More and more big Web providers, from Google to Yahoo!, are moving data to clouds. Even the software to run the data, from e-mails to big spreadsheets doesn’t live on machines in offices but up in cyberspace. From sensitive financial information to lists of customers. They’re moving your stuff from your computers and that of very large businesses’ computers to a so-called cloud.
It’s not so mysterious at all. The data is on some other computer. That could be a computer on the other side of the world. You and the business you work for gain access to the data through the Web. Increasingly, the big companies, Microsoft included, are enticing you to give up your data to them.
Where is my stuff?
Your stuff may be in a huge warehouse that is humming with the hard disks of thousands of special PCs called servers. They are, in principle, no different than the machine on your desk. But servers are usually powered by special chips and special software that you wouldn’t be able to use. And they don’t each have monitors, mouse and keyboards attached.
They consume large amounts of power and give off a lot of heat. So much heat that some companies have found it more profitable to locate their server farm – buildings the size of football fields – near places where the power is cheaper and where the climate is more agreeable. Because electrons whiz around at the speed of light, distance isn’t that important.
There’s been talk of powering servers down in areas where the day time temperatures are hot, and moving the data and software to a cooler location. Since it’s all just bits and bytes, the data and software can be easily sent to another computer. That’s something that has to be done anyway in case a particular server breaks or “goes down,” in geek-speak.
You’ve been told by your Internet Service Provider, the company that keep your Web site up and running, that they rent server time from a company in Kansas. But the company in Kansas may find that a tornado is one the way. So they move all the data out of harm’s way to, say, India. Why not?
The bottom line is that you don’t know where your stuff is at any moment.
I pay, or do I pay, for my cloud?
Nothing’s free in life. Remember over-the-air TV? It was “free,” except that you had to sit through all the commercials. Well, “free” e-mail on the Web – or in the cloud – isn’t free because you have to look at all the ads. Same for Google. Some businesses do pay for complicated services, like for being able to have customer data available to a salesman in the field who carries a Web-enabled computer with him on sales calls.
Because that will also tell you how safe your data is.
How can I keep my stuff safe?
About a decade ago Microsoft “lost” the e-mails of more than 17,000 Hotmail customers. News reports weren’t clear whether all 17,000 customer got their e-mails back but it’s possible that some were permanently lost. And, remember, everything in the cloud is owned by one private company or another. They can – and do – go out of business.
The solution to keeping your stuff safe is an old one: back it up.
Storage is cheap
Permanent storage is cheap these days. Most of us know what a megabyte is. Even a gigabyte. How about a terabyte? That’s a thousand gigabytes. A one terabyte external hard disk costs around $100 these days. The Library of Congress states that its collection fills about 745 miles of shelf space or 160 terabytes of stuff.
What Will Cloud Computing Do for the Business Community
While confusion may exist over the definition of cloud computing, IT professionals consider that this technology has a value proposition for the business community which is far greater than cobbling together applications over the Internet.
Cloud computing is a technology that has attracted a lot of attention from businesses and IT professionals alike, just as many other process-oriented technologies have attracted attention in the past. “It’s become the phrase du jour,” says Gartner senior analyst Ben Pring. (InfoWorld, “What cloud computing really means,” Eric Knorr/Galen Gruman, Jam. 21, 2011)
The difficulty for the business community is that there are several descriptions for cloud computing. While some IT professionals and cloud proponents believe it is a metaphor for the Internet, the combination of ‘cloud’ and ‘computing’ may make the concept a little too fuzzy for many in the business community where the user base will come from.
Utility Computing or Conventional Outsourcing?
While there are analysts and vendors who define cloud computing either as an updated version of utility computing, or just virtual servers available over the Internet, others take a very broad perspective, preferring to define it as any IT service or product consumed outside the firewall.
Cloud computing is in its early stages and has garnered a large and diverse set of players, service providers, large companies and small, offering to deliver a range of cloud-based services, ranging from full-blown applications to storage services and spam filtering. And while the old utility-style infrastructure providers are included in the list of providers of cloud services, so are SaaS (software as a service) providers, among others. Currently, information technology (IT) departments must plug into cloud-based services on an individual basis, while integrators are getting their acts together to offer real cloud computing.
Some of the Different Types of Cloud Computing
There are seven different definable elements or types of cloud computing, each of which might combine with one or more of the other services to form a ‘cloud’ of services. They are:
SaaS.. This is the ‘software as a service’ element of the cloud, which delivers a single application through the browser to thousands of customers using a multi-tenant architecture. For customers, this means no upfront investment in servers or software licensing. For providers, costs are low compared to conventional hosting.
Utility Computing. This is a form of cloud computing which offers storage and virtual servers that IT departments can access on demand.
Web services in the cloud. Web service providers offer applications that enable developers to exploit functionality over the Internet, rather than delivering full-blown applications.
Platform as a service. This is a variation of SaaS, delivering development environments as a service, enabling developers to build their applications running on the provider’s infrastructure and delivered to users via the Internet, from the provider’s servers. These services are constrained by the vendor’s design and capabilities, however, they do provide predictability and pre-integration.
MSP (managed service providers). This is a managed service provided to the IT department, such as a virus scanning service for e-mail or an application monitoring service.
Service commerce platforms. A hybrid of SaaS and MSP, this component of cloud computing offers a service hub that users interact with, and is most common in trading environments, such as expense management systems that allow users to order travel or secretarial services from a common platform, much like a service bureau.
Internet integration. The integration of cloud-based services to be offered on the Internet is in its early days, and providers are moving towards a business-to-business integration.
As an integrated service for the business community, cloud computing still has to prove its value, and while there are a number of isolated clouds of service available, it might be premature to speculate at how successful this latest technology, in its fullest sense, will be in the near future.
Perhaps, as virtualization and standard applications make their way into the enterprise, the loosely-coupled component services offered as benefits of cloud computing, will make every enterprise a node in the cloud.