Dominic Monkhouse, Managing Director at iomart, tracks the evolution of cloud computing and explains how it can help companies gain greater insight into customers it was in 2011 that the Un first classified broadband access as a basic human right, equivalent to healthcare, shelter and food. In November 2015 Prime Minister David Cameron pledged that all UK homes and businesses should have access to “fast broadband” by 2020. It’s taken less than 20 years for the internet to evolve from a novelty to a necessity, and as the web expands so too must the infrastructure that supports it.
“iomart is now acknowledged as one of the UK’s leading cloud computing companies,” says Dominic Monkhouse, Managing Director. “It was founded in 1998 by Scottish entrepreneur Angus MacSween and floated on the London Stock Exchange’s Alternative Investment Market (AIM: IOM) in 2000 as iomart Group PLC, an integrated internet and communications company. Angus had foreseen the impact that broadband technology and ‘always-on’ access would have on our lives and created a company designed to deliver the services and support the applications that we now take for granted in our daily lives.”
From servers to service
Back in 1998 just 3.6 per cent of the world’s population was online – around 147 million people. Now Facebook hosts more than a billion users every day. “As we’ve evolved we’ve recognised that whilst we operate in a technological sector, we’re actually a service industry,” says Monkhouse. “The customer has to be at the heart of everything we do.”
Though the principles underpinning cloud computing date back to the early mainframe computers of the 1950s, it wasn’t until 2006 that Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt first brought the term into popular usage. The following year, says Monkhouse, iomart grasped the opportunity and started to invest in its own hosting infrastructure. “This enabled us to take total control of the hosting customer experience – from the power supply to our data centres right up to the application layer for our customers’ software – and thus offer industry-leading service level agreements. We were now solely accountable to our clients – a sea change approach in our industry.”
Investing in the data bank
Now, says Monkhouse, iomart owns 10 data centres across the UK and has a presence in the US, Europe, Singapore and Dubai, offering global reach. From secure and fully ISO-accredited data centres and services the company provides the private, public and hybrid cloud that is powering the brave new world of online business. So what are some of the key current issues in cloud computing and hosting? He highlights three factors.
“The first is that the market for cloud computing is becoming incredibly complex and the demand for public cloud services is increasing at pace. Most organisations understand the benefits that cloud computing can bring and have created internal cloud strategies to take advantage of them. The challenge they now face is in implementing their strategy. The wrong approach can lead to increased costs and organisational headaches. No one wants to be the person who crashes their business’s entire ecommerce platform or bets on the ‘wrong’ technology by moving workloads to platforms that can’t scale or solutions that ignore legacy practice.
“As a result we’re witnessing a move to businesses seeking cloud vendors that offer a more consultative approach and provide cloud solutions designed to meet their exact e-business requirements.
“The second issue is around the need for business agility, particularly in the marketing space as more and more consumers go mobile. It’s important to be able to move applications and data into cloud environments quickly and efficiently and scale services up and down as required. But, and this is the big but, this must be managed effectively.
“One worrying issue is the rise of ‘stealth’ or ‘shadow’ IT, where any employee with a credit card can purchase cloud resources, often by-passing traditional IT departments and procurement practice. Short term this offers agility and speed. However, long term there needs to be a discussion about where responsibility lies within the business. We’ve seen instances where the credit card used for cloud services to support a client’s website has expired without the agency’s knowledge, taking the site offline. The risk is significant – not just for corporate security and compliance but potentially to the brand as well.
“Thirdly, as the era of the internet-of-things dawns with the onset of driverless cars, fridges that can order your milk and hackers who are poised to exploit this through weaknesses in internet connectivity, where and how you store the data you collect must be a key consideration. We are now generating more data than we know what to do with. While advertisers and marketers work out how to turn that data into strategies to influence how we make purchases, we have to provide secure and reliable ways to store and protect it.
“If you just look at the realm of media and entertainment, the digital storage requirement of that industry is expected to increase five-fold by 2017 creating a $6.2 billion market opportunity. Data archiving is going to be big business. However what can be a key enabler can also carry great risk. Marketing teams must work with their IT colleagues to ensure that data security is as much a feature of any campaign as the creative.”
But it’s not just security and storage that are supported by cloud computing. It can also help businesses achieve greater insight into customers and their touch-points.
“Cloud gives you access to data, and what marketer doesn’t like data?” says Monkhouse. “With more and more consumers using mobiles, the cloud provides support for the apps they access to carry out their daily business or access vital information. And because a mobile phone is pretty much a personal and private device, it allows us to much more closely track individual behaviour.
“The cloud offers the chance for us all to use data in ways never before possible to tailor services, content and products to benefit consumers. This trend has huge implications for privacy and data protection with regards to the oncoming new EU regulations for member states. Organisations will have to consider carefully how they store, protect and report the data they hold.”
Ownership and responsibility
For Monkhouse, it’s important that iomart understands that no two businesses have the same IT requirements. “There is no point in creating a set of ‘cookie cutter’ products and forcing the market to accept them,” he says. “We have a totally agnostic approach to technology, vendors and platforms. By owning all of the components in the cloud computing stack, from the physical data centre infrastructure to a huge team of fully accredited technical experts in a wide range of technologies, we can sit down with clients and work with them to create the solution that meets their exact business requirements. Whether they want AWS, Azure, Office 365, a hybrid mix of legacy on-premise and off-premise services or a bespoke private cloud, we have the expertise to deliver what the customer wants. It’s all about being seen as a trusted advisor to our customers rather than simply a product vendor.”
That same approach is reflected in iomart’s extensive corporate social responsibility (CSR) programme, which has seen the organisation provide support for local schools, charities and businesses.
“Our CSR strategy is very much focussed on supporting young people,” says Monkhouse. “Our industry is struggling to persuade young people, particularly young women, to take up careers in tech. It is vital that employers like iomart help demystify what we do and engage the future talent pool. We already have a number of highly skilled women working for us, including our Group Technical Manager Anne Bryson (pictured), and we continue to organise events and initiatives for students to engage with the IT industry. For example, we organised the first computing event ever held for secondary schools in Scotland.” iomart sits on the boards of UK and Scottish skills organisations which are helping to shape future apprenticeship and degree curriculums.
Monkhouse continues, “Away from our core business iomart also runs a community campaign called Host Your Kit through which we give sports kit and equipment to deserving youth teams. The idea behind the campaign is to showcase the iomart brand in a way that’s exciting and different to our competitors and to help sports teams financially and encourage healthy communities.
“Host Your Kit has given away £30,000 worth of sports kit and equipment so far. It has helped us build relationships with a number of leading sports organisations and prompted the formation of a ‘Local Heroes’ scheme for our own staff where we encourage them to use sport to fundraise for charity.”
Monkhouse has held senior positions in the IT industry over a number of years, which means he’s had a ringside seat during a period of extraordinarily rapid technological development. What’s the most important lesson he’s learned in that time?
“I think the lesson that I’ve learned these past few years, particularly working with cutting edge technology in a relatively young industry, is that things will inevitably malfunction and it’s how you deal with those issues that set you apart. For me there are no mistakes, only lessons. And yet sometimes we try so hard to avoid failing that we become paralysed about taking risks. To do so is to avoid taking action and being brave. As cloud computing changes the way we work and live we have to expect further innovation and accept that managing that change is all part of the experience.
“As someone who’s seen sales and marketing evolve over many years in the hosting industry, it’s worth remembering this. Although we are on a rapid digital journey, no matter what twenty-first century tools we use – be they wearable tech or social – the customer is still at the centre of everything we do so we still have to have the old principles of the traditional models such as AIDA (attention, interest, desire, action) and TIREA (thought, interest, risk evaluation, engagement) at heart!”
iomart’s digital hosting specialist Melbourne created a bespoke hosting solution for rapidly growing e-commerce start-up Flubit. Flubit is a technology start-up that creates better prices for online shoppers through its unique demand led e-commerce platform. It has an exciting partnership with Barclaycard’s Bespoke Offers giving them access to its technology and merchant base and allowing their users to get better prices. Melbourne was asked to create a hosting solution that would be scalable and secure and allow Flubit to think big in terms of how the platform would grow as it gained more users. They moved the platform from shared cloud hosting to a private cloud solution to give Flubit greater control over provisioning and costs and to meet the greater security requirements being placed upon it. Aaron Beadle, Head of Infrastructure and Technology for Flubit, explains, “For me you have to look at the bigger picture with your hosting provider not just the cost. You have to look at your confidence in their team, your confidence in their support and Melbourne give you all of that.”