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Moving Beyond a ‘Cloud First’ Strategy

After years of pushing a cloud-first strategy, have IT leaders found a better way?


In 2010, the U.S. federal government created a ground-breaking cloud-first strategy. The new policy tasked federal agencies to first evaluate cloud computing options before spending any more tax dollars on new technologies. Over time, the federal government planned to shut down hundreds of data centers, costing billions of dollars to maintain, by moving to the cloud.

This monumental policy is considered to be influential in the move to cloud-first strategies across organizations worldwide. Over the past decade, interest in going “cloud first” steadily grew (as visualized in the Google Trends chart below). It’s widely been considered a best practice to have a cloud-first strategy and even so much as a taboo not to have one, among some IT leaders.

But, even as some organizations are still catching up, there appears to be another shift taking place. Today, most IT organizations surveyed by McAfee have a cloud-first strategy, but the total was down by 17 percent from the previous year.

And this week, the White House introduced a working update to that influential policy, “created at a time when cloud technology was still relatively new.” It’s no longer called the Cloud First strategy. It’s called the Cloud Smart strategy.

A New Approach to Cloud

The proposed Cloud Smart strategy builds on years of lessons learned about the cloud following the introduction of the Cloud First policy. One such lesson is what cloud computing really is and isn’t.

“The term ‘cloud’ inside of Government is often used to refer to any technology solution provided by an outside vendor. In practice, ‘cloud computing’ refers to a variety of technologies that allow the rapid provisioning of systems or services from a shared pool of resources, ranging from hosted email solutions provided by a private company, to a scalable application container run on government-owned servers in a government-owned data center.”

Federal Cloud Computing Strategy: Cloud Smart

It’s not about the destination; it’s about the journey. In a way, it seems this cliché about life is how the U.S. government is starting to approach cloud: It’s not about getting to a cloud; it’s about achieving the right outcomes.

Likewise, this line of thinking is taking hold across industries. As Michael Dell, CEO of Dell Technologies, similarly put it, “Cloud is an operating model, not just a place.”

Thinking ‘App First’

So how does this new perspective impact cloud strategies? Pivoting away from infrastructure-based strategies, “enterprises are thinking ‘app first,’” said Ian Jansen Van Rensburg, senior manager of systems engineering for VMware Southern Africa.

“When discussing the impact of technology on the organization, we’ve typically done so in terms of platforms and infrastructure: on-premises, off-premises, cloud, data centers, networks, edge. And you might measure value and effectiveness in terms of the value of cost optimization, agility, speed to market, security, compliance, control and choice. What this focus overlooks is what’s actually driving business decisions today—something that, until a few years ago, most people outside of the IT department didn’t really think about—applications.”

Ian Jansen Van Rensburg, Senior Manager of Systems Engineering, VMware Southern Africa

An app-first strategy starts with questions like:

  • What are the mission-critical applications—without which an organization would completely shut down? Here, IT often needs to strike a balance between delivering ongoing security and high availability.
  • What are the business-critical applications—the software, say, keeping the sales team productive? Sales and other lines of business will want peak performance for their business operations, but IT also needs to secure the sensitive data collected here.
  • What are the customer-facing applications—the technology an organization’s customers directly touch? These might require the flexibility to handle sharp spikes in usage, without unnecessarily eating up costly resources.

Then, IT leaders determine the best infrastructure and platform to deliver applications. Because of the multitude of apps in any given organization, there likely isn’t a single cloud solution that meets the needs of every unique app. Because of barriers, like a lack of cloud skills or regional regulations, the solution for delivering a specific app might not be a cloud at all.

A Two-Way Street

The tech chorus once said, inevitably, everything will go to the cloud. The last to get there would be the first to go. “Cloud first,” they chanted.

Not so, say industry insiders today.

Rapidly evolving hybrid cloud solutions give organizations the flexibility to leverage on-premises investments alongside cloud services for years to come. Early growth of these solutions is an indicator that organizations see the strategic value in this.

Combined with continued cloud market growth, industry research around “cloud repatriation” and “reverse migration” signal not only a return to on-premises technologies but also a step towards hybrid and multi-cloud environments.

Why is IT still or back on premises? It all goes back to the app. Some apps might best be delivered on premises, some from a public cloud and some from a private cloud. As it turns out, cloud is a two-way street, and it’s possible to do it all.

“Most major vendors now offer a variety of available adoption paths and services depending on end-user needs. Industries that are leading in technology innovation have also demonstrated that hybrid and multi-cloud environments can be effective and efficient.”

Federal Cloud Computing Strategy: Cloud Smart

Cloud first is so 2010. It’s time to think app first.