Almost any discussion on ICT today seems to be incomplete without a reference to “the cloud”.  But what is cloud computing, will it benefit your business and, if so, how do you go about taking advantage of it?

According to the official US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) definition, “cloud computing is a model for enabling ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (eg networks, servers, storage, applications and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction.”

The definition goes on to list five essential characteristics of cloud computing:

  • On-demand self-service
  • Broad network access
  • Resource pooling
  • Rapid elasticity or expansion, and
  • Measured service

The three “service models” of Cloud Computing are:

  • Software as a Service (SaaS) – the service provider makes application software available to the user and manages the underlying cloud infrastructure including network, servers, operating systems, storage and individual application software;
  • Platform as a Service (PaaS) – the service provider makes available an application hosting environment in which the user can deploy, manage and use its own developed or purchased applications.  The provided environment consists of the languages, libraries, services, and tools required to run the applications in addition to the underlying cloud infrastructure including network, servers, operating systems and storage; and
  • Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) – the service provider makes available the underlying cloud infrastructure including network, servers and storage to enable the user to run the software of its choice including operating systems, applications and any necessary languages, libraries, services, and tools required to run the applications.

While, the “deployment models” are:

  • Private – a platform owned and used exclusively by one organisation (although it may be hosted by a third party);
  • Community – platforms share among several organisations that wish to make use of a common cloud computing environment;
  • Public – provided to many organisations by a third party using a multi-tenanted platform; and
  • Hybrid – mixed use of both public and private clouds.

Together these categorise ways to deliver cloud services.

Because most private clouds are dimensioned to cater for a single organisation’s current requirements, they will usually fail to meet the rapid elasticity or expansion criterion. As a result, they are best characterised as well orchestrated virtualised platforms. It is a matter for debate that essentially, these are not clouds – private, internal or otherwise.

Public clouds are designed to meet all the criteria of the NIST definition. Highly automated provisioning of resources and providing customers the ability to expand and contract the resources they consume as needed and at will are the hallmarks of true public clouds. Their infrastructure caters for many organisations giving rise to the term “multi-tenanted platform”.

Hybrid clouds have two major use cases; first, when an organisation requires additional resources for a short period; and, secondly, an organisation does not wish to outlay additional capital to expand its private cloud.

When exploring the benefits of cloud computing, the argument is typically confined to the public and hybrid cloud deployment models. The benefits also vary for different organisations however, the universal key advantages can be summarised as:

  •  The ability to expand and contract resources as needed and at will;
  • Shifting the expenditure on infrastructure to an operating expense rather than a capital expense;
  • Flexibility in applications testing and development environments;
  • Highly automated provisioning of resources and services resulting in shorter time to value;
  • Less need to manage and maintain IT infrastructure in the case of public clouds – the service provider does this for you;
  • Allowing your IT teams to concentrate more on strategy by freeing them of the more mundane infrastructure management tasks;
  • Greater applications and resource availability; and
  • More easily implemented backup and disaster recovery options.

Cloud computing has a few aspects that fall on the other side of the ledger of which those contemplating using, especially public clouds, should be aware;

  • Heavier reliance on communications (in the case of public clouds);
  • Greater latency than on premises infrastructure;
  • Security of public clouds and the use of multitenanted platforms;
  • The location of data and workloads and the associated data sovereignty and regulatory compliance issues;
  • The perceived threat to your IT staff when using a public cloud; and
  • A perceived loss of control over your infrastructure.

So, if you’re not already using the Cloud, should you?  And, if so, how do you get there?

The strategic answer to these questions is to base them on your overall business strategy. Cloud computing should be a key consideration in developing such a strategy. Achieving this is outlined in an excellent article by my colleague, Mike Ryan, in Aligning Business and Technology Strategy on Technology Update. 

By incorporating cloud computing into your business technology strategy you can avoid the pitfalls of a, disconcertingly common, piecemeal migration.  It will also compel your to consider the risk to your business against the considerable benefits it brings.

Surprisingly, most businesses are already using at least one cloud computing service. Just think if you have Gmail, Dropbox or hosted Exchange, to name a few, you are already using cloud services. Notably, these are all software as a service.

Other organisations go a little deeper into the Cloud by using other SaaS offering for their desktop applications like Microsoft Office 365 and Google Apps.  Others go further still by using accounting SaaS like MYOB in the cloud and Xero, CRM systems like Salesforce as well as ERP systems such as Netsuite.

Many businesses today have virtualised at least some of its IT infrastructure, most notably its server infrastructure. This is a great enabler of an even greater depth of Cloud migration – moving these virtualised workloads to a public infrastructure as a service (IaaS) or platform as a service (PaaS) provider.

Then there are the many and varied derivative cloud services such as desktop as a service, backup as a service, security as a service and disaster recovery as a service that space prohibits me from covering in this article.

Which level of Cloud engagement is right for your business comes back to your business technology strategy and your business’ level of comfort of the risk versus the benefits of cloud computing.

I’m always up for a chat on Cloud computing so feel free email me or call on 08 6467 0600