As more companies view cloud adoption as a strategic imperative underpinning their digital transformation efforts, they are turning to cloud centers of excellence (CCoEs) to manage the process and ensure organization-wide adoption of best practices.

CCoEs take the place of the ad hoc method that most companies use today. When a department or line of business wants to adopt cloud (and they actually tell IT about it first), then IT has to find the time and personnel to help the LOB achieve its goal. This takes time and effort away from other priorities as well as day-to-day operations.

"The challenge with large enterprises trying to do digital transformation is how do you have a common shared philosophy across the organization on how to approach cloud," said Milin Patel, the principal architect and co-founder of the cloud consultancy Rearc and formerly the director of DevOps at Dow Jones, where he led the creation of the organization's CCoE. "So, the CCoE is that central organization everyone can look up to and through which the CIO and the CTO are communicating what their vision is."

With a CCoE, IT can set up the repeatable, federated policies, frameworks, procedures,  and reference architectures the organization's app/dev and infrastructure teams can follow as they migrate applications and infrastructure to the cloud. This saves time and effort while ensuring security and compliance matters, often neglected until the end of the migration process, are kept front and center.

What is a CCoE?

Like all centers of excellence, CCoEs are used to bring together a diverse, knowledgeable group of experts from across the organization to develop best practices for the rest of the organization to follow. In the case of a CCoE, those best practices are cloud-focused, but centers of excellence could be deployed for any long-term, strategic initiative the organization wishes to pursue.

And even though most organizations are adopting cloud at ever-accelerating rates, most do not currently have fully functioning CCoEs. But this is changing. According to a recent survey, only 16 percent of organizations said they have a fully-fledged CCoE, while 47 percent said they are working towards that goal.

Do you need a CCoE?

If yours is like most businesses, you've already adopted cloud. So, the answer to this question will depend on how successful you've been to date and your level of organizational maturity. A low-level of organizational maturity will make building out a CCoE harder but, as businesses turn to cloud to underpin their digital transformation efforts, figuring out how to develop a structured, repeatable cloud migration roadmap should make life easier.

"At the heart of [a cloud migration strategy] you need to have someone who is an absolute expert on taking your workloads to the cloud because its not easy," said Vijay Gopal, CIO, Shared Services, at Magellan Health, a $7B health benefits manager whose CCoE has been in place for three years. "Whether you call it CCoE or not, you have to get away from the white paper-based approach to actually have practitioners to guide you through it."

What goes into a CCoE?

While the people that make up your CCoE will change as your organization changes and the demands for cloud expand and contract, the core roles should remain fairly constant. Because cloud has the potential to touch every business process, line of business, application, data set, and employee across the entire organization you will need to have these roles fully staffed at all times. And, because cloud offerings are so diverse today, you'll want to include experts on what the different options are and how they work. Many organizations utilize consultants for this function.  According to Elizabeth Boudreau, an executive adviser at AWS, speaking at AWS's 2018 Public Sector Summit, at a minimum your CCoE should include people from:

  • Leadership: This would be a vice president level or equivalent who will help the group establish and maintain credibility as well as give it the authority it needs to function as a governing body. Ideally, the executive sponsor also will serve as a high-profile evangelist both for the cloud and the CCoE's mission.
  • Operations: You will need someone on your team that understands how the business functions so they can offer advice on things like application dependencies and how moving to the cloud will impact workflows, processes, and procedures.
  • Infrastructure: This person will offer the lift-and-shift expertise you will need to figure out what cloud models will work for each scenario – IaaS, PaaS, SaaS, hybrid, private, and/or public. Ideally, they will know what infrastructure is currently being used to run which applications and store data and how transitioning to the cloud will change those dependencies.  
  • Security: Given that moving to the cloud will change how cybersecurity works at every application touch point from user authentication to networking, updating, and patching, someone needs to ensure that cybersecurity is baked into the cloud migration strategy from the beginning. Cybersecurity-as-an-afterthought is no longer an option today.
  • Applications: Although moving to the cloud will impact everyone in your organization, the CCoE's main constituency is your application developers. For that reason, someone who can represent the concerns and challenges of this unique group of individuals will be key to the success of your cloud migrations.

As the goal of a CCoE is to create repeatable frameworks and best practices for every function in an organization, CCoE members need to possess certain qualities, said Patel in a blog post for Amazon Web Services (AWS). They need to be:

  • Experimentation-driven: able to learn from failures and iterate quickly;
  • Bold: not afraid to challenge the status quo;
  • Result-oriented: can take an idea from its ideation phase to successful implementation;
  • Customer focused: appreciates the impact of developer productivity and operational excellence; and
  • Able to influence: can scale his/her skills through others.

"There are lots of ways to get to the cloud," Patel said in a phone interview, "but there are more wrong ways of doing it than right ways of doing it."  As you might infer, Patel believes CCoE is one of the right ways.

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How to succeed with your CCoE

As more companies establish cloud centers of excellence (CCoEs) to guide them on their journey to the cloud, understanding what a successful CCoE looks like is an important part of the process. Without some guideposts, you will not know if the substantial investment of time and energy a CCoE requires is paying off.

"For us, the ultimate measure of success is the offloading of workloads to production and being able to run it reliably," said Vijay Gopal, CIO, shared services at Magellan Health, a $7B health benefits manager whose CCoE has been in place for three years.

To ensure this happens, Gopal's No.1 recommendation is to staff your CCoE with engineers who have a background in software. Magellan's CCoE has six permanent team members who are responsible for developing and updating their cloud platform, onboarding teams to the platform, and helping them migrate applications to the cloud.

"If I had to put my finger on one success factor that would be it," he said. "These [engineers] are people that truly understand what makes a workload work well on the cloud."

Choosing a team of leaders

CCoE's are most effective when they pull together diverse group of talented professionals from across the organization to develop the best practices, frameworks, reference architectures, and guidelines that the entire organization will, at some point, adhere to when porting applications and data to the cloud, said Matt Jordan, vice president at JHC Technology, a born-in-the-cloud systems integrator and VAR that has never owned a server.

"It's important to have that strong direction from the top," he said. "It should be a group of individuals from across the organization in conjunction with leadership and even HR and communications" to help get the message out about what the CCoE is doing, why it is important, and how it will impact jobs, functions, and business as usual across the organization.

The core of a CCoE includes people from leadership, security, application development, operations, infrastructure. As needed, team members from marketing, finance, service desk, HR, and/or customer service can be added to address specific areas of concern and help develop application transition plans, highlight dependences, and educate the CCoE on how each affected area works day-to-day (vs. how a flow chart or business process says it is supposed to work).

"You have to start with the right people," said Milin Patel, the principal architect and co-founder of the cloud consultancy Rearc and formerly the director of DevOps at Dow Jones, where he led the creation of that organization's CCoE. "You get the necessary adoption with the backing of leadership and, once you get to the point that you have the foundation really strong, you have to figure out how to scale it."

You know a CCoE is successful when it becomes overwhelmed with requests for help, he said.

As cloud evangelists, CCoE team members also will need good communication skills, said Elizabeth Boudreau, an executive adviser at AWS, speaking at AWS's 2018 Public Sector Summit. They need to be leaders with the ability to influence and persuade. They need to bold and able to articulate the organization's cloud vision clearly. And they need to be customer-focused and result-orientated with the pedigree to prove it.

Finding all of these people inside your organization can be tough so you may need to look elsewhere, said Gopal. To get their CCoE off the ground, they hired someone from Amazon to lead the effort. That person is now their CISO.

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Understanding who you work for

Even though cloud will impact every one in the organization some groups are more affected than others. Application developers and operations people are two of those groups. Moving from corporate-owned infrastructure to running production workloads in the cloud is a big change.

As more companies consolidate these functions to facilitate DevOps, introducing cloud into the mix can mean major changes to how they app/dev and operations teams are organized, the talent these teams will need moving forward, the applications they will work on, the work they will be doing, the cloud platforms they will work with, and other factors like network bandwidth and latency will have to be taken into account as they go about the business of keeping applications up-to-date, available, and running smoothly.

This is why CCoEs should consider app/dev and/or DevOps teams their primary customers, said Gopal. Yes, cloud may impact business processes and workflows but that is after the fact. You have to migrate to the cloud first and that requires your app/dev and DevOps teams have the tools and roadmaps they need to make cloud happen in the first place.

"Cloud cannot be about what you did on-prem and replicating that on AWS," he said. "It won't work."

According to Amazon's Boudreau, some of the key challenges IT teams will face include:

  • Developing new DR/BC plans
  • Developing a plan for either reusing or decommissioning existing infrastructure
  • Retraining app/dev teams to work in the cloud
  • Training people how to use applications in the cloud
  • Cloud security training
  • New skills training for people who need to transfer positions
  • Updating your CMDB
  • Undertaking a comprehensive asset management audit
  • Conducting a security audit
  • Instituting a change management program

Once workloads have been successfully migrated, it will be part of the CCoE's role to help line of business managers, application owners, security teams, and anyone else involved in the day-to-day operations of the cloud to minimize TCO and maximize ROI, said Patel. The CCoE can give advice and guidance on things like setting up strong security frameworks, data governance policies (particularly when it comes to regulated data), interpreting and managing cloud bills, cloud subscription management (which is quite different than buying software licenses), and the like. While end users shouldn't experience too much disruption to their daily routines, those in IT operations will need to master a lot of new knowledge to make cloud successful.

"We are building this for our business units and we want to be their consultants to help them so they can take ownership," said Boudreau. "We're building that self- sustaining model for an application to keep moving forward once it's in the cloud"

Messaging and communications

Ultimately, the goal of the CCoE is to standardize repeatable processes for migrating workloads to the cloud. Its success will depend largely on the CCoE's ability to clearly communicate its intentions, goals, and work products like reference architectures to the entire organization.

Since this will be an ongoing effort, CCoE's should include representatives from HR, marketing, and communications. These team members will be instrumental in helping the CCoE plan and execute the "go to market" strategy that will get the rest of the organization on board.

"The challenge with large enterprise trying to digitally transformation their operations is how do you have a common shared philosophy across the organization on how to approach cloud?" said Patel. "The CCoE is that central organization through which the CIO and CTO are communicating what their vision is."

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