Cloud sprawl: how best to manage your cloud instances

cloud apps

It seems too much cloud can be a bad thing, but just how do you keep it under control? The benefits of the cloud have been widely understood by organisations and it has been embraced. But the trouble is now one of popularity and with that, inefficiencies.

Fast and unchecked cloud adoption is presenting a headache for the IT organisation as they attempt to manage and control the multitude of clouds. According to a recent survey by Avanade, 61 per cent of businesses are suffering from business efficiencies due to cloud sprawl.

Cloud sprawl is quite simply excess workloads running in an organisation, usually without the company's knowledge. It occurs when IT officers or departments are unable to keep track of cloud instances, for example unsanctioned applications used by employees, which in turn causes additional storage costs and security threats.

According to Clive Longbottom, business process analysis service director at Quocirca, cloud is being adopted in an uncoordinated manner, with departments and individuals doing their own thing.

"Shadow IT and BYOD are minimising the opportunities for an organisation to gain from cloud. The problem has been in IT burying its head in the sand while first the business departments and then the individual employees went off and started to do their own things.

"Now that this is pretty mainstream, IT is left wondering what has happened and tends to come down hard on individuals, banning their use of what can be very effective tools."

Longbottom adds that the first thing to do when tackling this sprawl is the figure out exactly what people are doing: are there pockets of Salesforce being used in departments? How many users are using Dropbox? This requires tools that can track what usage individuals are making of connections within the organisation but still won't give much visibility when a user is working remotely over a public internet connection.

"These people have to be included and the only way is to ask them what they are doing. Not in any threatening way, but an encouraging one," he says.

Kalyan Kumar, senior vice president and chief technologist at HCL Technologies says IT organisations should establish a centralised IT team to proactively work with different business units to identify their requirements and preferences.

"Once the data collected from all the units is available, a standard deployment and management solution should be devised," he says. "This should be flexible, scalable and secure adhering to the company standards from a cloud perspective."

The cloud options provided by IT to various business units should be in line with organisational IT strategy around cloud adoption and should be driven from executive management. This would be a win-win situation where all the parties can be served, and at the same time will result in greater visibility and monitoring.

But is the problem of sprawl down to a problem of education or poor business policies? In most cases, the only motivating factor for users turning to alternative cloud solutions is a desire to increase productivity.

"Most don't think of the potential risks or inefficiencies they are causing, and although you can argue that this comes back to a lack of education in the workplace about the risks that cloud sprawl brings, the bottom line is that it's down to the business to implement the right policies to prevent this in the first place," says Mark Armstrong, vice president and EMEA managing director at Progress Software.

Dale Vile, research director at Freeform Dynamics says sprawl is generally not a failing of IT nor or an IT problem. "Ownership of the issue lies with senior management. IT's main responsibility in the first instance is arguably to educate senior execs on the nature of the problem, and advise them. The business execs themselves then need to curtail the actions of department heads, middle managers and users to help bring things back into line," he says.

This sprawl means in some ways that CIOs are losing control of their systems, because the reasons the IT functions exist are being ignored. "Over time, systems will become mission critical or difficult to integrate, support and enhance, or will just be duplicated, and the organisation will have to start trying to reassert the discipline and controls of IT," says Mark Corley, chief technology officer at Avande.

"But the horse will have bolted - and usually after some large financial impact or security event."

One way that cloud sprawl could be avoided in the future is for IT leaders to enable employees to have their cloud needs met within the enterprise, says Adam Spearing, EMEA platform vice president at He says that whether the task at hand is capturing customer notes on the go, logging travel in a custom travel management app or signing documents electronically.

"There are enterprise apps to satisfy all those needs, but CIOs need to make sure employees are aware of them and can access them easily in order to prevent employees from seeking solutions outside the workplace," he says.

Armstrong echoes this and says there is a need for both corporate and private cloud app stores as well as a 'solutions' team to build re-usable apps to solve local or niche needs. "Apps are built because everyone needs them or because only you need them, either way you want a common access method, common control, and a common goal of solving the need without the sprawl."

As technology changes and cloud offerings develop, incidents of cloud sprawl are likely to keep on occurring, especially when an organisation is not fully cognisant about the needs of employee and how technological advance outside the organisation is stimulating those needs.

Only by making sure that future strategy is aligned to market dynamics can sprawl be avoided or at least minimised.

It is essential that IT organisations maintain engagement with various groups in the rest of the business to best define which technologies get adoptions so that employees stay as productive as possible and the infrastructure retains some degree of efficiency.

This article was originally published in April 2014 and has since been updated to include extra resources for readers

Rene Millman

Rene Millman is a freelance writer and broadcaster who covers cybersecurity, AI, IoT, and the cloud. He also works as a contributing analyst at GigaOm and has previously worked as an analyst for Gartner covering the infrastructure market. He has made numerous television appearances to give his views and expertise on technology trends and companies that affect and shape our lives. You can follow Rene Millman on Twitter.