Cloud computing’s most attractive and vaunted business value is its promise of lowering operating costs and reducing or eliminating the burden of managing an IT infrastructure. Thus, it is only natural to wonder whether your business could benefit by putting enterprise content management operations in the cloud.

We have found that the potential benefits of moving ECM to the cloud differ among organizations and must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Because of differing IT support requirements, some businesses are able to realize significant cost savings while others see no financial benefit.

Meanwhile, there is a lot of optimistic talk out in the marketplace about the value of moving ECM to the cloud. Joe McKendrick on ebizQ, for example, says that, “Going forward, cloud offers a compelling value proposition for new ECM initiatives.”

Likewise, Daniel O’Leary in an AIIM blog says there is “tons of potential” ” for ECM in the cloud and that “the future is bright”.

There also is a fair amount of pie-in-the-sky (no pun intended) cloud talk in which movement to the cloud is presented as a no-brainer and the benefits of the cloud touted as a given. For example, Ed Rawson of Perficient, in an AIIM paper on cloud ECM, tells us that:

“Cloud computing is a better way to run your business. Instead of developing, maintaining and running your content management applications yourself, you access everything you need through the web. You just log in, customize it, and start using it. That’s the power of cloud computing.”

Likewise, argues Dan Dillon, “Just as no one would conceive of having a power station or an oil refinery in their basement to fuel their home, people are beginning to realize that it makes more sense to capture, process, collaborate on, protect and access important business content from…a professional grid: It’s the way of all critical services.”

However, while the premise of eliminating your IT infrastructure may seem logical and compelling, the business case and ROI can be a highly variable. While one organization might be able to reduce IT operating costs significantly by moving all or portions of their ECM operations to the cloud, another organization would realize no reduction in its overall IT management costs by doing so.

As Gartner VP Mark Gilbert notes, it is possible that the total cost of a cloud offering “evaluated over a period of several years could actually be higher than the costs of a premises-deployed solution.”

In addition, not all customers are willing or able to put their data in a cloud. For some organizations, security and control are major issues, and these businesses simply will not allow their sensitive data to reside outside their organization in a public cloud—period.

Doug Miles, director of market intelligence AIIM, is among those who believe the risk is too great, arguing that, “It’s a big leap of faith to store your sensitive documents and content in the cloud.”

Likewise, David Gildeh, in a reality check on cloud-based content management, asserts that the vast majority of content remains stored behind the firewall. This, he says, is partially due to legacy investments, “but it is also due to the complex security and regulatory concerns that prevent them from using the cloud for all of their content.”

It also may not be possible to move particular ECM applications to the cloud. Some vendors’ ECM solutions or components, such as workflow, will not run in a third-party cloud and must be run on customers’ premises, defeating the ability to move these ECM operations to the cloud. Scan/capture operations typically must be performed either on premises or by a service bureau, so an upload to the cloud will be necessary.

Integration with installed systems like CRM, ERP, and other databases, as well as with other cloud applications, is another issue. Does the integration occur on premises or in the cloud, and how is the integration performed? There are no standards, and integration schemes must often be custom rigged.

As Darin Stewart relates, tight integration with on-premise backend systems can present a challenge for cloud solutions, while some scenarios can be a “nightmare.”

Other issues to consider when evaluating putting ECM in the cloud are reliability, service level guarantees, migration of data, bandwidth, and vendor lock in.

The bottom line is that the question of whether to put ECM in the cloud, and how to put ECM in the cloud, is a complex issue that typically requires a good deal of examination and analysis. For some companies, it is a cultural issue, and moving data to the cloud will always be deemed too risky.  Still others will find that moving to the cloud will not be financially viable in any form.

For many companies, moving ECM to the cloud is truly beneficial. For companies that are interested in moving ECM to the cloud, a pure cloud solution may work, while for others a hybrid scheme will be best—with some components residing in the cloud and some on premises.

The answer, as it often is, is “It depends.”