16 November 2018

East Africa: How SME's Can Leverage On Cloud for Efficiency

Cloud computing has steadily gained momentum in businesses today, with nearly every enterprise using or purposing to use the technology. IBM's Antony Gitonga Senior Cloud Technical Specialist share insights about how the technology in a recent conversation with CIO East Africa.

In your view, what's the status of uptake of cloud computing by SMEs in East Africa compared to advanced economies?

From what I have observed in the East African market, this question is highly dependent on your definition of cloud computing and its various forms or types if you will. For instance if you generalize it then the uptake is quite positive in terms of most SMEs using some form of cloud in one way or another such as corporate emails hosted by a cloud service provider or a customer relationship management system which constitutes software as a service (SaaS).

I would therefore say the SaaS uptake is really good probably followed by Infrastructure as a Service which comprises of consuming IT resources (compute, storage, and networking) from a CSP either internally or externally. The other common form of cloud being Platform as a service is also gaining popularity in the region amongst more technology savvy SMEs who are accustomed to leveraging information technology as part of their business strategy, this may take the form of consuming middleware as a service Databases, application servers, software development tools (DevOps toolchains) and cognitive among others.

What advantages do the small and medium enterprises have in East Africa to enable them swing into adopting cloud computing?

SMEs in East Africa can take advantage of several enablers available to them towards their cloud adoption journeys such as;

Access to cloud technology education and awareness made available through government initiatives in support of IT-led economic growth and private technology providers such as IBM who regularly host hackathons, workshops and enablement at the IBM Innovation center and University initiatives. Such sessions are instrumental in assuring SMEs on cloud security, reliability and strategies on technology led innovation.

Access to affordable high-speed internet connectivity that enables reliable cloud service delivery to SMEs in the region in part due to public / private sector collaboration in infrastructure investments.

Access to local and international cloud private providers who enable SME to adopt a workload driven cloud strategy whereby, the workload determines which type of cloud suites it best as opposed to being constrained by available choices e.g. Regulated financial data may be restricted to private / in country cloud providers while systems of engagements applications such as CRM workloads may be best suited for secure public cloud providers due to cost, reliability amongst other reasons.

Rapidly growing cloud computing expertise in the region, with university leavers and seasoned professionals bearing adequate cloud computing knowledge to support and lead SMEs in their cloud adoption journeys.

Ever maturing and evolving ICT policies as governments embrace IT led economic growth strategies with well-funded ICT authorities / ministries with a clear vision and mandate towards developing their nations through ICT.

Affordable on demand cloud services and products in the market which enable rapid adoption and adequate support coverage.

Cloud is a proven business enabler in the region, with a large uptake in the SME space which serves as a positive example to other SME's considering cloud adoption.

To what extent has the East African region developed ICT infrastructure including Internet speed and broadband connections to support the cloud uptake by SMEs?

Connectivity in the region has been greatly improved via several undersea cables which have transformed the feasibility of cloud adoption via improved speed, reliability and costs associated with dedicated fiber and broadband connections in the region by Seacom and Liquid Telecom.

What are the considerable benefits which can bring the usage of the latest information technology solutions, such as cloud to SMEs?

According to me, this is perhaps the more important question of the day. It is what is creating the need and driving the uptake of cloud computing despite the enablers / obstacles in the region and its quite similar across the globe.

When we look at the evolution of cloud, the driving factors begin with cost, SMEs who are leveraging or thinking of IT have the goal of cost take out of the data center via either increased utilization of existing compute or shifting to an Op-Ex model where they can rent / consume IT as a service as opposed to heavy upfront investments into technology which may soon be outdated and requires a lot of maintenance effort / cost.

This motivation, however is already evolving to speed and the ability to improve business processes and operational effectiveness in order to be more agile, in terms of consuming platform as a service not just for cost reasons but for agility to meet and respond to client demands and competitive threats in time. Today we are experiencing an era of innovation where cloud enables the ability to bring together multiple data sources as well cognitive to test new business models quickly and inexpensively, this is considered the holy grain of disruption, where technology enables both cost, process and business model innovation.

From your experience, how ready are the SME segment ready to invest in cloud to increase their performance and competitiveness of their enterprises?

According to Capgemini Consulting, since 2000, 52% of the Fortune 500 have either gone bankrupt, been acquired, or ceased to exist, it is clear across the region that disruption is the new reality and businesses must adopt and pivot towards restless innovation and client centricity if they are to survive and thrive.

It is therefore not really a matter of whether SMEs and incumbents are ready to adopt cloud and other disruptive technologies, we are at a precipice where they can choose to either be the disruptors or disrupted, the former necessitates Cloud and other technologies adoption in one form or the other in order to innovate across the cost, process and business model fronts.

What obvious challenges are the SMEs facing in aligning their business needs with cloud computing and may have therefore restricted the efficient exploitation of the technology?

We are in a historic era of innovation largely driven by unprecedented access to information technology. The number of patents per year is just one small indicator growing more than 6 times in 100 years.

Growth in structured and unstructured data of all kinds creates new opportunities for man and machine to work together and reinvent business.

Cloud is leveling the playing field allowing ambitious innovators of all types to easily access data and technology and elevate it to create new insights and more engaging client experiences.

SMEs need to therefore re-imagine their business strategies to be inseparable from their technology strategy, only then can they sustainably evolve their businesses into higher value propositions to existing and new markets in order to prevent disruption through effective management of technology innovation and creativity.

Considering that small and medium size businesses have an instrumental role to play in the respective national economies, what are the lead industry stakeholders such as IBM doing along with the SMEs to circumvent around these challenges?

IBM has been very instrumental in supporting SMEs towards sustainable technology-led business models and innovations in the region through various programs such IBM research that offers consultative advice and guidance to the governments and regional stakeholders on conducive environments for technology adoption, improving service delivery and welfare by tapping into the internet of things, big data and cognitive for better traffic management, emergency services, environmental awareness amongst other initiatives that improve the overall quality of life and service delivery to citizens including SMEs.

IBM has regularly hosted innovative hackathons, workshops and enablement sessions at the IBM Innovation center and through the African University Initiative whereby SME are enlightened on ways the leverage cutting edge technologies for innovation, such sessions are instrumental in assuring SMEs on cloud capabilities, cloud security, reliability and other strategies on technology led innovation.

IBM is also a global leader (Top 3) cloud solutions provider offering cloud across its various forms and types with one of the broadest geographical cloud data centers coverage offering from the most basic to the most cutting-edge technologies such as block chain, Cognitive, Big Data and Analytics, Serverless and IOT that enable innovators and enterprises towards disruption.

IBM also offers cloud advisory services to enable SMEs to adopt cloud and establish a cloud strategy that will involve careful workload analysis, cloud migration, establishing adequate security for cloud adoption meeting compliance and regulatory mandates, latency optimization to ensure performance is not impacted as well as assessing cloud viability per workload.

Are there any possible risks that SMEs should be privy to and therefore take measures to mitigate in the technology?

Like any form of technology, there are inherent benefits and risks and organizations undertake their own cost / benefit analyses which guide them in making adoption decisions.

As such IBM believes in the multi cloud and hybrid cloud reality whereby organizations will leverage different forms of cloud technologies (Private, Dedicated, Public, Hosted) across multiple cloud providers depending on their workload types as each of these cloud types and providers offer different costs/ benefits and even features across different workload types.

IBM works with SMEs to assist them with cloud advisory services and cloud garages which are very popular globally having assisted many incumbents along their cloud adoption journeys.

Generally, considerations such as security, regulatory compliance, workload sensitivity, workload elasticity patterns, workload architectures etc. need to be taken as part of cloud adoption strategy formulation, coincidentally IBM is the first ever vendor to document and publish an e-book on cloud adoption that is downloadable online at IBM Cloud Adoption Handbook

Based on the interaction that you may have had with SMEs over the years and varied industry players, what stands out as the major obstacle that would hinder successful implementation of cloud as an invaluable solution?

This might come as a surprise but aspects such as security, control and regulations are not the biggest obstacles to cloud adoption today by SME's and large Enterprises as perceived. Working with many varied clients from aggressive startups to incumbents at inflection points along their transformation journeys, I regularly hear that cultural change is the most important and challenging aspect of cloud adoption and digital transformation. Culture directly relates to the most critical asset of your organization; your people.

An organizations culture determines why organizations rejects or embraces different practices across operations and development therefore influencing technology adoption, the organizations attitude towards risk, change, failure and agile decision making. Once the organization embraces a culture of restless innovation and constant change towards disruption and client centricity the rest follows and aligns.

How should the SMEs and cloud solution providers overcome barriers for implementation of cloud going forward?

As I mentioned above, SME's need to shift their organizational cultures and attitudes towards leveraging technology as part and parcel of their strategy. Once the mindset is established, all other obstacles have been solved, tried and tested by early adaptors and mature cloud service providers such as IBM who have experienced teams globally to support and accelerate SMEs along this journey.

Leading cloud service providers have embraced an open approach to cloud platform development by supporting open standards across its cloud solutions preventing vendor lock in such that client workloads are extremely portable not only across different client types (IBM Cloud Private to IBM Public Cloud) but also across multiple cloud vendors.

This hybrid multi cloud reality that many clients find themselves in brings several benefits but also challenges with managing multi cloud environments which IBM has pioneered as the only CSP offering multi cloud management solutions enabling a client organization (SME) to manage its deployments across multiple cloud providers from one single dashboard - greatly simplifying the management and security of a multi cloud reality.

What's likely to be next big thing for SMEs after cloud as technology continues to blur borders?

Well, it is really hard to predict because there is such a convergence of different technologies activated through cloud technologies that help ambitious innovators to obtain easy, quick and cheap access to cutting edge technologies such as blockchain, serverless, internet of things (IOT), Big data and Analytics, Mobile etc.

g, a personal favorite is quantum computing which is set to revolutionize the nature of computing itself via quantum physics - with concepts such as quantum entanglement and transposition that advance the speed and scale of computing. A developer can easily access a research-based quantum computer online to begin developing applications for a new era in computing. See more on IBM Q Experience

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