Cloud computing: Forecast says brighter days ahead for business solutions Featured

8:00pm EDT August 31, 2010

For businesses wanting to boost computing performance without flooding their IT budgets, the forecast couldn’t be sunnier. Although the clichés are familiar, there are very serious precautions to take when considering the virtualization of a business’s network. A decision should be based on knowledge of the cloud services provided, the value this service offers, the needed applications, and if a private cloud should be built utilizing Internet-style networking within a business’s firewall. 

“With all the advantages and disadvantages related to cloud computing, one would speculate the future to be ‘cloudy,’” says Chris Jones, network/infrastructure administrator at ATW Management Inc. “But the forecast does indicate brighter days ahead, with most businesses accessing software applications online, sharing and accessing information through remote server networks by the year 2020.”  

Jones predicts that the average work environment will consist of Internet-based applications utilizing smart phones and mobile laptops rather than a typical desktop PC operating system. Cloud computing will become more dominant than the desktop in the next decade, even if only due to the freedom visualized by the term itself. 

Smart Business learned more from Jones about the implications of cloud computing for businesses today and in the long term.   

What are the capabilities of cloud computing? 

The general idea of cloud computing is Internet-based computing whereby shared resources, software applications and data are accessible somewhat like electricity with the ability to expand or contract on demand. 

This can be compared to a subscription, or pay-per-use, service that extends business’s IT capabilities over the Internet without investing in new equipment or software licenses. While still in its infancy, cloud computing has already spun dozens of providers both large and small that deliver a wide variety of Internet-based services. 

The Software as a Service (SaaS) type of cloud computing consists of a single application that is delivered to the customer over the cloud or Internet. This aspect of cloud computing is familiar to businesses that utilize e-mail services, customer tracking services, and/or HR-payroll applications over the web.  

Another form of SaaS allows web service providers to offer Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to enable developers to manipulate functionality rather than just deliver applications. This is commonly used for services such as payroll processing, delivery processing and credit card processing. Still another SaaS offers development environments as a service in a ‘build-your-own’ applications package that utilizes the provider’s framework. 

Virtualization is generally compared to utility computing, which in a broad sense allows a single computer to access multiple operating systems simultaneously in data centers. But from a strategic view virtualization, when synchronized tightly between multiple systems, offers a redundancy vital to disaster preparedness and recovery. Virtualization allows businesses that have servers dedicated to one specific task to utilize excess resources to handle multiple tasks. Like a utility, the business pays a fee based on how much computing power is used. Virtualization is finding its way to the PCs within an employee’s home. This is accomplished by allowing code and data to be packaged together, utilizing data encapsulation to move the work around, enabling the corporate server to run side by side with the employee’s home computer. 

How can businesses determine if this is the right solution for them? 

A cloud solution has many benefits, but these need to be fully understood before choosing to a solution that takes partial control out of the IT department and places it with a third-party provider. 

Simplicity through centralization offers fully scalable and flexible cloud solutions that most large enterprises would envy. This advantage allows both small and medium-sized businesses accessibility to multiple data center infrastructures without having to implement and administer them directly and without the additional cost of hardware.  

The centralization of security in a cloud service enables access to be instantaneously revoked in the case of job cuts and layoffs. Disabling accounts and remote access are just as important as returning a laptop and security badge. 

Cloud hosting has a low cost of entry, with the primary savings resulting from the lack of capital expenditures needed for equipment, applications and licenses. The cost savings do not end at the server when you consider the irrelevancy of the in-house systems administrators. 

What are some of the disadvantages of cloud solutions? 

Security of confidential data is the greatest weakness currently in cloud computing due to the lack of control over the business data. Customer information is considered a business’s most valuable asset. In the health care industry, government rules mandate the privacy of personal medical information, bringing to light inadequacies in cloud solutions. 

Performance in a cloud environment is based on all sites competing for the hardware resources. If multiple website usage spikes coincidentally, it can result in noticeable performance degeneration. Additionally, the capacity for scalability is vague, creating the possibility of over-exceeding capacity as the website resource requirements grow. 

Costs related to cloud solutions give businesses a hands-free method to scale their hosting costs. However, some financially surprising problems can arise. Automatic scaling tends to make businesses ‘relax’ in regard to paying attention to usage. If not monitored properly, this can result in excessive internal usage as well as misappropriated use by hackers. One method used by hackers consists of a simple low-level Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack, which, contrary to typical viruses, keeps the site running but at a very busy pace. Since cloud hosting is based on pay-for-usage, the costs can spin wildly out of control. Daily attention is required to monitor this type of usage. 

Chris Jones is the network/infrastructure administrator at ATW Management Inc. Reach him at cjones@atwonline.net or (866) 452-0563.