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Channel partners' cloud opportunities see a boost

Cloud usage spiked In the first phase of pandemic as organizations rushed to retool operations. Going forward, partners should expect an uptick in cloud opportunities.

When the world shut down to slow the spread of COVID-19, many organizations turned to cloud computing to keep their businesses operating. With their employees working from home, companies took advantage of the cloud's scalability to manage increased usage of applications and other tools.

Now, as some social distancing restrictions are relaxed and a semblance of office-based work emerges, companies can start preparing for the next phase of retooling their operations. This phase includes assessing how much more organizations should embrace cloud, especially if they opt to maintain a higher level of remote work capability.

"When you think about how industries change, I don't think we will get back to what was normal, but instead we can take steps toward what will become another normal," said Jeff Kaplan, managing director at THINKstrategies, a consulting company in Rockport, Mass. "Whether it's retail, healthcare, restaurants -- whatever the industry -- a company will have to retain some of the digital assets being used now, and cloud-based technology will engender that."

This dynamic may be setting the stage for new cloud opportunities for channel partner businesses. If some customer organizations only tiptoed around the cloud prior to the pandemic, remote work en masse has undoubtedly pressured them into taking the plunge.

Just as the coronavirus started prompting countries to impose travel restrictions during the first fiscal quarter of 2020, Flexera Software surveyed technical professionals about how the pandemic would affect their organizations' cloud usage. Fifty-seven percent of respondents said their businesses would likely increase their cloud use. Only 10% of respondents said they anticipated a decrease. Surely, actual cloud usage turned out to be more widespread.

The cloud's strengths on display

Indeed, the global shutdown has illustrated the value of being cloud-centric. From the comfort of their homes, a vast majority of workers have accessed cloud-based applications for marketing, sales, finance, human resources and many other business functions, while developers have built and deployed applications using cloud-based containers.

"Companies running on cloud were able to scale to demand in a short time," said Jeff Aden, executive vice president of marketing and business strategic development at 2nd Watch, a Seattle-based managed cloud services provider. "Seeing the elasticity of cloud and the way it is supposed to flex with demand, companies that were early adopters benefitted from having more of their mission-critical applications on the cloud."

Whether it's retail, healthcare, restaurants -- whatever the industry -- a company will have to retain some of the digital assets being used now, and cloud-based technology will engender that.
Jeff KaplanManaging director, THINKstrategies

AFS Logistics in Shreveport, La., is one such company. The global logistics management services firm runs a hybrid infrastructure, which aims to make the most of legacy on-premises systems while relying on cloud services such as Microsoft Azure. AFS also uses cloud-native technologies such as containers for creating applications that handle customer service and product delivery.

"Our engineers don't have to be with the hardware," said Tony Winters, director of software engineering at AFS Logistics. "It's all web-delivered, and we can adjust and scale from our home offices. We made the decision to shift to cloud a while ago, but the pandemic only confirms the benefits."

In turn, some companies with a small cloud footprint have found it difficult to conduct business remotely, several analysts said. IT staff managing on-premises data centers, in particular, have struggled to do their jobs, as many were limited by the condition of whether their work was deemed essential by state officials.

"If IT has a work-from-home mandate, it's very difficult for them to view the data center," said Mark Bowker, a senior analyst at research firm Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG), based in Milford, Mass. "Lack of access leads to security issues." Additionally, because of disruptions in the supply chain, companies have had to tolerate long delays for on-site hardware, he said.

Are cloud holdouts changing their minds?

Organizations that have had to limit operations because of a reliance on physical infrastructure will now be more eager to adopt cloud, even if employees can eventually return to the office, according to Tolga Tarhan, CTO of the Onica, a Santa Monica, Calif., MSP and AWS partner.

For one, cloud users can breathe easier about security, Tarhan said, because they won't have to rely on VPNs to provide network access. VPN security can prove hard to oversee when almost all employees are using it, whereas the security of cloud applications is more manageable, he added.

Cloud can also allow business and IT leaders to rethink the nature of work itself, Tarhan said. "Companies will say, 'Maybe this work from home has legs.' It can change how you recruit and hire," he noted. "You will no longer be restricted by geography. You can hire anywhere in the world."

Unitas Global, an IT provider and management company in Los Angeles, already has customers asking about extending their cloud footprint, said Chris Smith, the company's vice president of cloud solution architecture. Customers want to not only manage operations better during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, but to also prepare for the next pandemic, a circumstance that now joins fires, hurricanes and earthquakes on the list of natural disasters that can cause business disruptions.

On top of the cloud benefits previously mentioned, customers have another incentive to adopt, Smith said. Cloud providers are trying to ease customers' transitions to cloud by offering discounts for cloud storage and free trials for certain cloud services. There may not be a better time for a cloud transformation than today, he said.

Cloud opportunities open up for the channel

Channel partners are in a strong position to help organizations shift more workloads to cloud, as well as manage customers' security and infrastructure strategies, according to those interviewed for this article. Partners just need to be mindful of what's expected of them by customers, said THINKstrategies' Kaplan.

"The first thing is they have to be is responsive," he said of customer cloud opportunities. "[Be] responsive to not only peaks and demands, but also in helping with new sets of use cases for [cloud] services."

For example, if grocery chains have to continue limiting the number of customers in a store to follow social distancing guidelines, they'll want to rely on cloud services to quickly distribute data that will support such operations, Kaplan said.

"The channel really is the trusted go-between for the technology vendor and the users. A lot of smaller companies are going to have to rely on partners for advice and integrating multivendor cloud solutions," he added.

ESG's Bowker said he also sees an opportunity for managed service providers to offer training and workshops on cloud services. IT staffs could benefit from additional training on how to manage infrastructure and cloud applications from their homes, he noted.

Aden of 2nd Watch said cloud-native technologies will need to meet the ongoing demands for scale. Virtual licenses, for example, might already be stretched to their maximum allotment and organizations will need to quickly connect as many employees as possible to cloud applications. Also, securing assets will continue to be a pressing concern for companies with workforces accessing apps and programs from home, he said.

No matter how a future driven by COVID-19 unfolds, AFS Logistics' Winters said he is happy to be invested in cloud. He's so pleased, in fact, that he said he unhesitatingly shares advice to other businesses considering cloud deployments.

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