Cloud Computing

The hot buzzword in IT at the moment is the 'Cloud'. Actually the cloud concept has been around for many years, but only fairly recently has taken on a name that used to refer to atmospheric accumulations of water vapour.

What is the Cloud?

Put simply, cloud computing is outsourcing of software, hardware and services to be accessed over the internet. Of course this has been going on virtually since the beginning of widespread internet access. Very few organisations have reliable enough internet connections, or staff expertise to host their own web sites in house on their own servers, hence the the proliferation of web hosting providers who for a monthly fee provide space on their servers housed in big data centres, for customers needing to host web and email services. In the past, this was simply referred to as web hosting, but basically it is exactly the same concept as cloud computing. Basically if you pay someone to host your web site, you're in the cloud, albeit most likely in a fairly basic way.

Of course today, people want to do a lot more online than simply look at collections of online documents, which is what a traditional web site tended to be. As web sites became more interactive, the term Web 2.0 was coined to refer to web sites that not only present information, but allow people to interact with them. Well known sites like Facebook are a good example of Web 2.0 taken to an extreme, where the site is a completely dynamic web application and the term 'pages' has taken on a completely different meaning within the context of Facebook.

Web 2.0 isn't the end of the story, and while highly interactive sites like Facebook, Gmail, Hotmail and so on are both web sites and full blown computer programs 'in the cloud' in their own right, increasingly businesses and individuals are turning to online applications which are not necessarily web based, such as storing or backing up files online, running databases and so on. Effectively web and email services are a subset of the cloud.

Every Cloud has a silver lining?

Suppose you're a small business that can't afford the capital outlay, and lacks the in house technical skills to maintain your own server, but need a server all the same. By turning to a cloud based server, you get what you need by paying a monthly fee, and let someone else take care of the hardware and management of your server. You get to do the same things as if you had a server sitting in your office, but all you have to do is pay a monthly fee for as long as you need the service.

This is a win-win situation for the cloud service provider and you, as you get less up front cost and full management of the service, while the service provider gets an ongoing revenue stream. You also get the ability to have access to your server from anywhere that you can obtain an internet connection.

When the sky falls on your head

Security

Being in the cloud is not without its pitfalls. Every day there are stories of web sites getting hacked, and remember that web hosting is just one part part of the bigger cloud picture. Being in the cloud depends on an extremely high level of trust between you and your cloud service provider.

As an example, recently a popular cloud storage provider Dropbox accidentally introduced a serious security flaw into their product so that any person could log into anyone else's account and access files without authentication. The flaw only existed for a few hours before it was fixed, and fortunately no data theft was reported, but imagine if some competitor had logged in and stolen sensitive data, or some hacker had deleted files that you thought you had safe and secure in the cloud. Dropbox themselves run their service on top of Amazon Cloud Services, so they are both a cloud service provider, and a cloud service consumer. This is actually a fairly common scenario. If Amazon had been the ones who had messed something up, then getting to the root of the problem could be quite an opaque process, but at the end of the day, if you lose data, it's your business that will suffer, and most cloud providers include exclusion of liability clauses in their terms and conditions.

Legal Issues

I've already mentioned Amazon cloud services. Of course Amazon is an American company located in the USA and subject to US law. That's fine if you're also US based, but suppose your cloud provider is located in a different country to yourself? The service provider will come under the jurisdiction of whatever country they're based in, and if that nation has different laws to your own, you might find things that you would take for granted based on local law simply don't apply to them, yet your local law quite likely will apply to you and your use of customer data for example.

Imagine a scenario where you use a foreign service, and the service provider's government suddenly decides that they must provide access to client information, and in the process they gain access to information about your customers whom you've assured that you're keeping their data private. According to your government's law, unauthorised disclosure is a serious crime, so suddenly you're caught in the crossfire, due to conflicting requirements of two different legal jurisdictions, and it could cost you dearly.

Performance and Reliability

Even if your data is secure, and you don't run into any legal issues, you need to consider the performance of any cloud solution. Because the service is accessed via the internet, the reliability and performance is only going to be as good as your connection. If you're constrained by data caps and speed limitations, committing everything to the cloud might not be such a great idea. For example every PC that comes out today will have an ethernet port that will allow you to plug into a local network at at least 100Mbit per second, and most will actually allow up to 1Gbit per second, and any WiFi enabled device should allow wireless connections up to 56Mbit per second. The average ADSL 2+ connection will allow a download speed of up to around 15Mbit per second under ideal conditions, and an upload speed of 1Mbit per second at best. Clearly if you rely on an ADSL connection to the internet, using the cloud for data intensive activity is not going to be a very smart move.

Getting it Right

Being in the cloud has some distinct advantages, but there are also some pitfalls. Depending on your circumstances, you may not want to commit your entire IT infrastructure to the cloud, but instead choose selective parts where it makes sense. You need to plan your cloud strategy rather than simply rushing into it because the cloud is the new IT buzzword. In no particular order, here is a list of a few things to consider. Remember that you're probably already using a subset of cloud services if you have web site or email services. If you want to add new cloud services you may want to check with your existing hosting provider, as they may be able to offer additional cloud services.

  • What parts of my IT infrastructure will benefit being in the cloud?
  • What parts will not benefit?
  • Are there new services I can get that only exist in the cloud?
  • What risks are there?
  • How can I mitigate these risks?
  • What am I already doing in the cloud?
  • What service providers will be most responsive to my needs?

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