Overview of Cloud Computing…

We’ve all heard about it, we probably have clients using it, but what is it exactly?

In essence, Cloud Computing is a umbrella term that covers a number of different (but related) technologies, very much like most people think “The Internet” just means looking at web pages, but it encompasses that, email, file transfer, news feeds, remote access and much, much more.

The main “Cloud” products are:

Software as a Service (SaaS) – rather than having your programs and data on your computer, you access them via the Internet. Any of you using web based email such as Hotmail are using SaaS and therefore “the Cloud”.

SaaS means that you can access your programs and data from anywhere you have an Internet connection. Whilst webmail is a common use of SaaS that’s been around for a long time, we are now seeing other software offered in this way – Microsoft Office 365 gives you Word, Excel, PowerPoint etc. as a totally web based offering. Google Apps does exactly the same. There are SaaS timesheet systems, CRM management solutions, Project Management systems, Point of Sale solutions just to name a few.

Platform as a Service (PaaS) – So, you want to build your own custom software solution? You need a server to run it on, a database, a web front end for it, all the development tools but you don’t have them in house?

This is where PaaS would be used. A PaaS provider effectively gives you all this “in the Cloud”, either for you to build from scratch or using predefined building blocks. All you need to know is how the bits fit together. The PaaS provider does the rest for you. PaaS can also be used to add additional functionality to SaaS.

Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) – Servers, software, data storage and network equipment can all live in the Cloud. Rather than having a server room/data centre, all that equipment is hosted elsewhere and you just maintain a data link between yourselves and the IaaS provider.

If you have a website and it’s hosted by a third party, that’s IaaS, but at a very basic level. If you want to backup your data offsite and you buy space with an online data storage company, that’s IaaS.

No doubt you will have realised that there’s some crossover between all these different services, and that’s part of what makes “Cloud” confusing, never mind the fact that a lot of this seems like new names for old stuff – Web hosting can now be called IaaS, webmail is SaaS…  (Aargh!)

So, if your client says they’re using Cloud, you need to establish what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.

Private v Public – Regardless of what’s being done in the Cloud it can be Private Cloud or Public Cloud. Public Cloud is where you buy/rent resource that is on a system shared with other people. Private Cloud is resource on a system that is exclusively for your use. Private Cloud can be provided by a third party or can be an extension of your own infrastructure – essentially you could market Wilson’s Outlook Web Access as SaaS in a Private Cloud!

The Risks of Cloud – One of the first things to bear in mind is that Cloud relies on connections (whether to the Internet or to your Cloud provider). In the event of a connection being lost, you’ve lost your software/data/business platform, etc. Businesses can mitigate this risk by ensuring that they’ve got multiple connections from different communications providers to their cloud provider and the Internet, but this won’t help the salesman in the field when he’s got no signal on his mobile dongle for his laptop.

Similarly, what happens if the Cloud provider suffers a failure? They’re just running servers and servers can crash. There should be an SLA in place with the provider – is there? Is it sufficient? There was a drastic failure of Amazon Web Services (AWS) in April 2011 and a lot of companies lost their Cloud services for 5 days. Amazon accepted no blame for this as it was within the terms of business and highlighted in their Cloud Computing model.

Data privacy also comes into the equation. If you’re hosting information elsewhere, where in the world is it? The Family Business Awards website was in Germany, but it could equally have been in America. If the data is outside of the EU, then you need to consider the Data Protection Act requirements. Is this covered in your Ts and Cs? If you’re using Public Cloud, could an error by the Cloud provider mean that someone else you’re sharing the space with can get to your data? Can the Cloud provider access your data in raw format or is it encrypted?

Also on the subject of data, who is responsible for the backup of your Cloud based data? You or the Cloud provider? If they back it up, they could back it up to yet another country and you’ve got more DPA to worry about.

Finally, what happens if you want to move Cloud provider?

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