Cloud Computing is a term that has quickly become the hottest topic in the technology sector, with seemingly every major provider and thousands of smaller companies offering Cloud Computing services.
But what exactly is Cloud Computing?
A recent McKinsey report listed twenty-two definitions of Cloud Computing!
The umbrella term 'cloud' has been used for many years to refer to the interconnecting telecommunication networks that make up the internet. This is the Cloud that we are all familiar with and use when drawing the internet in diagrams. A simplistic definition of Cloud Computing is hosted computing across the internet. An expanded definition is computing delivered as an on-demand service across the internet where the end-user need not have knowledge of the underlying technology or infrastructure.
This definition can be further understood by looking at the fundamental characteristics of a Cloud Computing solution. The end-user company own no physical infrastructure; rather, they rent the computing 'as-a-Service' on a subscription basis. Economies of scale can be achieved by service providers offering this resource from a shared or multi tenanted infrastructure.
At the very heart of the Cloud Computing model is the internet and it has been the increase in availability of stable high bandwidth connections at a relatively low cost which has been the fundamental enabler for the growth of Cloud Computing.
In Cloud Computing the service is sold on demand, on monthly hourly rates or even by the minute. It is a scalable, elastic service, enabling the end use company to consume as much or as little of a service as they need, when they need it. Within Cloud Computing a cloud can be either public or private. Public Cloud providers typically deliver services to organisations across an internet connection. A Private Cloud is a network or data centre that delivers hosted services to a specific organisation or group of users. It is possible to create a virtual private cloud by utilising Public Cloud services to produce a Private Cloud.
Under the wider Cloud Computing banner there are a number of subsets.
These include Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS), and Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS). Within these there are further sub sets such as Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS) or Storage-as-a-Service (which is also abbreviated to SaaS) and even Everything-as-a-Service (EaaS as defined by HP).
- The Software-as-a-Service cloud model (SaaS) is the most recognised incarnation of Cloud Computing. In the SaaS model the Service provider owns and operates the hardware, infrastructure, the software licences and the service is made available through a web-based login. Management of the service is usually achieved through a web-based portal.
- Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) is where a PaaS provider enables product development tools and Software on their hosted infrastructure. With PaaS developers can build any application, any database or any logic, and run it on the PaaS infrastructure. PaaS enables operating system features to be upgraded and changed frequently. The centrally hosted nature of PaaS enables development teams to work across multiple locations on the same project. It also eliminates the need for each site to have expensive development platforms on each site.
- Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) offers computing power, storage, and networking as a service over the internet. Originally called Hardware-as-a-Service, Infrastructure-as-a-Service is now the more common term. End user companies use the IaaS provider's application program interface (API) to deploy services such as virtual servers and storage. In the IaaS model, Cloud Computing allows a company to only pay for as much capacity as is needed, and bring more online as and when required.
What is clear is that with no universally accepted definition of Cloud Computing and an array of acronyms, some of which never enter wide use, it can be very difficult for anyone to make an informed decision on which service is right for their company.
Selecting a Provider
When selecting a Cloud Computing provider a number of considerations need to be explored. Matching technical requirements is only a small part of the picture. You need to pay particular attention to:
- Service Level Agreements
- Changes to staff roles
- Management and control
- Regulatory compliance
- Data location
- Data segregation
- Data recovery
- Long-term viability of the Cloud Computing provider
- Data availability
What are the benefits of adopting Cloud Computing?
While many of the arguments for adopting Cloud Computing are compelling for businesses no matter what the economic climate, the challenging market conditions we are experiencing make the adoption of Cloud Computing all the more attractive. The key benefits of adopting Cloud Computing are:
Much is made of the freedom that comes with Cloud Computing. Many of the applications that are delivered in the SaaS model rely heavily on the message that they can be used across many devices from many locations.
The success of the most popular SaaS application, Hosted Exchange email, has been built upon the freedom message. But freedom is not only about the ability to take location out of the equation. It is also freedom from many of the 'lights on' chores that an IT department have to undertake every day.
The value offered by Cloud Computing is very clear to see. The removal of capital expenditure is the most obvious and is always cited as one of the main benefits of Cloud Computing and in current market conditions this alone can create a very compelling case for adoption of Cloud Computing. It is important to understand the other elements of Cloud Computing that can bring value to your business.
From the server under a desk through to manned data centres with access control there are usually areas of a company's internal security policies that can be improved with the use of Cloud Computing. The largest security risk is from your own staff, from the prankster looking at a friend's email to a disgruntled employee selling a company's client database through to a malicious external attack gained from lax security policies when a member of staff leaves.
Capacity planning is a key element of IT management's role. Cloud Computing enables you to provision IT in an instant but of course it is not as simple as that. In the traditional model you would access your current capacity within your own data centre facilities. You would assess whether you have enough physical space, power and connectivity and if you fell short on any of these you may have had to look at what can be moved or which legacy systems could be switched off. All of this takes time.
Simplicity of the service means that often the people purchasing Cloud Computing have little or no real technical knowledge. This may mean that you will lose some control of IT use within your business. End-user defined technology will already be taking hold within your company. For example the marketing department may be using an external email shot service by-passing the company's email systems completely. The sales team may have moved to using Salesforce.com CRM without involving the IT department in the decision making process.
If Cloud Computing has grown out of nearly fifty years of thought and development it can hardly be seen as in its infancy, although it could be seen as being in its adolescence with signs of maturity showing in some areas.
The future of Cloud Computing will be shaped by a handful of large providers but these may not be the technology leaders we know today. Some companies such as Microsoft have to protect their revenue from traditional sources and the economics of Cloud Computing may mean that other companies without these concerns can steal a lead. An example of this is Amazon Web Services who have no traditional revenue from this sector and as such can enter the market with low margins with no risk of damaging their existing revenue. Amazon's Jeff Bezos goal is to enter a market and 'suck the air out of the room' and Amazon Web Services may do this with air in the traditional data centre.
Cloud Computing is having a real impact on the way that people adopt computing, the way that they use it and the way that they feel about it. While many cloud-based systems are a while away from maturity, the pace of innovation is making Cloud Computing a viable reality for many companies. For companies not already utilising Cloud Computing solutions within their business now is the time to start investigating how these may help. For companies already benefiting from Cloud Computing in areas of their business this just may be the time to take a bigger step.
Dan Smith, Nasstar plc