The Cloud – What is it? Why does it matter?

Cloud computing is much talked about and, when it is, often polarises opinion. In essence, it is remote software that is not based on your PC and that provides means of data creation and/or storage. The main issues of contention are to do with control and data security, although most of us are using cloud already, whether we realise it or not.

 

Definition

Firstly, to differentiate cloud and cloud computing: cloud is a term used to denote the internet and cloud computing refers to the access and storage of information over the internet, often referred to as software as a service (SaaS). For the sake of ease, I will use the term ‘cloud’ as a catch-all.

So, cloud refers to shared software for multiple end users accessed over the internet via your desktop browser or mobile apps. The information – the software and the data created – are hosted remotely on servers. The software is not on your PC – your desktop is just the interface that allows access.

The common analogy is that of the national grid, where a central resource is shared among a variety of users and delivered to individual locations on a pay per use basis – the user has nothing to do with the infrastructure or logistics and has no control over failure of supply (other than having an onsite generator on stand-by).

And there is the rub. From a security and constant supply point of view, the system has a perceived weakness – more on this later.

 

History

The ideas behind the cloud were being talked about in the 60’s and, indeed, the first mainframes were so large that no functioning could have fitted on a desktop device. Remember those huge desktop computers in the early 80’s – a box the size of a small TV with luminous green on black screen, mostly used for WIP and accounting systems?

Well the software was on a mainframe in the basement; the desktops were just the devices used to access and update the information on the server. This is not remote in the sense of being off-site, but it is still not on your desktop.

 

Private or public

This point brings us neatly on to the idea of public and private cloud.

Many see the idea of private cloud as a contradiction in terms, but the principle of remote access stands, it is just who owns the server that changes.

Public Cloud is where servers are operated to provide a service to the general public, either free or on a pay-per-use basis. Obvious examples are Google and Microsoft.

Private cloud refers to the same system, but this time operated for a single organisation, with the remote information either being run on-site, by the organisation, or from dedicated space in a data centre

The other point about private cloud is the fact that it is necessary for the organisation to install and maintain infrastructure or pay substantially more than public rates for space in a data centre, which would seem to defeat the object. However, there are situations where this can still be advantageous.

 

Services

So, how is the cloud being used and who by?

I said earlier that most of us are already using the cloud. Anyone on a social media site or with a You Tube or Flickr account is using the cloud. Dropbox, Mail Chimp, Basecamp, WordPress, Gmail, mobile apps – all are cloud services.

For businesses, the cloud can be used for accounting, marketing (content management, customer relationship management, e-marketing), human resources (even PAYE is now all online – no more rummaging through books that look like log tables) and management information systems (MIS).

A start-up or micro business can trade at almost no cost. You can build a website at WordPress, optimise it with a little help from Google Keywords, set up a Paypal account to take payment, use Mail Chimp to keep in touch with customers and prospects, social media to build a presence and disseminate information and Dropbox for data storage.

As you grow you may need Kashflow or Quickbooks for accounting and Natural HR for your staff, Highrise or Salesforce to develop your CRM and Basecamp for project management.

I have only picked a few examples and they are not meant as recommendations, its’ just that the list to choose from is so long. And though most of the above examples are free, some will cost a small amount.

Small to medium enterprises and even large corporates can and do use the cloud. Although the free services may not suit a larger business, there will still be savings to be made against installation and maintenance of in-house infrastructure.

 

Security

The issue of security is one of the major bars to greater take up of cloud services. The three main areas of concern are protection of data, protection of private information and compliance with legislation.

Any data storage equipment is a potential target for criminal activity and negligence – from leaving a device on a train that has no passwords or encryption, or having a telephone system in a business premises hacked and used to sell calls illegally, to the recent problem with LinkedIn.

Service providers have to meet a variety of legislative measures and due diligence in order to set up their platforms in the first place. Whether we like it or not, many of us are already taking the risk with online banking and online purchases that provide obvious examples of highly sensitive information which we are trusting to the cloud and the organisation behind the service.

From a business sustainability aspect, it is not in providers interests to have breaches of security – Amazon, Google, Microsoft, et al will have very expensive, elaborate prevention systems in place.

Encryption of personal data and password protection is common-place – especially for personal and financial information. Physically, data sites are also well maintained and protected and most providers will have back-up systems in place. This will include duplicate servers, failure safe systems against power outage and even their own generators.

Users can also take steps to minimise security risks with data encryption, password protection (this is particularly true of mobile devices) and ensuring they are complying with data protection requirements.

The biggest risk on the user side is perhaps loss of internet connection. Your disaster recovery systems should help here and larger businesses may have to invest in leased broadband, where downtime is rare and response times are guaranteed through the service level agreement (SLA).

It may be more difficult for smaller companies to buy expensive services, but with increasing wireless and mobile network coverage – both public and in third places like café’s, libraries, business centre’s – even the smallest business should be able to cope with what are very rare events.

Of course, if the whole internet crashes, that is a very different story and the cause of such an event is likely to more demanding of our attention than the likely effects – at least in the short term.

 

Benefits

Perhaps the most attractive aspect of the cloud is cost, or rather lack of it. Much is free and where there is a cost it is low and payable monthly. There is no infrastructure cost, no hardware or software to purchase and no maintenance charge.

Neither do you have the cost of updating all the hardware and software – updates are automatic and part of the regular charges made.

Because the software is not on your computer means you can access the services anywhere and from any device. It makes your device lighter and faster and gives you maximum flexibility in your work – whether at home, in the office, on the move or in a café. It means you can work faster, be more productive and react faster.

You have automatic back-up of data and, again, this is not on your device so it is great from a disaster recovery point of view.

It improves your business sustainability from the point of view of cost control and future-proofing and from an environmental viewpoint by significantly reducing your IT carbon footprint.

 

Limitations

Cloud services are, almost by definition, generic. They are not bespoke to your business and, particularly as you grow, you may find you want a more specific solution. In reality, you are not in control – the provider decides what services to offer and it can be hard to adapt it to your needs.

It is still possible to develop the software you need and then host it remotely, but there are obvious cost implications to this, although you still get the flexibility of working practices, anywhere-access and disaster recovery benefits.

We have discussed security above and there is no doubt it is an issue. However, I see it retreating over time. Humans are great at adapting and we will acclimatise to the idea of cloud over time. In some respects, the fact that the big players are the most vulnerable to criminal activity is reassuring, because they have most to lose and will spend the most time and resources to protect against it.

We have also discussed the reliance on internet access and this too, over time, with more network coverage, will diminish as an issue.

 

Is it important? Is cloud a fad or here to stay?

It certainly seems as though the cloud is here to stay: it is a big part of how computers have been used and envisioned since their beginning back in the fifties and sixties and has developed to such an extent over the last decade that it would be hard to see how we could go back.

The cloud is a great enabler, it has practical benefits and makes start-ups easier and less painful – which is great for the economy.

Care needs to be taken with the amount of private data we are giving to the cloud, but I think there are built in levelling factors at play here: the reputation of the providers; the fact that we are already flying fairly high in the cloud on a great many platforms; and our adaptation to the situation, especially as younger people, used too their virtual environment, are entering the workforce.

So yes, I believe it is important and it is here to stay. What do you think?

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