At first glance, the cloud seems more valuable today than ever--especially for remote workers. As companies large and small rethink the nature of work in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the cloud is being hailed as a critical asset for organizations that want to give remote employees the flexibility to access enterprise IT resources from any location. To an extent, the cloud does offer these benefits. However, it is not a silver bullet. Several drawbacks limit the cloud’s ability to support the seamless work-from-anywhere scenarios that many employers are now prioritizing.
The Cloud's Benefits for Remote Workers
The most obvious is that the cloud enables data and applications to be accessed from anywhere with an Internet connection. If your line-of-business apps are hosted on a SaaS platform, and your corporate file share can be accessed from the public internet, no one needs to be in the office to use these basic IT resources.
Solutions like cloud-based desktop-as-a-service offerings are attractive, too, as a means of making employees’ workstations accessible from any location. So are hosted collaboration and productivity platforms--like Microsoft Teams, G Suite and Microsoft 365--which make it easy for employees to collaborate without being dependent on software that they can access only in a local office.
The Cloud’s Drawbacks for Remote Workers
It’s certainly true that the cloud can solve some of the pain points of supporting remote workers. But to suggest that building a remote workforce is as simple as migrating every IT resource to the cloud would be an overstatement.
There are some critical limitations that make the cloud a poor solution for every type of remote-work need.
1. Bandwidth limitations
To be sure, most cloud-based resources that employees typically access don’t require a high-performance network connection. But, in certain cases, a lack of bandwidth could disrupt productivity. For example, if you need to upload and download very large files from a company server, having to do so could take quite a long time if the server is hosted in the cloud and must be accessed via the public Internet. In contrast, a local server that is in the same office as a worker will generally deliver a much faster network experience.
Another example most of us are all too familiar with at this point is video conferencing. In theory, being able to use cloud-based conferencing platforms to hold virtual meetings regardless of where individual employees are located is great. In practice, the connections are often spotty, which is one reason why virtual meetings are so taxing.
This would be much less likely to pose an issue if all meeting participants were on the same local network or--quaint as it may now sound--located in the same room, holding a non-virtual meeting.
2. Tool bloat and complexity
In a traditional office, employees don’t need special tools to access corporate applications or data. They log into their workstations and get to work. Because everything they need is on their local network, they don’t have to worry about running additional tools to get access.
When working remotely via the cloud, however, they need more software to be productive. Remote workers probably need a VPN client to access restricted resources. They may need an RDP or VNC tool, too, to log into remote workstations hosted in the cloud. Remote workers might require password managers to help keep track of all the passwords they must juggle for their various cloud-based apps.
In this respect, the software stack required to work via the cloud is larger. This is a challenge that can certainly be managed, but it increases the complexity that IT teams have to manage.
3. Defeating the purpose of hybrid architectures
Hybrid cloud platforms are growing increasingly sophisticated as public cloud vendors vie to outdo each other’s hybrid offerings. Unfortunately, hybrid architectures don’t jive well with remote workers.
When you use a hybrid solution like AWS Outposts or Azure Stack, you host some cloud resources in your own data center. The advantages of doing this include faster access (because you can connect via the local network, instead of the public internet) and fewer compliance issues (because data remains on your local infrastructure, instead of the public cloud).
But when employees work remotely, these hybrid cloud advantages disappear. Remote workers won’t enjoy the speed benefits of a hybrid architecture if they have to connect to the on-premises portion of a hybrid cloud via the public Internet. And if they download data from the hybrid environment to their local devices when working remotely, they undercut the compliance benefits that a hybrid cloud stands to provide by keeping data on-premises.
4. Not everything can run in the cloud
A final limitation of using the cloud for remote work is that not every application can be hosted in the cloud.
Most companies that have been around for a while have at least some legacy apps that were designed long before anything was thinking about SaaS as a delivery model. Moving those apps to the cloud could require a major overhaul, which would demand more development resources than companies can spare.
And then there are apps that--for technical or compliance-related reasons--just won’t work in the cloud at all, no matter how hard you try. You may have an app that consumes massive amounts of data, and just can’t perform adequately when that data has to be uploaded or downloaded over the public internet. Or you could have an app that requires ultra-low latency rates. Or, you may be subject to compliance policies that make it impossible to move certain applications or data to the cloud.
If employees depend on apps like these, the cloud is not a complete solution for enabling remote work.
For a variety of reasons, simply moving applications or data to the cloud is not always a solution for streamlining remote-work needs. It helps in many situations, but effective remote-work solutions will require a mix of cloud-based resources and on-premises ones, with the latter filling in the gaps that the former cannot address. If you think surging remote-work needs will drive more companies to go all-in on the cloud, think again.