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Reexamining Business Agility through the Lens of COVID-19

Having founded a cloud migration startup that’s now part of Amazon Web Services (AWS), I’ve spent thousands of hours talking with enterprise technology leaders about the reasons to consider migrating to the cloud. Until recently, one of my ongoing challenges has been convincing decision makers to think deeply about the value of agility—about the benefits that cloud-enabled speed and flexibility can bring to a business.

I understood why some CIOs wanted to rush through this conversation and just get to the cost savings discussion—and rightly so. They had to make a business case to their executive team, and they needed the team’s buy-in and confidence to move forward with migration. This nebulous concept of “business agility” was a lot harder to quantify than, say, the delta in IT spend when moving on-premises workloads to AWS. Fast forward to today, and no C-suite should need convincing about the importance of speed and adaptability. As COVID-19 has proliferated around the globe, we’ve all been dragged into the biggest proof of concept you could imagine for the value of cloud agility.

If you’re contemplating your own cloud migration or are in the early stages of exploring a business case, you now have hundreds of real-world examples to draw from. As the COVID-19 pandemic rewrote the rules for almost every organization, those in the cloud were able to react much more quickly. In many cases, the cloud has benefited them in ways they hadn’t even considered.

Adapting to New, Unexpected Usage Patterns

When COVID-19 first hit, the most obvious advantage businesses running in the cloud realized was basic business continuity. No business was truly prepared to shift thousands of employees to home-based work, in some cases literally overnight. But for those already in the cloud, the transition went much more smoothly.

When you run your remote access (or virtual desktops, or collaboration, or other critical application workloads) in the cloud, you can ramp up your footprint to support ten times or a hundred times more users in a matter of hours. If you don’t? You’re stuck with the traditional model: procuring the hardware and having data center engineers go through the process of racking, stacking, and deploying it. The process can take months, even when you’re not in the middle of a pandemic.

Just as important and often overlooked is the ability to create new capabilities. When a catastrophic global event like the COVID-19 pandemic hits, you’re apt to need things you’ve never considered before. That could be tools to help employees adjust to new modes of working, for example, or new interfaces to accommodate different types of interactions. In all cases, you’ll be able to develop, test, provision, and scale up new capabilities much more quickly in the cloud.

For example, Coca-Cola Freestyle leaders wanted customers to feel safer when using their popular self-service soda fountains. So, the company developed a new touchless pouring experience that customers could control from their smartphones. With a serverless architecture already in place on AWS, they were able to develop the new web app and build a prototype in a week. Within a few months, they had deployed it to ten thousand machines across the United States.

Facing a Crisis Head-On

When a major emergency like a global pandemic hits, the ability to reduce the time between conceiving an idea and rolling it out can make a huge difference to the public- and private-sector organizations addressing it. Consider all the government agencies building new emergency response services, new testing and tracing capabilities, new ways to register for benefits. The people relying on those services need them now, not six months from now.

Many organizations have risen to that challenge in responding to COVID-19, and the cloud has played a big role in helping them do it. For example:

  • UC San Diego Health developed an AI imaging algorithm to detect COVID-19 in patients with less-pronounced symptoms in just ten days.
  • BenevolentAI used AWS-powered AI analysis to identify an existing approved drug that could be repurposed to treat COVID-19 in a matter of days. Within a month, the drug manufacturer announced its first randomized trial in COVID-19 patients.
  • Qventus used AWS-hosted AI and machine learning tools to rapidly develop a new modeling solution for hospitals preparing for COVID-19 patients. Healthcare providers can use the tool to improve resource planning (ICU beds, ventilators, antibody tests, and more) and optimize capacity to meet spikes in hospitalizations.

Continually Adapting to Change

No one can say what the next six months will hold, much less the next six years. As my colleague Mark Schwartz wrote in this blog in June, “The important lesson to learn from COVID-19 is not that we need to be prepared for pandemics: it’s that we need to be prepared for unexpected, high-impact events, whatever they may be.”

Whatever challenges the future brings, whether catastrophic or mundane, migrating to cloud-based architecture will better position your organization to overcome them. Business drivers change all the time, and speed is disproportionately important for your ability to successfully adapt. Whether you’re responding to an existential threat like a global pandemic, a business threat from a competitor, or an opportunity to be first to market with a new feature or capability, the cloud will help you move much faster. But first, you have to be running in the cloud.

Get Started

If you want the same agility and adaptability as the companies in the examples above, and you’re not yet in the cloud, what should you be doing now to help you get there? First and foremost, don’t assume that you have to refactor your applications to start migrating workloads. There are good reasons to do it eventually, as cloud-native applications can make it much easier to continually update features and capabilities. However, undertaking a “lift and shift” of your existing workloads to the cloud is the starting point for any migration. Even without refactoring applications, you’ll gain immediate benefits in your ability to scale, manage, and deploy workloads. You’ll also have a big head start for when you do decide to go cloud-native.

As Stephen Orban said in this blog a few years back, “It becomes easier to re-architect and constantly reinvent your applications once they’re running in the cloud. This is partly because of the obvious toolchain integration, and partly because your people will learn an awful lot about what cloud-native architectures should look like through rehosting. One customer we worked with rehosted one of its primary customer-facing applications in a few months to achieve a 30% TCO reduction, then re-architected to a serverless architecture to gain another 80% TCO reduction!”

When you’re ready to get started, follow these basic steps:

  1. Discovery: Perform some broad-based discovery to understand your on-premises footprint and identify what you actually have.
  2. Zero in on cloud migration targets: Identify those workloads that can most readily be shifted to the cloud, as well as those where migration can yield immediate cost savings.
  3. Build a business case: Flesh out a business case for those workloads to demonstrate to your internal stakeholders that migrating will be both viable and valuable.

Depending on the level of granularity you’re looking for in discovery and business cases, AWS offers a variety of tools that can help you. One of them is the current incarnation of that startup I founded long ago, Migration Evaluator, which can provide a snapshot of your current on-premises footprint and projected cloud spend. That kind of discovery can also help align your migration with AWS specialist teams that have deep domain expertise in optimizing migrations for different types of workloads.

Whichever tools you use, wherever you start, make sure you’re thinking deeply about agility when building your business case for migration. No matter what kinds of challenges the future holds, building cloud-based speed and flexibility into your business will help you overcome them.

By Aaron Rallo, General Manager of Migration Services at Amazon Web Services

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