The Rise of the Cloud Integrator

Khali HendersonAs often as we toss out the word “cloud” these days, you’d think there was only one big, white, fluffy network in the sky. That’s what the diagrams embedded in our PowerPoint presentations show, after all. Of course, that is just industry shorthand for a complex environment involving multiple carrier network providers, data centers and cloud providers (software, platform and infrastructure) not to mention all the variations on the theme public, private and hybrid. When you think of it that way, it’s less like a magical mist you tap into and more like a 10,000-piece puzzle that needs to be solved one customer at a time. Enter the cloud integrator.

In the simplest terms, think of a cloud integrator in much the same way as a systems integrator with the general tasks of understanding, selecting and implementing heterogeneous computing environments, but in this case involving cloud-to-cloud or cloud-to-premises deployments.

No, you can’t find this definition in the Oxford Dictionary or even Wikipedia … yet. Whether the term itself gains traction in the evolving cloud lexicon, the purpose and functions it describes are critical to the success of enterprise cloud deployments. And, the channel is well positioned to take on this role.

“The channel has always been ‘the point of integration’ and, provided that the integrator community adapts to this role, I predict it will be a dominant emerging model,” said  Barbara Spicek, vice president of global channels for Brocade Networks, which provides solutions based on open standards and non-blocking technology in furtherance of the cloud integrators’ cause.

IDC analyst Christine Dover, research manager for software channels, agreed. “This is a critical player, especially in the early days of cloud solutions as there are no complete solutions available in the cloud,” she said. “Everything has to be pieced together and the technology is very different as you may be working with very different data models, cranky old on-premises code and cloud solutions.”

So, what does a cloud integrator do exactly? Well, that depends on who you ask. For this article, Channel Partners asked this question of a number of people who spend a good deal of time thinking about these things, including industry analysts, cloud providers, cloud enablers, carriers and even companies that consider themselves cloud integrators. Their answers have helped Channel Partners to propose a job description for the emerging cloud integrator. And what a big job it may be. 

Jonathan Sharp, vice president of marketing and product management for Latisys, a provider of colo, managed hosting and cloud services, likens the cloud integrator to a “guru who helps businesses with all aspects of cloud adoption” from technology strategy to program management to tactical deployment.

Here are the functions that our sources most often mentioned as falling under the cloud integrator’s purview:

  • Consulting assessing the current client environment and “cloud readiness” as well as the available service providers and recommending a cost-effective migration plan to cloud services
  • Engineering defining and designing requirements for performance, security, support, scale, SLAs, etc.
  • Aggregating bundling and, in most cases, rebilling cloud services from multiple providers
  • Implementing deploying cloud services and migrating customer data/applications as well as on-boarding and training users
  • Integrating making disparate cloud services work together or with legacy on-premises solutions using provided APIs or custom connectors
  • Customizing adding functionality, e.g., a new interface or process, on top of integrated cloud services

You may look at this substantial list of responsibilities and come to the conclusion that some of these roles may exist without the others. That’s certainly true. Many of the experts we consulted stopped their tasks lists before there was actual integration work in the strictest sense, e.g., making solutions talk to one another. So, wouldn’t that be aggregation or brokerage?

Gartner Inc. would say, “yes.” The research firm’s analysts have been thought leaders in this area and have come up with a different umbrella term spanning the continuum of functions listed above: the cloud services brokerage. Tiffani Bova, vice president of sales and channel strategies for Gartner, told Channel Partners that the cloud services brokerage is the single largest revenue growth opportunity in cloud computing through 2015. Participants will either enable a brokerage, depend on one or be one, she said. Bova and her colleagues been talking about the cloud services brokerage for some time, but last fall issued its first briefs further defining the cloud services brokerage into three distinct roles:

  • Aggregator brings together cloud services and adds value in the form of unified billing, management, or support, etc., but does not integrate the services so that they work together.
  • Integrator makes multiple cloud services work together to deliver a combined result, e.g., integrating UC and CRM via APIs, but adding no new services, processes or modifications.
  • Customizer layers in a new look or functionality on top of integrated cloud services, e.g., Web conferencing, VoIP and CRM with a custom interface packaged and billed as a small business collaboration service.

“These three roles are related to one another in that any one of them can involve characteristics of the others when necessary. In this way, they are not discretely separate; rather they are about degrees of focus,” Gartner analysts wrote in a Nov. 23, 2011, brief.

What is interesting about the Gartner model is that the aggregator need not perform any integration and the integrator need not perform aggregation. In fact, said Bova, the integrator can use the services of one or more aggregators in much the same way systems integrators use the solutions of multiple distributors. The customizer, however, will find it difficult to operate without doing both aggregation and integration, Gartner said in the November brief.

In discussions with other sources, the roles of two other sales partner types the cloud agent and cloud broker also were compared to the cloud integrator. In general, agents were defined as commissioned representatives of cloud providers while brokers were considered akin to a reseller. These definitions could be debated, but the commonality is that the services are implemented by the cloud services provider.

“Leaning solely on the cloud service provider to do the ‘heavy lifting’ integration work is rarely sufficient as they typically aren’t equipped to do the local on-site work that’s necessary for a successful deployment,” said Andrew Pryfogle, president and CEO of Terrapin Solutions, a self-described cloud integrator. “The pure ‘cloud broker’ typically wants to avoid real integration work and thus find themselves relegated to simpler, commoditized cloud services like hosted Exchange and simple data backup. To tap into big IT spend, the hard integration work is imperative.”

Latisys’ Sharp said he sees the cloud agents and cloud brokers evolving into cloud integrators because they will realize “it’s not enough to find a cloud IaaS provider and negotiate pricing; they need to fill in all the remaining gaps necessary to support the conversion to a production-grade cloud.”

Enterprises, Sharp added, are looking for end-to-end solutions rather than a new vendor to manage with yet another portal and support system. “The cloud integrator will play a pivotal role in helping customer navigate this environment,” he said.

Dave Braner, CIO for Nitel Communications Inc., a carrier supporting cloud services deployments, agreed. “End users are going to get very frustrated with cloud solutions. Integration is always challenging. Putting all of this in the cloud has just made the problem worse,” he said “It is to the advantage of the channel partner to anticipate where integration is needed and come to market with potential solutions for those challenges.”

Braner agreed with Pryfogle that the big dollars for partners are going to come from the integration work. The adage, “Where there’s pain, there’s profit,” may be true here.  But where that payment comes from seems to be variable. Because of the consultative and specific nature of the tasks, most sources said the contract would be between the enterprise and the cloud integrator. However, cloud providers also may recruit cloud integrators as part of the indirect sales channel. In this case they may rebill or be commissioned for the sales while still charging the end user directly for the integration work. Sources also said cloud providers increasingly will enlist cloud integrators to implement their services. Latisys, for example, works with cloud integrators in two ways: recommending cloud integrators that are part of its ecosystem to end customers and bundling cloud integrators’ services into its subscription IaaS service.

Sharp said Latisys has built its IaaS offer with the cloud integrator in mind. “Our due diligence revealed that public cloud adopters came away dissatisfied with the experience [because there was] not enough support, too much vendor lock-in, too much money, limited security, difficulties with migration, poor hand-holding and support, [and] one-size-fits-all approach to performance,” he said.

Brocade’s Spicek said the integrator model is ideally suited to fix this scenario. “The VAR/integrator model has worked for so many years because of the high customer value presented by proximity [to the customer] and direct care model,” she said.

Traditional systems integrators and IT VARs are naturally suited to this new role. “Cloud integrators are an emerging partner type that is developing out of the traditional VAR/systems integrator model,” said Melissa McCoy, vice president of channel programs at SunGard Availability Services, a managed and cloud services provider that uses indirect sales channels. “Cloud services are another solution that the integrators can bring to the table to help solve their customers’ overall business challenges.”

Terrapin’s Pryfogle agreed that IT VARs are in the best position to take advantage of the opportunity.  However, he argued that forward-thinking telecom agents with the right partnerships could do it faster. “Ironically, where the IT VAR has the most to lose if they don’t transform, telecom agents have the most to gain if they embrace this new model,” he said. “I would argue that this is a land grab with VARs and agents on opposite sides, racing to the middle of the new IT landscape.”

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