Find out why the cloud has become increasingly popular and how it could benefit your business.
If you’ve been around the IT world for any time at all over the past decade or so, you can’t have failed to come across the concept of cloud computing. It’s been at the centre of IT strategy for several years now and is something that businesses can’t afford to ignore as they look to update or expand their systems. But exactly what does using the cloud mean and how can it benefit your business?
In simple terms, the cloud is about having a central pool of shared resources – software, processing power and data – that is available on demand to other devices as and when it’s needed. This isn’t really a new idea; for many years from the 1960s onwards, central mainframe computer systems have provided a processing and storage resource to desktop clients within large organisations.
It has also been common for organisations with mainframes to rent out processing time to other businesses, making use of spare capacity and helping to offset the cost of buying and maintaining an expensive asset.
The cloud takes this idea and extends it further, making shared computing resources much more widely available via the internet. The thing that is different with the cloud compared to the old mainframe model is that rather than being exclusive to a large corporation, educational institution or government department, it’s available to anyone, anywhere. Businesses of any size can benefit from using the cloud at relatively low cost.
What has made all this possible is the introduction of fast, reliable internet connections in most parts of the world. In the days of slow dial-up connections, the idea of sharing large-scale computing resources online was only a pipe dream. High-speed, always-on connections in the form of broadband and leased lines have quickly become the norm since the start of the 21st century and it’s the convenience of this connectivity that has made widespread use of the cloud possible.
The advantage of buying and running systems in this way is that it’s very flexible. You can start with a small number of licences and scale up the system as your business expands. Crucially, this can be done quickly and easily, with none of the costs and lead time involved in buying extra in-house computing resources.
How it works
Using the cloud involves taking advantage of storage and other computing resources offered by a provider elsewhere. These resources are based in a data centre which could be located anywhere in the world and are accessed from any PC or mobile device via a fixed line or mobile internet connection.
By now most people will be familiar with cloud storage services such as OneDrive or Dropbox that allow you to backup files or share them with others via a shared service. Cloud storage was one of the first cloud computing examples in widespread use and provided many people with their introduction to the technology. Storage kick started the cloud revolution, making it easy to share files with colleagues or take work home, secure in the knowledge that the file you were working on would always be the same version as the one on your office machine. No more messing around with flash drives or CDs that could be easily lost or forgotten.
The cloud has since extended its reach into other areas such that it’s now possible to run systems in the cloud. This Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) approach is how applications such as Microsoft Office 365 and Google Docs work. All you need to access the software is a basic PC or mobile device with a web browser. For businesses, this has many advantages. Less powerful machines are needed on the desktop, and there’s more control over usage and thus reduced risk of having unused software licences gathering dust.
As it has gained in popularity, the advantages of cloud computing have spread to more specialist areas. Many software developers now offer cloud versions of their software. This makes it possible for smaller businesses to benefit from powerful commercial systems that they wouldn’t be able to afford to buy and run in-house. Running systems in the cloud, of course, means that the software is managed and kept up to date for you so there’s no need to worry about scheduling updates and downtime.
Types of cloud
Most people think of cloud computing in terms of publicly available services such as Microsoft Azure or Amazon Web Services. These offer a flexible, low-cost way of accessing systems that can give smaller organisations access to the same software as bigger ones, but this isn’t the only way in which the cloud can work.
Larger businesses often opt for a private cloud. In this scenario, the data centre infrastructure is owned by the company for its own use. This means it can gain many of the benefits of the cloud, in terms of flexibility and availability, but without having to give up control of the data and with no worries about security and compliance. This option, however, is only available to larger businesses because of the costs and complexity involved.
There is a third option which involves an internal private cloud supplemented as necessary by public services. This is known as the hybrid cloud. It’s an option that allows for greater flexibility, allowing some of the workload to be shifted to public cloud services at times of peak demand. It can also make it easier to cope with scheduled maintenance on in-house servers or deal with problems including power outages or natural disasters at lower cost than having a dedicated off-site disaster recovery centre.
“Ultimately I believe organisations will end up with a hybrid cloud deployment,” says Cisco’s Chris Alison. “They will use an on-premise private cloud for legacy, core, or sensitive applications. For other applications, they will use multiple different public cloud providers. In that type of environment, keeping control of all the different workloads will be the critical challenge.”
Security and compliance
It’s easy to believe that by moving systems into the cloud you can offload responsibility for activities including backups and securing data. However, it’s still your information and you have to take appropriate steps to look after it.
It’s sometimes said, in a rather flippant way, that there is no such thing as the cloud, just other people’s computers. But in fact, this highlights an important issue. Even though you’re consigning your information to ‘the cloud’ it’s still being stored on a computer somewhere. One of the major concerns for many businesses is just how well that information will be looked after.
When choosing a cloud provider it’s vital to look at what measures are in place to safeguard your data. Is it encrypted at rest and in transit? How is it backed up? Is there a fallback data centre should the main one suffer a failure? All of these are crucial questions.
You need to consider compliance too. If you’re storing or processing personal data in the cloud you need to make sure that your choice of provider meets any legislative requirements. For example, it may not be permissible to store some types of data outside the country, so the provider’s location is important. You also need to ensure that they’re up to speed with new regulations such as GDPR that govern the handling of data in Europe.
Uses of the cloud
We’ve already talked about the cloud in terms of storing data, and in running SaaS packages. The latter can be everything from office systems to more specialised packages including ERP and CRM. As cloud use has become more widespread and more reliable, solutions including infrastructure services for communications and disaster recovery have also become available via the cloud.
One of the many reasons companies turn to the cloud is to make their systems more accessible. As the world of work has shifted towards greater flexibility, with staff working from home or in the field, and consequently demanding access from mobile and BYOD systems, the cloud provides a way of allowing these remote staff easy access to central systems.
As internet connections have become faster and more reliable, it’s easy to see why the cloud has become such an attractive and widely adopted option. It offers access from just about anywhere, lower costs, the flexibility to expand quickly and a wider choice of applications than it would be possible to offer on in-house systems. For companies concerned about their environmental footprint the cloud also offers a greener and more energy efficient way of fulfilling their computing needs.