The Cloud exists. And it's not likely to go away. What is it, why is it important to you, and how can you get best value out of it?
Commercial computing began to take-off in the 1960s, and by the 1970s there were a number of computer bureau, or service bureau, offering computer facilities to other companies. While this started with sending-off punched cards and paper tape (magnetic tape came later), and reasonably fixed applications like batch-processed payroll, using leased (telephone) lines allowed permanent connections, while acoustic modems allowed temporary ones. There was a difficult balancing act between what needed to be done in-house, and what was sensibly done remotely. And, this balance needed to change over time.
Many of the problems and advantages associated with the use of computer bureau are very similar to those associated with using the Cloud. The big difference is the rise of e-commerce. Another major issue is that companies are even more sensitive to the consequences of problems with their computer systems - falling back on manual systems is now often nearly impossible.
The legal system has, to some extent, caught up with computing. There are now obligations for the protection of customer data, the Data Protection Act, and various EU extensions to this. Cyber crime has become a significant issue, with companies loosing control of critical data, which in some cases has destroyed them. Who has access to what data, both within an organisation, and beyond, and recording all access, have become issues that can wreck a business. Foreign governments may be taking an interest in your business in ways which make your customer's legitimate and legally required privacy difficult to maintain.
The Cloud is a real physical thing, not something ethereal as it's name suggests. It's also a way of thinking about how you make use of computing. Many people have confused the actual computer hardware, the "boxes you can fall over in the dark", with what's valuable to them. The valuable thing is the work computers can do for you, and your investment in time and resources. Effective use of the Cloud allows you to get more out of computing.
The Cloud is making use of computing resources which need not be on your premises. These resources typically either exist in data centres, or computers owned by others that you've agreed shared use of. Data centres rely on economies of scale, shared use is a peer-to-peer, federated, approach, which relies on there being a lot of unused computing resource, in a lot of places.
The ideal for the Cloud is that it is invisible. Your company will just go on working while confident that business data is safe and secure, and that computing resources are as large as you are willing to pay for, without any need to install new hardware. Even if your business premises are destroyed then none of your data will be lost, and staff can do normal work from home or in 'hot' office space.
You don't have to just concern yourself with who provides the Cloud, you also need to be concerned with where they are, and how that affects them. There may be legal requirements on whether personal data is allowed to leave its country of origin, and the Cloud provider may be legally required to hand-over data to a government, possibly without even informing the data's owner. These two legal requirements can make life a little difficult, unless care is taken. It is also wise to check who owns data once it has been placed in the Cloud.
There can be considerable advantages in talking to 'local' Cloud providers, as well as the larger organisations. These are more likely to have local data centres, which can avoid some legal issues, and avoid longer data links, which might get broken or have speed issues. Local providers are also more likely to be able to avoid getting tangled in the legal situations of other countries. They are also likely to be more flexible if you wish to make use of a 'Private Cloud', or peer-to-peer facilities. Using more than one Cloud provider might be useful, even if one is only used for secure data storage - if something goes wrong with one of your providers you're not in a 'lose your business' situation.
The Cloud doesn't just have to be in some remote data centre, part of it can be on your premises. It's quite possible to have a 'Private Cloud', using on-site computing resources. If the systems are designed correctly then, when needed, off-site Cloud facilities will be used, and if something disastrous happens, like communications cables are severed, the in-house facilities will enable the company to keep running, maybe using a mobile phone for off-site access.
If your use of the Cloud includes federated systems then these can be wherever is convenient, across multiple sites, and may even be able to extend into things like mobile phones. If someone is working from home then this can be as secure and reliable as business premises. The only limits will be the communications facilities.
Appropriate use of the Cloud will be good for your business. The Cloud, while being related to previous off-site services, introduces ways to make your business both more flexible and more independent. Changing your company so it becomes completely dependent on the Cloud, in particular from a single large provider, could be a really bad idea. Some work will be needed to ensure your company is safe and legal in using the Cloud.
(c) ROMsys Ltd, July 2013, permission given to use for non-profit making purposes
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