A major problem awaits enterprises staking their futures on cloud architectures: Version control is out of your hands

First, my beef and an anecdote that illustrates the big point in microcosm: My laptop died last week. The good news is that I’m pretty good about backing up my data. The bad news is that moving into a new machine is always a pain in the neck, even under the best of circumstances because software (as you know) can’t just be copied into the right folders. It has to be reinstalled.

As I was upgrading to Windows 7 anyway on a brand-new machine, moving to Office 2010 seemed to make more sense than installing Office 2007 since I knew another upgraded awaited. That’s what I did, and that’s when the fun began, assuming you define “fun” as pushing your blood pressure beyond 210 over 180.

First the good news: Microsoft finally understands time zones. Schedule an all-day event — call it the “Fourth of July.” Change time zones, and mirabile dictu, unlike all previous versions of Outlook, it stays on July 4 — all of it. It’s the small pleasures that make life worthwhile.

Now the bad news: Neither Research in Motion nor Google have bothered to update their sync software to work with Outlook 2010.

Research in Motion might not feel any sense of urgency. Its primary customer base is corporate IT. Those who use Outlook sync everything through their Exchange Servers, not through their Outlook client, so they have no worries. The rest of us? Apparently, we’re an afterthought; searching Blackberry.com and RIM.com for “Outlook 2010” yields no hits.

(Snide comment time: RIM’s home page contains these words: “Innovation knows no boundaries or borders.” It apparently does know one boundary: the one separating RIM from the rest of the world.)

Google enters the picture because until now its calendar and calendar sync software provided an appealing alternative for keeping smartphones and Outlook synchronized. No longer — Google also shows no sign that it’s even aware there is such a product as Outlook 2010.

It’s hard to complain about this. Google calendar and its calendar sync software are freebies, which means feeling outraged that it doesn’t have a freebie for me would be more than a little ungracious. In any event, I found an inexpensive workaround called gSynchit. If you’re stuck, all I can tell you is that it seems to be working fine for me.

OK, here’s the punchline: The moment you move critical IT infrastructure into the cloud, change management — the most important IT discipline for maintaining a stable production environment according to ITIL® and just about everyone else besides — becomes impossible.

While my experience with Office 2010 illustrates the point in reverse, it provides illustration nonetheless. Enterprise computing has a lot of moving parts. When you control the moving parts, you can regression test every upgrade to make sure it doesn’t break what’s currently working.

Move some of those moving parts into the cloud and someone else can decide to upgrade them without consulting or notifying you. This is not hypothetical. As an example, a prominent Web conferencing provider has received numerous complaints for changing its API without notice or documentation not once, not twice, but on three separate occasions.

What can you do about it? Here are two suggestions:

  1. Be cautious about building anything important on a free service. If you don’t pay for it, you have no negotiating leverage. Yes, this does include open source software. I’m not saying ignore everything that’s free. I’m saying you should be cautious and choose solutions with a history of stable, professional management.
  2. Negotiate a requirement that every cloud vendor you work with provide three months’ advance notification for all upgrades, along with a test environment available throughout that period for your use so that you can find any compatibility problems and take the necessary steps to fix them.

Move to the cloud and you lose your ability to skip upgrades. That might be a good thing — at least you won’t wake up one day to realize the entire company depends on a piece of technology that was sold be a vendor that went out of business a decade ago.

Since you can’t skip upgrades, though, you’d better be in a position to make sure they don’t break your company when they happen.


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