Ever since the first BlackBerry smartphone rolled off the assembly line in 2003 -- followed by the game-changing original iPhone in 2007 -- the natural desire for users to not only bring these devices to work but also make them part of their work experience has significantly changed how many enterprises and service providers operate.
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According to IDC, 157.8 million smartphones were sold worldwide in the fourth quarter of 2011, totaling 491.4 million units for the year. In many cases, individuals purchased those devices for personal use; an employer did not give them out. Combine this with the ever-increasing levels of mobility and telecommuting, and it's no surprise that the bring your own device (BYOD) trend has taken hold. Workers want constant access to their corporate resources, regardless of location or device. Meanwhile, enterprise IT departments are attempting to ensure the safety and security of corporate resources.
This shift means one thing for cloud providers: It is vital to understand customer requirements in order to serve their desires for workplace-access flexibility, a concept otherwise described as a "Workplace as a Service."
What is Workplace as a Service?
Much like other so-called as-a-Service offerings -- such as Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS) and Software as a Service (SaaS) -- Workplace as a Service relies on cloud technology and business models to deliver the office to the worker no matter where they are.
Not only do workers need access to the applications and data that they require to do their jobs, but that access must be appropriate for the user's physical location, the organization's security requirements, the type of device and ownership of that device.
Gathering this information is where TM Forum's Enterprise Cloud Leadership Council (ECLC) -- a group of large enterprises that are some of the biggest customers for cloud providers -- comes into play. The ECLC is working to identify these Workplace-as-a-Service requirements so that providers can understand customer needs, resolve any technical challenges and produce reference implementations that can be standardized.
The concept of Workplace as a Service is gaining momentum and visibility as companies and workers both realize the numerous benefits of supporting people who need to have corporate resources available to them regardless of their device, geographic location or what assets they want to access. The CIO of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced its own Workplace-as-a-Service strategy in 2011, saying the federal agency would use its private cloud to support virtual desktops on mobile devices.
While early cloud services fulfilled enterprises' desire to lower capital expenses, these same companies are now demanding cloud providers up the ante and deliver more powerful, business-oriented applications and services that will increase employee productivity.
Workplace as a Service: It's all about context
One might think that getting email on a personal smartphone is no big deal, but consider if a user works at a bank, government office or defense agency. Security is paramount in those verticals, but the reality is that security is no less important in other types of businesses -- no matter the size or stature.
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Users work from all sorts of venues. They need access to resources while they're in transit. They may also sporadically work from a branch office or at an external site, such as a trading floor that is on another network and has different security levels. It is vital for any Workplace-as-a-Service implementation to take these factors into account in order to give users access to their email and other critical applications.
What if users are on their home Wi-Fi networks or on a public network at an airport or coffee shop, or any of a dozen other locations? Does that change what they should be able to access?
It all comes down to context, and it will require a delicate balancing act between productivity and security. This is where cloud providers come in.
Defining the requirements and a solution
The first step toward making Workplace as a Service a reality is for cloud providers to understand the requirements of the users and IT departments of their customers -- the task at hand for TM Forum's ECLC.
It all comes down to context, and it will require a delicate balancing act between productivity and security.
ECLC members come from the worlds of finance, pharmaceuticals, aerospace, manufacturing, defense and advertising; they are driving the evolution of the market by communicating their requirements for end-to-end cloud services, including intelligent combinations of hardware and software. This in turn will give cloud providers a solid idea of what to offer as the market evolves.
This process might involve combining existing cloud service components, such as storage capacity, processing power, bandwidth and several software applications. These individual building blocks could then be bundled and offered to enterprise customers.
But to go even further, a cloud provider could make the service "intelligent" by having these various service components adapt, depending on the users' "context" and security requirements. This creates an attractive offering for customers who may prefer not to invest in developing these services in-house.
As the ECLC works on developing reference implementations, it will need to demonstrate different security contexts, such as whether a password and security certificate might need to be associated with an application, or whether sensitive data and application require additional levels of authentication.
Another important element will be connectivity context. Is that user on a secure network or a public network? Are they coming in through a virtual private cloud, and if so, just how secure is that access? Connectivity would have to be viewed as independent of the device.
It is also important to decipher where that user is physically located. If the user is in an office that belongs to a partner company, it may be treated as a secure context even if it's not the customer's own network.
In this scenario, customers retain a lot of control while allowing employees to use take advantage of the benefits of cloud services and the BYOD trend.
When can we see this in action?
The ECLC is currently in the process of producing a white paper on Workplace-as-a-Service requirements and plans to demonstrate a reference implementation at TM Forum's Management World Americas 2012 conference in Orlando this December.
Although Workplace as a Service is in its early days, enterprises, service providers and vendors all have a stake in how this plays out.
About the author: Aileen Smith is chief operating officer for the TM Forum, where she is responsible for all collaboration and research and development activities. The TM Forum is a global, non-profit industry association that serves as a unifying force for service providers, enabling its 900-plus members to solve critical business issues through access to a wealth of knowledge, intellectual capital and standards.