CIO Digital Boardroom: The Cloud Advantage

When traditional business continuity plans failed the test of pandemic, the unenviable task of keeping the companies up and running, even as shutters rolled down on large swathes of the economy, fell on IT leadership. And, they succeeded.

The Cloud Advantage

When the history of 2020 is recorded for posterity, it would be incomplete unless we mention the defining role played by cloud computing and the CIO ? one the power and the other its harnesser. From education to critical sectors like healthcare and finance, it was companies and institutions which invested in the cloud that withstood the unprecedented constraints, of course with the quick thinking and mental gymnastics of the tech leadership.

Experts have billed cloud computing as one of the few saving graces for businesses during the crisis. Flexibility, reliability and security, the three foundations of the cloud, kept businesses resilient, thanks to the fact that in recent years, cloud has been at the center of enterprise IT strategy. Its many advantages apart, it was this reliance on cloud as the go-to enterprise system that paid off in an unexpected manner during the unprecedented disruption. Cloud became the lifeline during the pandemic allowing businesses to run effectively. Not surprisingly, over the past months, various studies have pointed to a huge spike in cloud adoption, boosted in no small measure, by companies? tremendous need for responsive and adaptable IT services.

IT leaders in India could not agree more. In Luminous, all product development is happening on Azure, AI services are also on Azure and they have been using DR on Azure for three years now. Luminous CIO, Chander Khanduja says, ?Security, speed and agility are important these days. Already 70% of our workloads are on cloud and in the next three-four months, it will be 80-85%.?

Vrinda Pai, Director – Information Systems, [24], followed a similar cloud path deploying many apps across the globe in all their centers and ?cloud helped in this aspect?. She underlines the importance of cloud saying, ?cloud is not a choice anymore but a direction.?

Manappuram Finance Limited also leveraged cloud in a very big way, especially for their online mechanisms. ?We are using Analytics with the help of Microsoft platforms. We have a multi-cloud approach,?says its CTO & CIO, Puneet Kaur Kohli.

Beyond doubt, cloud with its flexibility, reliability, and security, allowed IT leaders to innovate and drive business continuity and resilience. However, sustaining business during the crisis is one thing, and planning for a long-term future with altered ground realities another. The lessons learnt in the past few months point to an urgent need for a more calibrated approach to cloud modernization to build business resiliency beyond the New Normal.

Participants giving their views on ‘Cloud in the New Normal: Building Resilience’ at Microsoft RT 1

But how and what is the way forward?

This thought germinated the idea of CIO Digital Boardroom ? a series of deliberations by top IT leaders on lessons from the pandemic, how they are evaluating their milestones in the journey so far ?  where they are, what they want to accomplish, what are the challenges in getting there, and the way forward. We realized that these musings of the best IT brains could help benchmark the best practices around cloud and business continuity in the New Normal ? a kind of ready reckoner for the CIO community.

Under the umbrella theme of Cloud in the New Normal ? Building Resilience, CIO&Leader with Microsoft, kicked off the roundtable series on August 19. The first digital session began with the discussion on Cloud Modernization for Business Resiliency. The subsequent editions on August 28, September 4, 11, 18 and 25, carried forward the discussion through thematic sessions. The discussions covered business in the New Normal through application modernization; 

unlocking the true value of cloud through cloud-native applications; building resilience with analytics by responding, adapting, saving and getting more from data to uncover actionable insights, etc., covering the entire cloud path. We hosted around 75 top rung IT leaders and their collective insights and wisdom is a treasure-trove for the industry. In fact, the preceding quotes of the tech honchos were gleaned from the sessions.

Participants giving their views on ‘Reimagining Business in the New Normal through Application Modernization’ at Microsoft RT 2

Giving shape to the New Normal

Undeniably, cloud with its flexibility, reliability and security, allowed IT leaders to innovate and drive business continuity and resilience in the new normal. But what is this ?New Normal?? What are its contours from a CIO’s perspective? A question posed by Shyamanuja Das, Editorial Director – B2B Tech, 9.9 Group, that provided a lot of food for thought to the IT leaders attending the virtual boardroom. As they wrapped their heads around the idea trying to vocalize the hazy new buzzword, it was obvious that not many had given it much thought before. This digital roundtable thus provided them the first formal platform to concretize and formalize the concept vis-?-vis technology and business.

Most CIOs talked about remote work and unique business challenges, but the one comment that succinctly sums up the scenario came from Vinod Khode, Group CIO, Varroc Group: ?My recent joining of the company itself was online!? ? and that is exactly what the New Normal  is all about ? a world on cloud.

The pandemic has brought many organizations at crossroads. The way forward from here requires not just rebounding but rethinking and reimagining the strategic direction ? the product and business strategy, considering the infra and costs and importantly look at cloud as a ?partnership conversation?.

The conversations have started for many and also the value that cloud brought to the table during these tough times has not escaped attention. For some, the earlier migration of parts of operations to cloud, for instance cloud-based CRM and HR systems enabled a seamless experience and ensured business continuity. Emboldened many are now going for bigger migrations.

In many ways the pandemic proved to be the impetus for companies to either start their journey to cloud or expand their footprints in cloud. Enabling business continuity for enterprises of varied types, sizes and needs, cloud has certainly earned the respect and trust of the IT fraternity. For example, cloud computing enabled the almost ubiquitous adoption of remote work. Today, we know that remote work or at best a new hybrid model combining remote work and office is our new workplace. It is also the model being adopted by clients and customers. With this realization, more and more companies are aggressively adopting cloud-based services and platforms. This has also pushed their need to find reliable and trustworthy cloud service providers and platforms.

Rajesh Uppal, Executive Officer (EO) ? IT & CIO, Maruti Suzuki India, summarizes the learnings of the past months: ?It has been a good learning the last couple of months. Managing compliance is important. Efficiency part of the business and the entire user effectiveness and experience are some of the things we are looking at in these times. With these, we can redraw out IT infra and become agile and simple in our work.?

Sachin Gupta, President & Chief Information & Innovation Officer, Usha International, finds ?everyone is using cloud and is aware of it?. As regards to his company, their Data Lake runs on Azure and for all kinds of apps, they are using cloud services.

Participants giving their views on ‘Cloud in the New Normal: Building Resilience’ at Microsoft RT 3

On the cloud, now what?

Despite popular belief that COVID-19 has been the driver of digital transformation, a research by CIO&Leader shows that most CIOs have chosen to postpone long-term transformational plans while accelerating tactical digitalization. However, as uncertainty is the New Normal, there is an urgent need for action plan on business resiliency, leveraging cloud?not just acceleration of digitalization but optimized planning as well, by modernizing cloud to support newer models like hybrid and accommodate newer expectations like smooth and fast building of micro-services. There is a need to look beyond the initial incremental business value that cloud infrastructure services provided and realize that what we have witnessed so far is but a fraction of what is possible with cloud.

In short, we are now in a different phase of the civilization?s journey and we need a new roadmap for the journey ahead. While organizations have rediscovered the value of the cloud, without modern applications, the value is really sub-optimal. Realizing the need to re-architect, re-host, and/or retire their legacy applications in order to keep pace with the new expectations, many are now exploring the next step. That?s easier said than done. How do you ensure that application modernization happens efficiently, given today?s reality of hybrid cloud, multi-cloud environments?with the least disruption to business continuity?and still delivers significantly higher value?

Participants giving their views on ‘Unlocking the True Value of Cloud through Cloud-native Apps’ at Microsoft RT 4

Challenges galore

Organizations realize that they have to look for continuous optimization of business value, leveraging cloud. They know today that there is much more to cloud than renting a few virtual machines or running application in a container. Applications today need to be far more scalable, flexible, and faster to be developed and deployed. IT leaders are more than convinced that cloud can make it happen and that cloud-native applications can ‘unlock’ the value of cloud investments ? whether you are a naturalized cloud-native or a convert who recently migrated infrastructure from legacy to public cloud. The bottom line being that unless your applications are for cloud, the business value is anything but optimal.

But there are challenges. Two critical ones as pointed out by Sanjay Moralwar, Senior General Manager – IT, Cadila Health Care – Zydus Group, concern ? moving apps to cloud and the gap in manpower (SecOps) ability. For some CIOs like Bhavesh Gandhi (Group CIO, Piramal Enterprises), ?compliance is a challenge and so is CAPEX to OPEX model movement?. Venkatakrishnan Ramaswamy, Group Head (OCM: Training) – Enterprise Transformation Program, Wipro adds security and ?network firewall issues? to the list. ?Integrating hybrid security? for CIOs of those organizations that work across platforms, like for example, Rajesh Uppal, topped the concerns. For Shajy Thomas, Head of Technology, Technicolor Film & TV MPC Film, security was one of the challenges in moving to cloud. But clearly, despite the challenges, since they ?work with massive amounts of data and cloud helps!?, the company has migrated most of the micro-services, deployment, orchestration, database and app layers on cloud.

One typical challenge that Rajkumar Ayyella, CIO, KEC International (RPG Group) speaks of is ?people working in a distributed manner in the last few months? ? A hastily contrived workplace model which while allowing business to continue exposed its vulnerabilities and is a security nightmare. This necessitated looking into project and people management along with business development (like CRMs, etc.). ?We have modernized our infra in the last one and a half year. So, we ensured data security, seamless connectivity, etc. Yet, we always needed to be mindful of compliance and various security challenges. So, we deployed VDI, put in Firewalls, had in place extended VPN, applied secured Wi-Fi solutions, and ensured people had the flexibility to work from anywhere securely,? he adds.

Apparently, most tech leaders are already moving ahead with long range plans. For some these are work in progress. They are building Data Lake or have adopted a strong API-based approach, are deploying platforms or tools like CRM systems, are enabling seamless unified experience with understanding of business user perspectives, working on application modernization, bringing in AI & ML, setting up contactless and anytime-anywhere solutions, or  taking cloud engines approach in general. However, they realise that at best this has been a patchwork approach. ?We have to go a long way still in cloud migration,? Venkatraman Ananthanarayanan, CIO, Sundaram Finance said.

Participants giving their views on ‘Building Resilience with Analytics: Respond, Adapt, Save’ at Microsoft RT 5

Exploring & experimenting

Clearly, the trend is toward a hybrid model of cloud as Mandar Kulkarni (Microsoft) notes. ?The hybrid is the normal that will continue for some time. Everyone is now thinking of adopting the cloud-native architecture and that?s the trend we are clearly seeing. Also, security is at the back of the mind of IT leaders, which is important especially in the current tough times. We, at Microsoft, are also closely working with our customers on this aspect.?

Some like Sanjay Narkar, CTO, IDFC Bank who realized early on that in a hybrid world, API plays a major role, began their API journey much earlier. ?Earlier, readiness of API was not great but since 2013, it has improved a great deal. Also, we took help of OEMs in converting old cloud-native apps. In 2016, we adopted the hybrid cloud journey and migrated new apps to cloud. In 2019, our merger happened and boosted our cloud journey further. In 2020 and beyond, majority of our work will involve Data Lake. Now our journey has been on-prem + hybrid + public cloud.?

The State Bank of India too moved to cloud in 2013, stabilized it by 2015 and now 70% of the bank?s applications run on private cloud. Dhananjaya Tambe, Deputy MD & CIO, State Bank of India, says ?We have taken external help with regard to public cloud. Our core banking system is not on cloud, but all other systems are on cloud.?

Satish Papnoi, CIO, Pathways Group of Schools, credits hybrid cloud for not facing any issues in scaling up. ?We managed to convert our challenges into opportunities?, he adds.

Such is the faith being invested in cloud capabilities that IT leaders are actively recommending its adoption. Ashok Cherian, CIO, Page Industries, predicts ?massive prospect for organizations post-pandemic as cloud is the enabler of digital transformation?. He also foresees a huge demand for cloud-native apps. Sumit Malhotra, CIO of Times Internet, too advises that enterprises begin building cloud-native apps from Day 1 and Sanjay Gharde, Head – IT, JK Paper calls cloud ?the need of the hour?.

Analytics, Big Data, AI/ML platforms all are being explored,especially in finance sector. Venkatraman Ananthanarayanan, CIO, Sundaram Finance, Sendil S, CTO, Sriram Group, and Suresh Shanmugam, CTO – Business Information Technology Solutions (BITS), Mahindra & Mahindra Financial Services, spoke of the various ways these technologies are being utilized in their organizations, for example, in detecting frauds, reducing costs, understanding customer behavior, etc. As M Manikandan, SVP & CIO, Lakshmi Vilas Bank explains, ?in the financial industry, everything will be data-driven.?

Ashish Desai, CIO, Aditya Birla Group is experimenting with Analytics in areas related to chemical, energy, etc., while Tarun Pandey, EVP – IT, Aditya Birla Capital, is more interested in data governance and data strategy to understand customer profiles and customer journey. Ananth Subramanian, EVP & Head – IT Kotak Mutual Fund, is exploring Analytics in IT security and is looking at investment-related Analytics as well.

Adani Wilmar Limited has meanwhile focused on manufacturing insights, predictive analytics and reskilling, says its CIO Abhay Bapna.

To sum up in the words of Sukanta Kumar Nayak, CIO, Aditya Birla Management Corporation, ?Analytics is the need of the hour.? He finds a huge scope to use Analytics for business decisions in sectors like mining, manufacturing and supply chain.

Top IT Leaders at Microsoft RTs

Summing up

Bharat Anand, CIO, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, quotes a Gartner report to drive home the importance of cloud in the current and future business scenarios. ?Cloud is no longer a part of the Hype Cycle. 50% of organizations are thinking of going cloud-native and 60% have witnessed less attacks on cloud than those on-premise, as per Gartner,? he says, adding that some forms of SaaS and PaaS models are already being utilized by organizations in the country.

As more and more IT heads guide their enterprises to adopt and deploy cloud models, they are also taking care of the challenges thereof. Scaling down complexity of multi-cloud, ensuring standardization across cloud services, keeping employees connected to systems on cloud, taking care of collaboration needs by investing in Microsoft platforms such as Teams, controlling RoI with Azure, deploying different cloud services, following strict security protocols were some of the steps taken by CIOs  like Abhishek Gupta, CIO & CDO, Dish TV India, Ramkumar Mohan, CIO & CISO, Air Works India (Engineering), Rakesh Mishra, CIO, Vardhman Textile Group, and Rajiv Sharaf, Head – IT, Torrent Power. ?Understanding the stack is important and cloud-spend also needs to be closely monitored,? advises Pradeep, Chankarachan, CIO, Joulon.

The cloud journey would perhaps also be mentioned in the annals in pre and post pandemic terms. The former being the phase when most enterprises just dipped their toes into the cloud pond, with no hurry to immerse and explore its full potential for the business. COVID-19 was the litmus test for Cloud, proving its value beyond doubt and acting as the catalyst for organizations to ?move everything to cloud?, to quote Madhavi Kanumoory, CIO, Healthcare Global Enterprises (HCG).

The journey to cloud has been much like the Pilgrim?s Progress ? one faith through trials and tribulations.

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