled e-commerce, email and outsourcing. And now it is enabling us to utilize cloud computing not just as a commodity resource, but also as a platform for innovation. With the Web came the potential for Web services. It did not take long for smart and innovative IT types to extrapolate this potential into opportunities for CIOs to transform how we use technology.

For example, I just launched a small database marketing pilot. Rather than absorb this project into my existing data center infrastructure, we are going to use the full set of services (applications, application servers, Web servers, database, database servers, etc.) that already exist "in the cloud". That allows us to try different business rules, technical alternatives and approaches on the fly. We can tap into various Web services as we figure out what works best.

Our plans for this year included expanding our storage array network. We were going to buy more disks and another controller. Instead, we are experimenting with storage in the cloud.

Much of our storage space is consumed by data that we rarely access. What if instead of expanding our storage array network, we just store that rarely accessed data in the cloud? Cloud storage costs less than buying your own.

Extending this thinking, do we need to upgrade our backup system, or can we simply back up to the cloud? We were already looking at the cloud to back up the hard drives of our remote users, so why not do the same with our server data? This could actually simplify our business continuity plans. We might be getting ahead of ourselves, but in this age of specialization we might not need to be really good at storage management.

It will be interesting to see what innovations come next as enterprise IT accepts and adopts cloud computing as a reliable, meaningful option. To me, it is just more evidence that IT is synonymous with innovation.

Niel Nickolaisen is CIO at Western Governors University in Salt Lake City. He is a frequent speaker, presenter and writer on IT's dual role enabling strategy and delivering operational excellence. Write to him at

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