Five key workplace developments in the SaaS era

November 25, 2022 - 9 minutes reading time
Article by Erik Heil

Years ago (November 2010), I wrote an article called ‘Is the desktop disappearing behind the clouds?’ It was the prelude to the new way of thinking in terms of cloud computing and mobile computing. The ultimate vision was that our applications, data and user settings would all be in the cloud and our workplace would have become a control panel. This would fit within the movement of The New Way of Working. Here, the knowledge worker is more efficient and effective and there is a better work-life balance by making work device, time and location independent (any-any-any). The office building would become nothing more than a meeting place.

What has come of this anno 2022? Did our workplace actually become a control panel? Has the usage or management changed substantially? I’m sharing my thoughts on this by describing five key workplace developments we face in today's SaaS era.

1. Office workplace

Traditionally, the desktop computer was widely used for generic Office applications. With the arrival and now widespread adoption of Microsoft's Office365, we see that much of this IT provision has moved to the cloud. The file server, Exchange server and local Skype for Business server are gone. SharePoint, OneDrive and Teams are the new normal.

In the workplace, this change in itself has not had such a big effect, although its importance has increased significantly. After all, calling on the phone is now "calling" via Teams, Zoom or even WhatsApp. Physical meetings, in many cases, no longer take place and are replaced by video meetings and, in some cases, hybrid meetings.

Despite the fact that a cloud version of all Office apps is now available, locally installed versions are still used because they are easier to use as a local application than in a browser. Also, these versions have just a bit more functionalities. Locally installed versions of Office are fully connected to the cloud, ensuring collaboration on the same document. A clever achievement. And because the local installations and numerous updates (auto update) require virtually no effort from IT anymore, that process has become a lot easier. More or less As-a-Service; the cloud plays an important role here as well.

So the IT workplace of 2010 has not changed significantly in this area from a user perspective. However, it has become more prominent as a real time communication and collaboration device and enables IT to spend less time on managing the Office suite. And now that working from home more often has become the norm, desktop computers disappeared from the workplace almost completely.

'Now that working from home more often has become the norm, desktop computers disappeared from the workplace almost completely'

The end users themselves do have a learning curve to go through: the transitions to Teams, SharePoint and OneDrive are essential to working in the cloud, but also have a profound effect on how we collaborate: The New Way of Working has become The New Way of Collaboration!

2. SaaS transition, device and network independent working

With the rise of the cloud, many new cloud native players entered the market for process support software. Google and Salesforce took the lead in this, followed by many traditional vendors (Office365!). This development has led many companies to adopt a SaaS-aside policy today, resulting in a SaaS transition that is now in full swing.

With this transition, all data and application back-ends are moving from the local network to the cloud. The gamechanger, above all, is that cloud applications are fundamentally no longer tied to a device or physical network in order to be used. For now, the effects on the client device itself are more limited: the web browser or app now only takes a more prominent role, and the role of central desktops (Citrix) is visibly diminishing. Still, local computing power and functionality is used to optimize the presentation layer. And with increased usage, browsers are becoming smarter and more secure.

'The SaaS transition is now in full swing'

Data downloads have also certainly not been eliminated and are still of added value for several reasons. Cloud drives have synchronization mechanisms, allowing the storage of a document in the cloud to take place asynchronously and enabling the user to continue working on it regardless of the speed or presence of the cloud connection.

3. Mobile, a mix between business and private

In addition to the cloud, Mobile was hot and happening around 2010. The AppStore made its first appearance, leading to millions of applications. The computer in your pocket also led to an explosion in social media usage. Today, there is almost no application for which there is no app: whether it is chatting, planning a trip, making purchases or managing your car's on-board electronics. Not to mention the invaluable built-in camera - almost the most important argument for buying a new smartphone. People are often hunched over their smartphones, not only in the city but also in the workplace!

A key feature of mobile OS is that it is optimized to provide both private and business applications on one device, while maintaining security and compliance for business data. In an era where IT is deeply intertwined with our private lives, this has become an important design aspect of IT.

'The distinction between business and private is becoming increasingly diffuse'

With the arrival of the software-based e-SIM, adding multiple phone numbers has become very easy. Combined with multiple focus profiles, the user can easily choose between private or business. And in the 24-hour economy, (limited) intertwining can still be achieved.

All in all, mobile devices are still far from being just a control panel. However, the management burden is relatively very low, thanks to a new system architecture and the features built into the platform. The dot on the development horizon for today's laptop OS: Windows and macOS.

What mobile and cloud, two key pillars of the Nexus of Forces (Gartner, 2012), did bring about is that we are getting used to being able to manage our IT affairs on any device, with personal and business quite often getting intertwined. Also, the fact that data often syncs across multiple platforms makes the distinction between business and personal increasingly diffuse. Think of a photo on the smartphone that syncs over the cloud with your workplace, for which that photo can again be useful in a business setting. This is just one of many examples where the business and private worlds intersect.

Business and private increasingly intertwine in different ways. This is also reflected by the fact that the business IT workplace - nowadays in many cases a laptop - is also regularly used privately by many. Something that, with the now familiar BYOD concept of the smartphone, is considered quite normal.

4. The Edge: end-points and end-point management

The developments of the last decade make it clear that, alongside the cloud transition, we have acquired an array of workplace devices with which to access that cloud. The collection now consists of desktops, laptops, smartphones and tablets: otherwise known as the end-point devices. Autonomous devices that give us access to the data - via public networks - in the central cloud, which themselves "live" at the edges of that cloud: edge devices, in other words. By analogy with Edge Computing, where computing power is close to the source wherever it is needed, such as real-time IoT applications that collect data locally from smart-devices, process the data and control other smart-devices again, directed by the central cloud that analyzes and adjusts the edge processes.

This plurality in type of devices is now also found in their management. In the past, we had Microsoft's SCCM for computer management and InTune (MDM) for mobile device management. MDM was originally the iPhone management solution, which featured a dedicated cloud based management interface. MDM combined with the AppStore made managing the iPhone super easy. No more OS images, software packages or self-maintained distribution systems. One complex concern less to worry about! Moreover, iOS soon offered the facility to distinguish business data from private data, allowing you to roll out policies with MDM to prevent commingling.

'The desktop has been transformed into a cloud connected edge device'

With the subsequent developments of Android, Windows and macOS, we see that the technology behind MDM management has become the norm and SCCM and InTune are now merged under the rubric of end-point management (EMS). To this, I would add powered by the cloud.

Onboarding a new device also can no longer be done without cloud service: after Apple's DEP (Device Enrolment Protocol), Microsoft with AutoPilot and Android with Knox/Enterprise also have a provision that allows corporate devices to connect to the cloud available and customer specific MDM server immediately after unboxing. All software and corporate policies around security are applied from the very first use. We call this zero touch: the IT organization no longer physically sees new devices.

5. Security and zero trust

Of course, the cloud transition does have a significant impact on former security thinking: after all, the end-points and central applications are no longer within a walled garden. The desktop of yesteryear was intrinsically trusted because it was connected to the LAN. Workstations that were not under management could easily be barred from the LAN. With that, those workstations no longer had access to network services and applications.

Cloud computing has forever reshaped that landscape. Like taking away the firewall and connecting the LAN network directly to the Internet. This requires a new interpretation of the walled garden. Current security is therefore shaped around a zero-trust approach, based on rigorously validated users and continuous monitoring of device compliance, anomalous behavior and network traffic.

New features such as compliancy checks via MDM (is it a known device belonging to the user and have the right policies been implemented?), XDR (AI-driven eXtended Detection & Response: do anomalies occur on the device?) or CASB/SASE applications (accessing cloud services via a broker that keeps control of data traffic in relation to the end-points) provide additional assurances about whether access to and use of SaaS features is permissible. In addition to these tools, an incident alert organization (SOC) is of course essential!

In short…

Now, all these developments combined significant contribute to the idea of IT-out-of-the-wall, or consumerization of IT: IT as a user good and no longer as a management burden. Here, the desktop has been transformed into a cloud connected edge device: local processing power for compute-intensive or graphically complex applications, with data input via keyboard, microphone or camera, synchronized and managed with storage and services available in the cloud.

The desktop of 2010 still exists in physical form and has not even changed that much in terms of content. However, technical management is supported by platform vendors better, and is made available through the cloud. Direction of that management is done with MDM techniques. This desktop must now share its existence with various other, often mobile, devices under the heading of cloud connected edge devices. That multitude of platforms with variations in the available MDM rules does increase the complexity of management again.

For the IT department, another essential task is added: working on-the-edge-of-the-cloud means a much broader attack-surface requiring new and sophisticated cloud scale zero trust techniques. This is to ensure business data security in the cloud era. This way, these devices are virtually part of a high-tech walled garden after all, the only way to prevent arbitrary unmanaged devices from unlawfully using cloud services. That, too, is living on the edge!

Related articles
5 tips for a successful cloud adoption
Cloud Retail Finance Public Logistic
More and more organizations are moving to the cloud. A logical move, because cloud offers many advantages ...
How sustainable are data centers?
Because of increasing Internet use and the growing hunger for data, more data centers are needed. But how ...
Policy driven governance: guardrails for cloud
With the rapid developments in the field of cloud, cloud environments are becoming increasingly complex. ...