Social Collaboration in the Cloud
The reinvention of business collaboration is driven at least as much by the rise of cloud computing and software as service products as it is by social media. Rather than being defined by the user interface, a cloud application is one that you can sign up for online and begin using immediately (or very nearly so) and scale quickly by buying more capacity from the service provider. The customer isn’t responsible for buying, renting, or administering a specific Internet server, and may in fact be getting services from several servers working in tandem.
Instead of worrying about (or having tight control over) the back-end configuration details, the customer pays for access to the application and lets the service provider worry about the details. (This is also known as software as a service, or SaaS.) The cloud service provider, in turn, is supposed to provide more than enough capacity to accommodate new customers or new requirements from existing customers at a moment’s notice.
The innovation taking place in cloud computing
The advantages of the cloud are significant enough that leading social collaboration products like Yammer are available only as cloud services. You can’t purchase a copy of the Yammer software and set it up on your own server or servers, not for any amount of money.
Yammer keeps its cost down by simplifying its operations, keeping the servers that run its software as identical as possible, all running the same version of the same software so they can be cloned as necessary to support the expansion of its user base. When Microsoft acquired Yammer in 2012, it was quick to assure the world that Yammer would be allowed to continue to maintain its singular focus on cloud-based software delivery.
One of Yammer’s longtime rivals, Jive Software, started on the traditional enterprise software model of selling software, supporting on-premises installation of that software, selling periodic upgrades, and distributing bug fixes and software patches as necessary.
When Jive announces a new version of its software, many of its customers take a wait-and-see attitude before deciding that the upgrade is worth the money. This means that Jive must support multiple versions of its software that are currently in active use. Even some customers for whom Jive hosts the software want it to run on dedicated servers and be updated only on a schedule of their choosing. There are legitimate reasons why large organizations insist on maintaining tight control of the software they run, but as a consequence, both Jive and its customers have higher operational costs. Also, improvements to the software are slower to trickle down to the end users of Jive’s software. As of Fall 2013, the current version is Jive 6, but many customers are running a 4.x or 5.x version.
Jive argues that it offers customers more freedom by offering both cloud and on-premises software options. At the same time, Jive is moving toward the cloud model. Although not all its customers will be convinced to switch, Jive is encouraging new ones (particularly midsize companies and teams within larger ones) to sign up for its cloud version. Jive has also begun to introduce new features in the cloud first, using the cloud as a proving ground for innovations that will later make it into the installed version of its software.
Still, many organizational leaders prefer on-premises installation of separate instances of their collaboration software on their own equipment or dedicated servers in web-hosting centers. Among other things, this allows them to upgrade on their own schedules, not at the whims of a cloud service provider. Cloud services are also commonly viewed as less secure, although there is an argument to be made that a cloud service can invest far more in information security than most organizations can themselves.
Regulatory requirements can render cloud computing a nonstarter, particularly in fields like healthcare and financial services. If you do business in a heavily regulated field, make sure that any social collaboration solution you choose complies with those regulations.
Even when an organization opts for on-premises social collaboration, employee expectations for the capabilities that business systems ought to offer are increasingly set by cloud services. When organizations fail to provide an adequate corporate solution, employees often resort to using unsanctioned consumer apps for their information sharing needs.
Making collaboration services available from anywhere
Employees increasingly expect collaboration services to follow them wherever they go and be available on whatever device they have handy, much like their Facebook and Gmail accounts. Access shouldn’t require more than a username and password, plus an Internet connection. The unacceptable alternative (in most organizations) would be containing a social collaboration server within the corporate firewall and requiring users to access it with virtual private network (VPN) software.
Because cloud collaboration services aren’t inside anyone’s firewall, they have to be capable of protecting themselves. As a reward for going “naked” on the Internet, they can reach users at work, at home, or wherever they travel.
Web-based applications are available to anyone in the world with an Internet connection, but to be effective for global companies and business travelers, those services should be available from multiple data centers around the world. Having a copy of the software and related web assets available from a nearby server means higher performance because signals don’t have to travel as far between you and the sever handling your request.
Just because a service provider uses the word “cloud” frequently in its marketing materials doesn’t mean that it has this quality of geographic distribution. Even cloud products that run on top of Amazon Web Services may be available only from a single data center because they haven’t paid for capacity from several of them.
Providing private cloud alternatives if public cloud is unacceptable
Cloud-crazy vendors who allow on-premises deployment often talk about a private cloud alternative to public cloud access to their software.
Private cloud is something of an oxymoron because it means that your software is running behind a firewall, or perhaps within a segment of a cloud provider’s infrastructure that is walled off from the rest. Vendors may describe any software that can be hosted onsite as running in a private cloud. The more legitimate use of the term refers to an internal company software infrastructure that mimics some of the characteristics of the public cloud, often using virtualization software to make it easier to partition and clone instances of software and simplify the operating environment.
Whatever the terminology, organizations that implement social collaboration but choose to do so internally should seek to duplicate the advantages of cloud software, even as they hope to preserve more security and control.
One sensible compromise, offered by VMware’s Socialcast division (among others), is an appliance-based model where the software runs on a virtualized application image that mirrors the functionality of the cloud version and gets regular software updates. This means the onsite software installation gets bug fixes and software improvements on approximately the same schedule as the cloud version, but all corporate data is contained within the corporate firewall.