Recently, I’ve seen articles that basically declare that cloud computing is such a normal part of our daily lives that everyone knows what it is, how it works, and the benefits it brings to individuals and organizations. And while that may be true for many, some people still don’t really understand cloud computing.
In many people’s minds, it’s an intangible, nebulous place – somewhere in the world – where their very critical, valuable, and sensitive information is stored. But is it secure? Who can access the data? If I want my data, can I download it? If I store my data in the cloud, is it still mine? How do I use my applications if I’m offline? Do I have a choice to place my data in the cloud? Why would I do that if what I currently have works just fine?
These are all legitimate and obvious questions that unless answered, keep people from feeling comfortable “moving to the cloud” and realizing the benefits of such a move. And honestly, I don’t blame people for feeling like they’re in the dark. It’s the responsibility of information technologists to educate the market, in plain English, and that hasn’t really happened in a comprehensive way.
I’m guilty as charged! So, to simplify the cloud, I’d like to put this to rest and allow people to sleep at night with a simple explanation.
As we all know, more and more applications and data are being pushed into the cloud. There are many reasons for this – mainly because of the efficiencies gained in: application management (provisioning, upgrades, updates, support, etc.), sales and license management, anywhere/anytime remote access, and speed to market, among others.
How does it all work?
Well, the simplest definition I found came from a quick Google search: cloud computing is the practice of using a network of remote servers hosted on the Internet to store, manage, and process data, rather than a local server or a personal computer (basically the same definition as the Internet). To break this down, computer servers (huge hard drives and microprocessors) are located in secure data centers around the world. They are connected via the Internet. On these servers, companies sell access the infrastructure on an “as needed” basis under agreements called infrastructure as a service (IaaS). IaaS agreements lower up-front equipment investment cost, require a smaller datacenter footprint, provide a level of cyber security, and reduce maintenance effort to keep things up-and-running. Some other companies host their software solutions (software as a service or SaaS) in the cloud and sell access “by the seat” or individual license and bill in a monthly recurring fashion, rather than a one-time cost.
What's the cost? What are the benefits?
Both offerings provide all of the benefits of a cloud solution, but one of the most common obstacles for adoption has been the perception of higher than expected costs – especially in the early days of cloud computing. It can be difficult to make an accurate comparison between one option that is a fully supported service versus many hardware, software and labor components, some of which need to be depreciated and replaced over time. When you add to that the ongoing maintenance, power, circuits, outages, and troubleshooting of an on-premises solution and it becomes clear why a straight one-to-one cost comparison can be difficult and complex. Fortunately, as cloud computing has become more ubiquitous, options have increased and costs have gone down substantially.
In addition, what more and more organizations are realizing is that even with basic computing services, it is difficult to beat or even match the total cost of ownership the cloud offers. Most cloud services are built on redundant, highly available architectures, utilizing the most advanced enterprise-class hardware and software that would be prohibitively expensive on a smaller scale. Furthermore, it can be difficult in a competitive marketplace to hire and retain the expert IT skill sets required to adequately support these complex, highly available architectures.
Today’s business leaders understand that they can be more effective hiring for skills that are closer to the point of delivery and more closely aligned with direct support of the company’s core business. They are also realizing the benefits of freeing up capital to invest in furthering the strategic mission of the organization while enjoying the flexibility that a consumption service such as cloud computing offers. Getting bogged down in long term commitments to software maintenance contracts, data center contracts and hardware ownership and depreciation no longer matches the flexibility required for today’s nimble organizations that need to respond quickly to market changes and opportunities.
While back end computing services may not yet be at the point of being considered a commodity in the way electricity is today, there are similarities in that as prices come down and reliability increases, organizations increasingly must decide if running and maintaining a data center in addition to running their business makes sense or if they would be better served to make fractional purchases, served up by specialized professionals who have developed the skills and economies of scale to offer better faster and increasingly cheaper utility computing services that match their needs.
It's just more of the same ... but different.
At the end of the day, as with most trends, cloud computing is really just a new twist on delivering an existing service. When you add a cleaver name, all of the cool kids want a part of it. Beyond the initial hype and the idea that there is some nebulous technical service that nobody really understands or can agree upon, cloud computing represents an evolution of technology that is attempting to meet the insatiable demands of the modern speed of business. You can give it a new cleaver name if you like, repackage it with a slightly different twist, but I say cloud computing is just another point on the evolutionary path of technology that will surely continue to evolve, but it is far from dead. For many, it is a significant ingredient in the mix that helps their organizations to thrive in a chess game that would make Kasparov feel uncertain.