Head-to-Head: Gary Collins & Tristan Rogers
This article originally appeared in Outsource Magazine Issue #25 Autumn 2011
The rise of the cloud model has created a host of opportunities – and challenges – for organisations in every corner of business. We got together two men at the top of two very different companies to get their take on what cloud means for them, and for the future of business. Tristan Rogers, CEO of Concrete, and Gary Collins, Director and Founder of Intercept-IT: over to you…
Tristan Rogers: My first comment is that the term “cloud” is no more useful than the term “desktop publishing” when it was being banded about in the ‘80s as a result of the coming of the Mac: it doesn’t really change anything other than there is genuine access to computing power via a browser. That’s about it. What are your thoughts?
Gary Collins: I agree completely. Actually, it’s just a name that analysts have given to a way of accessing technology across the public internet – via a browser or via some other method – providing ubiquitous access to applications and data. From that aspect we have been delivering cloud-based desktops and applications since 2002. So for us it’s nothing new really. But what the analysts have done is give it credibility so that people are now starting to understand it to a degree; there is still a lack of knowledge of what cloud truly is, and we still have to do a lot of education – but the analyst spin on it has at least started to build traction and develop a momentum behind the delivery of cloud-based technology and applications.
TR: You say people are warming to the idea: who are the people you typically engage?
GC: We have two arms to our business: a consulting arm, which really designs and delivers private cloud solutions; and a public cloud arm, which is delivering customised services from our data centres, which is aimed predominantly at the SME space. So we are seeing most of the success in public cloud coming from organisations with 50 to 300 seats. And in the private cloud it’s mostly from 500 up to multiple-thousand seats.
TR: And in terms of the people that you are engaging with within the business – is that IT?
GC: In the SME space, it tends to be more business owners – so CEO, FD, Managing Director, high-C-level executives. And in the enterprise space, it can be either directors of IT departments or C-level executives as well. But it does vary across the board.
TR: Like your business we have been serving what used to be called application service provision. But because we author our own code, we are selling the software as a service to a customer rather than just an online computer – Software-as-a-Service is a subset of cloud. Interestingly, the audience we have always sold to has not been IT – it has always been the business unit that has the business problem – and it turns out that using web-based software solves problems that on-premise software cannot solve, because you cannot access on-premise software if you are in a remote location. So for the last six years we have been selling to business users almost using the backdoor – going in without telling the IT department, selling them something that does not require IT’s intervention and that business unit can pay for out of their own budget. That was more because of a reality that if we approach the IT department, they would tell us to go away! They really did not like the idea of a completely outsourced solution that they had no ongoing involvement in… I don’t know if this is true in your case?
GC: To a degree. But because most of the public cloud solutions that we provide are in the SME space, most of the organisations don’t tend to have large IT departments. What sort of size of organisation do you tend to engage with?
TR: Pretty big. That’s possibly one of the issues. The size of business that can have a fairly healthy IT department, with a really healthy capex budget – and they want to spend it.
GC: Yes they tend to want to own everything internally – and are obviously worried about losing their jobs or having a change of role or focus if they start moving applications out to the cloud because other areas could then potentially be at risk.
TR: Indeed. To your point about the analysts: I think that what we’ve seen over the last 18 months is a change in the marketplace. It’s inevitable that this move to remotely served applications is going to be the way to go with more and more business functionality, because it works just as well as it does if it is onsite, and it means it is ubiquitously accessible. So it’s almost begrudgingly, I find, that IT departments are warming to the idea. No, “warming” is the wrong word: I find that they are begrudgingly accepting that they have to engage that way because it’s more cost-effective and more scalable.
GC: Absolutely. And we tend to find in the LME space – the large-to-medium enterprises – they’re getting a lot of push-down from the business themselves, saying that they should be thinking about selective sourcing or outsourcing parts of their IT to the cloud – and obviously the common one we see is hosting Microsoft Exchange, then people moving to Microsoft CRM and other specific line-of-business applications.
You’re very much geared around retail, is that right?
TR: We are, although we are starting to penetrate into new verticals, and I think the challenge remains fairly universal: I always tend to think of it as the empowerment of the executive. The market place today has business users, who as consumers, have access to lots of good technology – whether Amazon or YouTube or Facebook or the countless other more specialist applications that are available on the consumer web – and they have got used to that. And I think these people go to work and are starting to moan more and more about the sub-optimal software that the IT department keeps inflicting on them.
So one of the things I am interested is: as we said at the beginning, cloud is merely a delivery method, using the internet to access technology. But the technology in some respects has not evolved: you just have an online version of it and the functionality is the same. And the opportunity now is to look at how software can be improved by delivering it through a browser. If you’re trying to deliver something through a browser, it can be accessed on a Mac or PC, and it can be on IE7 onwards, Firefox, on Google Chrome. And you’re going through a third-party interface. Do you find that some of the technology now apparently cloud-deployable doesn’t actually work that well through all the browsers?
GC: As a software vendor, we are in a slightly different position to yourself. We deliver predominantly Desktops as Service. So we have hosted desktops in the data centre and through the hosted desktop – normally running a Windows 7 or Windows Server interface – we then deliver all the applications as a traditional Windows 32-bit or 64-bit native app. So whilst the web is a delivery mechanism into our data centres and the browser is then used to log in and authorise and authenticate into our data centres, it’s all effectively controlled by third-party software from Citrix that delivers plug-ins for all our different browsers – so we support all the major browser platforms including IE, Chrome and, Firefox. So we have a lot fewer issues or challenges that we have to worry about, because we don’t have to make sure all our applications are cross-browser-dependent. We just have to make sure we have an ICA plugin that effectively gives access into our data centre, and then the ISVs we work with have the ability to run their applications natively. So the applications are delivered in the cloud but they are not rewritten for the cloud.
TR: Do you see that model changing as the customer evolves?
GC: Potentially, yes. Where we are trying to provide access to new web-delivered or cloud-delivered applications, so we will support all the third-party plug-ins for cloud-enabled applications as well as legacy applications. You know how it is: although IT moves quickly, it also takes long time to transition stuff off – there are still lots of old and poorly coded applications out there in those large enterprise accounts and it’s potentially going to take a while for them to transition much of this to new public or private cloud platforms.
Looking at barriers to adoption: do you have software you deliver on-premise, or is everything delivered in the cloud?
TR: It’s all cloud. As we were growing it was one of the temptations – as in, with large customers we typically came up against stringent IT and security policies which said “we have to have a copy of everything on our premises”. And we always resisted chasing that pot of money, saying “we are purely an online vendor; we can’t do it that way”. And realistically we probably could not have done it that way. So we always refused and what was interesting is that with many of the big accounts that we went for, where we felt we were taking a risk saying “no”, we won the account anyway! The market is warming up; we certainly feel that business has more clout than it used to. Budgets are starting to spread a little bit further around other areas of business: ironically, IT departments are being led into the 21st century by the business. Yet I don’t meet that many IT departments that embrace cloud wholeheartedly. They still feel reticent to me.
GC: The challenge I guess we both see is that legacy IT directors tend to be the guys who want to retain control and feel uncomfortable moving things out to the cloud. But what we are going to see, with a younger generation of IT executives entering the workforce, is a consumerisation of IT, where they have an inbuilt trust in consuming applications and services from cloud providers. Over time it will become a lot easier for organisations to have the confidence and the comfort factor to start to consume services from locations outside their organisation.
TR: We have customers who have matured on our platform – so that means they have been on our platform for two years or more – in whom we are seeing a change in behaviour. Initially they would typically ask us about another retailer’s use of an application on our platform and say “we will take one of those” and deploy it almost in the same manner. But a mature customer now is starting to look at the platform not as a suite of pre-built applications but more as an effective building environment they can start to shape, so they are coming to us with “here is a business challenge we have; how can you solve it?” So now it’s a toolkit they can start to configure – and this is where IT starts to get involved from a business analysis and a project management scoping perspective. If I am honest I did not expect that: I think through the comfort that knowing our platform works, and is scalable, the business is happy to work this way, and, from IT’s perspective, they actually realise they have got a second wind and they can justify their existence by applying their skill set to an external platform’s development for the business.
GC: So a transition from being traditionally more infrastructure-based to becoming more business-analyst or more business-process driven?
TR: Yes: they are the bright guys who are doing this; seeing the market changing and adapting themselves. I think these guys can not only talk to the business, but the business is actually happy to talk to them. And they trust them to be able to accurately write down a spec and manage that being delivered to the likes of us. It’s a very important change, and one for the better.