Clearing the Clouds – Making Sense of Cloud Computing

Laptop floating in clouds[/caption]I read a blog article recently in which a well known computer scientist said that “The computer industry is the only industry that is more fashion-driven than women’s fashion.”  He was referring, of course, to the recent explosion of popularity in the Cloud and Cloud Computing. We are being inundated these days with advertisements, news articles, and sales calls about the cloud and how it can help cut costs, increase productivity, decrease downtime, boost performance, and cure world hunger.  (OK, maybe not that last one.  But it can reportedly save Hollywood…) But the more people I talk to, the more confusion I see.  People don’t understand what the cloud is, why it could be beneficial, and what possible downsides are.  This article will bring clarity to the cloud and help you decide whether it is a good thing for your systems or if you should keep everything right where it is.

Etymology: Since the internet began, people have been drawing diagrams of computer networks that included it.  As far as those network diagrams were concerned, the internet was a bunch of stuff off in the distance.  It needed to be kept in mind, but no detail needed to be considered; it was big nebulous mess that just needed to be labeled and then moved past.   These network diagrams have always drawn the internet as a cloud because it was always there and really complicated but could be completely ignored.  That’s where the term “The Cloud” came from.BasicNetwork

What is it? The cloud is neither a new concept nor a new implementation.  In fact, you have probably been using cloud applications for years.  Do you remember 1996 when Hotmail first came out with free email for everyone?  That was email in the cloud.  Gmail, too.  Salesforce is a contacts database in the cloud.  Dropbox is file storage in the cloud.  Being in the cloud just means that data is stored and/or processed on computers in the internet rather than on your computer or local server. That’s it.  Instead of happening on your computer or one close to you, the same thing happens on a computer far away. This has some important implications, both positive and negative, which we will cover shortly.  But if the cloud has been around for so long, why the recent frenzy about it?  The main reasons are we now have more bandwidth available to us and the price of computing power is dropping.  Email has always required little processing power and little storage space, hence it has been in the cloud forever.  But 10 years ago it took hours to transfer a few megabyte file (e.g. a single MP3 file) so file storage in the cloud was infeasible.  Now storage and  processing power are cheap to providers, and high speed internet connections are widely available to consumers.  This makes it possible for more to happen over the internet, hence the recent explosion in cloud services.

Advantages:  The advantages to the cloud are many and varied.  Cloud services are typically billed as a small monthly fee so it is easy to budget for and afford, and often less expensive in the end.  Updates are applied to your software regularly and automatically.  Cloud applications are built to be accessed from anywhere, making regular telecommuting and occasional remote access simple.  They are hosted in large datacenters and built for millions of users, so your application can scale in step with your business without growing pains.  Backups are taken care of for you; you don’t have to worry about making sure the backups ran or doing test restores.

Disadvantages: There are also many downsides to the cloud.  First and foremost is that if your internet access goes down or gets slow, so does access to your cloud-based application.  If your business is dependent on this application, then you are effectively shut down until the internet gets restored.  The average speed of a business office network is 100 or 1000 Mbps, while connections to the internet range between 1.5 and 50 Mbps.  At best the cloud service will be half as fast as the same thing on a local network; at worst it can be unusably slow.  While you do not have to worry about backups and test restores, neither can you confirm that these are being done regularly or successfully.  Your staff always has access to your data (or your customers’ data), but if it is sensitive then you now have all of the vendor’s staff with access to it as well.  If the vendor gets acquired or suddenly goes out of business, you may not be able to get access to your services or your data.

Strive’s Recommendations: Note: This article is written in September, 2013 and was written for business considerations at this point in time.
The cloud has many benefits and is the future of computing.  There is no doubt that the majority of business computing will happen there down the road.  However, for now, we warn that it is not a panacea.  The internet in its current form is not fast or stable enough to move everything to the cloud yet, despite what the current hype suggests.  Until the internet is as stable as the power grid and as fast as a local network, the cloud should be used for certain functions and avoided for others. Email and backup are great in the cloud, especially the hybrid solutions that allow you to keep a local copy of your data in case your internet connection gets cut.  File sharing is arguable, but for now we would recommend against it for files used regularly.  Active Directory (the system that controls business networks, user accounts, authentication, file permissions, etc.) should absolutely kept on a local server for now.