With a good cloud portal, providers can give their customers a Web-based interface that enables a quick and easy "self-service" way -- for both the IT-savvy and not-so-IT-savvy -- to shop for, buy and provision cloud-based IT services.
"A portal is a window into a much broader set of capabilities in the IT world. It's critical that portals be user-friendly and fairly intuitive to use," explained Ken Stephens, senior vice president of business cloud services at Xerox Corp. "Portals are helping simplify what's been a very complicated IT world for decades. That's not to say it's not still complicated, but simplifying it and allowing people to provision on their own through portals is providing a new wave of flexibility for companies."
Building a cloud portal for everyone
Provisioning IT services via portals shouldn't necessarily require an extensive IT background, because many cloud providers offer portals for both IT managers and less technical users.
IT managers want cloud portals that give them options for application performance tracking, load balancing and configuration optimization, according to Lauren Nelson, a Forrester Research Inc. analyst focusing on Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS). "These users want to see performance graphs and have the capability to build complex configurations and templates for their end users," she said.
Less infrastructure-oriented buyers of cloud services want a cloud portal that gives them quick and easy access to resources. "Developers want a clean, easy-to-use [product] to select prebuilt templates -- but they don't need to see any of the complex performance or payment configurations," said Nelson.
Bill ForsythVice president of portal development, Savvis
Many providers offer cloud portals that cater to both customer groups. But some vendors specialize in providing a single viewpoint. "Amazon EC2 is the largest vendor in the public cloud space, and they tend to cater to the end users," Nelson said.
Cloud portals are becoming so popular that now, according to Forrester, 46% of enterprises are building them for their own internal data centers -- for access to resources within 15 minutes. "This takes the cost value out of the picture, but gives end users, the developers, fast access to resources," said Nelson. "Private cloud is a huge priority for many organizations, but they tend to struggle to build portals. Again, these are the same sort of self-service portals and are generally offered in IT manager user interfaces and less technical ones for developers."
What makes a good cloud portal?
Using a portal should be a frictionless experience, with a clean and uncluttered user interface. Aside from these obvious ease-of-use considerations, portals are evolving in several ways.
Fast, self-service access
Fast, self-service access is the key ingredient for all cloud portals. "You can do everything yourself and get it done right away," said Bill Forsyth, vice president of portal development at Savvis. "We're trying to make using portals as easy as plugging an iPhone into a computer and backing it up."
Cloud portal 'personality'
Portals should be able to "change their personality" depending on the user, according to Forsyth. "If someone from accounts payable logs into our portal, they just see invoices and spending trends -- not a bunch of backup reports," he explained.
To give portals personality, it's helpful to make them task-based to match each user's role. "What you want and what you get in most cases depends on the user's persona -- either an IT manager or a developer," Forsyth said. "By making portals task-based, you're not just seeing a bunch of random menus or links. If you're searching for something, you'll find it quickly. If you're shopping for a solution, you need to be able to find the right one quickly and appropriately. If it's something that requires more than a few seconds, the user interface needs to give you feedback and progress updates."
Ability to organize information
Good organization of information is an essential key consideration for building a cloud portal, because customers often have lots of internal complexity.
"Paying attention to details and being able to organize information for larger enterprises is important," said Forsyth. "Large enterprises tend to have hundreds of services -- anything from virtual machines to network circuits to firewalls. Simply providing a list of those services isn't helpful. Customers need tools so they can rename services according to what their company calls them and to be able to logically group them into categories aligned to their business -- for example, by their application role, business criticality, the functional area or cost center."
Integrating business terminology
When building a cloud portal, providers should also integrate business logic into their systems. Only seasoned IT managers will want to buy services based on technical parameters.
"The terminology is shifting toward more of a business discussion," explained Stephens. "When the cloud first came out, it used technical jargon and conversations focused on memory and performance. It's still primary and dominant in conversations, but now we're seeing more conversations focus on business needs."
On-the-go access is one of the most appealing features of a good cloud portal. Providing mobile access is strategically very important to Savvis, according to Forsyth. "We provide an Android app and Savvis Station in the iTunes store," he added. "Roughly 25% of our users are on that mobile version today and we expect that use to grow, so we're exploring various ways to take it to the same level as our big website right now. Not everything is on the phone yet, but it's on the way."
Innovation and continued demand ahead
It's still early in the game with cloud portals and we'll see more innovation ahead, making them easier and more flexible to use.
Demand for portals is expected to continue growing. Nearly 90% of Savvis' cloud customers are using them. "Every 18 months we see growth doubling overall, so we keep scaling to meet demand," said Forsyth.