“What’s the cloud?” “Where is the cloud?” “Are we in the cloud now?!”
In the simplest terms, cloud computing means storing and accessing data and programs over the Internet instead of your computer’s hard drive. The cloud is just a metaphor for the Internet. It goes back to the days of flowcharts and presentations that would represent the gigantic server-farm infrastructure of the Internet as nothing but a puffy, white cumulonimbus cloud, accepting connections and doling out information as it floats.
In science, cloud computing is a synonym for distributed computing over a network, and means the ability to run a program or application on many connected computers at the same time.
Cloud computing is the next stage in the Internet’s evolution, providing the means through which everything — from computing power to computing infrastructure, applications, business processes to personal collaboration — can be delivered to you as a service wherever and whenever you need.
Cloud computing has four essential characteristics: elasticity and the ability to scale up and down, self –service provisioning and automatic deprovisioning , application programming interfaces (APIs), billing and metering of service usage in a pay-as-you-go model. This flexibility is what is attracting individuals and businesses to move to the cloud.
The world of the cloud has lots of participants:
• The end user who doesn’t have to know anything about the underlying technology.
• Business management who needs to take responsibility for the governance of data or services living in a cloud. Cloud service providers must provide a predictable and guaranteed service level and security to all their constituents.
• The cloud service provider who is responsible for IT assets and maintenance.
The benefits (pros) & advantages of cloud computing
Having your data and business computing programs running online, rather than exclusively on your office computers, means that you and your staff have access to them anytime, anywhere there’s an Internet connection. Small businesses like the idea of being able to access their data from home, at a client’s location, on the road, or even on a smartphone. And of course, if you know you will have to work disconnected, you can load the files you need onto a hard drive, a USB flash stick/drive or better yet use another offline/online cloud computing tool . Many of the more common cloud computing offers out there, such as Google Gears and Adobe AIR, make it possible for some Web-based programs to be used on a computer even when you’re not connected. That basically took one aspect that may have been viewed as a limitation and made it a huge plus.
Some of the more basic benefits/pros of cloud computing include:
• How it frees up physical space – Think of remote data storage, servers you’d otherwise have to to keep in house, etc.
• Cloud computing eliminates the needs for maintaining a cool enough environment for computer hardware that can easily overheat and crash.
• Saves electricity – in larger organizations this alone may be worth it.
• Eliminates the cost of maintaining one’s own IT staff to update and upgrade software or hardware because the data center handles that.
• Software & Hardware maintenance – Software provided online is upgraded and maintained by the provider, so the small business owner does not have to purchase the newest version of a software program or download fixes and patches for this or that server, router or hardware. Not having to buy a program outright but entering into a monthly or annual contract is very appealing, as is the fact that many applications are offered for free. The fixed cost allows business owners to plan rather than be caught off-guard when a costly software or hardware upgrade must be purchased.
For me personally, cloud computing has provided a sense of work-life balance. My personal budget, without any account numbers or anything except debits and credits, is in the cloud shared with my parents to simplify budgeting & updating. My to-do list is on the cloud. I email strictly now via the cloud. And best of all, my calendar is in the cloud. This affords me the flexibility to coordinate things between my personal life (more like several lives) and work. But enough about me.
The risks (cons) & disadvantages of cloud computing
The chief executive of leading security company Check Point, Gil Shwed, has warned enterprises from plunging too quickly into cloud computing, stating that the technology is inherently dangerous.
“The basic fact that you’re sharing data with others is a huge security risk. If I have my server with my data at least I know that I can protect my data, but if I mix hundreds of these [servers] there might be one bug, in one application, that will allow a virus to move to the others. A bug, a configuration error, anything.”
Shwed did not wish to discourage the move towards the cloud, however.
“I am definitely a supporter of cloud computing, but I don’t think it will take over from traditional computing – it will have some portion of the market. One of the things the enterprises want is control, and once you outsource … you lose a big portion of that control, so companies will only do this if there is a very, very, good reason,” he said.
“There is a clear and interesting challenge there, the move from controlling things to letting other people control it for you.”
While I don’t want to discount Mr. Shwed, you have to take his perspective into consideration. He’s in the security business. Naturally, it’s all about control; as evident by his quotes. As a small business or even a larger one (several larger ones actually), as I will mention in my conclusion below, some things are OK to relinquish control of provided the risks are understood and perhaps even mitigated. For example, I’m OK with relinquishing control of my email for my business or for most businesses I work with to cloud computing. The convenience and cost benefits out weight the control and risks (especially when they’re mitigated).
One of the biggest benefits of storing your data in the cloud is that you don’t have to worry about backing it up anymore. Big companies with hundreds of servers are more reliable than your little external hard drive, right? Yes. But servers do go down, and when you’re dependent on a web application to get your email or access that presentation for the big meeting, there’s always the risk that your internet connection will go down, or that the webapp’s servers will. Offline technologies like the previously mentioned Google Gears, decent export functionality, and a good backup system can alleviate this particular concern, but not all systems offer those things. Again, it’s about understanding the risks and mitigating them.
In conclusion …
It’s interesting that the government is behind cloud computing and has recently launchedapps.gov, a catalog of applications in the cloud. Despite the challenges of cloud computing, many large organizations are not only evaluating it, but are jumping to adopt it. Jaguar Land Rover moved to Google Apps. And the Los Angeles City Council today (if I wasn’t ill to write this on time – 2 days ago) voted unanimously to “Go Google,” (like Jaguar Land Rover) approving a $7.25 million contract to outsource the city’s e-mail system to Google’s cloud and transition some 30,000 city employees to the cloud over the coming year, according toa report in the Los Angeles Times.
In case you haven’t noticed, I personally am right on the cloud bandwagon with all of you. My web browser is the one app I run on my desktop at all times; I’ve entrusted the likes of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox, Amazon, and Yahoo with my data just like you have. The key is to know what you’re getting into when you make that choice, to crank up your personal security (like alternate email addresses and password choices) and to lobby for better user protection by hosting providers in the cloud.
It’s clear that cloud computing is a wave of the future. Ultimately, putting your data in the cloud involves choosing convenience and productivity at the cost of some security risk. In the real world, convenience almost always wins, and there’s nothing wrong with that. What’s important is that you understand the dangers. All you have to do is exercise some good judgment and practices and you ought to be able to alleviate many of the risks and challenges of cloud computing, leaving you to enjoy its many benefits.
Cloud Computing currently shapes the thinking of business modeling, business consulting, solution creation, service delivery, and software architecture design, development and deployment.