Volume 13, Issue 2 - March 2012

Guest Column

Information Technology
Partly Cloudy

by nick carter

I once read with interest an article about a very large communications company that is offering a network-based, shared server environment. Your application is kept on a remote server somewhere on the network, and you access it from any of your locations that are connected. It is described as the Swiss Army Knife of networking, basically an erector set for all of your processing and network needs.

I should mention that this article appeared in the mid 1980s and was about AT&T’s Net1000 product offering. Net1000 eventually was shut down at a cost estimated by some to be around a billion dollars. The concept of “Cloud” computing has been around for quite some time. It was a great idea, just slightly ahead of its time and the required infrastructure.

Fast-forward to today: I pick up my iPad and go to my Kindle app that opens to a book I have been reading. As long as all of my devices have either 3G or Wi-Fi enabled, the iPad notifies me that I am further into this book on one of my other devices (iPhone or Kindle) and asks if I would like to go to that location. Not only are all of my books stored on the Amazon Cloud, but any activity is tracked as well.

• Do I know where that information is stored? No.

• Do I care where that information is stored? No.

• Is this service convenient? You bet (especially since it doesn’t cost anything).

• Do I care if for some reason it doesn’t work perfectly every time? Not really. This is not exactly mission critical stuff! (So far, it has performed as advertised.)

Evaluating the Cloud
The business considerations for the Cloud are a little bit different.

First of all, this is by no means meant to be an in-depth analysis of all things Cloud. There are thousands of articles available online. This is aimed more at the non-technical folks to help as you evaluate your future IT direction.

Following are a few definitions that will help as you explore the cloud:

Software-as-a-Service (SaaS).
The application provider runs the software on remote servers. The provider is responsible for the hardware, operating system, software, back-up, etc. This is typically set up in a secure environment (co-location facility) that is equipped with the necessary power and security protections. The provider is responsible for keeping the hardware and software updated and maintained. Since bandwidth is a major consideration, having flexibility to expand the size of the data pipe on short notice is important.

Some examples include Gmail/Google Apps and Facebook, ADP and SalesForce.com. The primary difference between SaaS and the next two is that the end user is unconcerned with the application stack and operating system, focusing instead on how well the SaaS offering meets his business needs.

Infrastructure-as-a-Service. The term “Cloud Infrastructure Services” (IaaS) describes a wide range of Internet-accessible services, from the level of leased servers in a co-location all the way through multiple services and platforms aggregated between datacenter regions around the world. Typically, IaaS entails the server, disk storage, memory, processing and bandwidth all made available as on-demand resources and encapsulated into a Virtual Machine (VM) image. The beauty of this approach is that you can be very nimble in terms of ramping up processor power, expanding memory, increasing storage and bandwidth for the Internet access.

Examples include Amazon EC2, Rackspace, NaviSite, IBM SmartCloud and AT&T Cloud Architect.

Platform-as-a-Service—PaaS is positioned as a “middle path” between IaaS and SaaS. Your team is relieved of the burden of maintaining the operating system and technology/middleware stack. You have more configuration and customization options versus straight SaaS, which also means that you have additional responsibilities when compared with SaaS.

Examples of this emerging area include Google App Engine, Microsoft Windows Azure, Amazon WebServices and AppHarbor.

Putting it into Practice
Now that you are armed with all the info you need to be a hit at the next cocktail party, what impact does this have from a business perspective?

The most critical part is the application partner. Any of the above methodologies are only as good as the solution you are using with them. Does the application address the needs of my business? Is it able to grow with my business? What is the vision of the application provider? Is the provider positioning its solution to be able to take advantage of the many advancements that will be coming in the Cloud?

Once the application question is satisfied, you will next need to ask: Do I want to have my business server at my location, or am I comfortable pushing the responsibility of the control and maintenance of aspects of my business system outside our walls?

Many still favor being able to see and touch the system that is the heart of their businesses. The security aspect as well as the physical location of the data still has a strong psychological pull.

Most of you will agree, though, that the stability, speed and reliability of the Internet has come a very long way over the past 10 years. This is the critical link in the chain. You can throw all the money you want at Cloud services, but without reliable connectivity it doesn’t do a lot of good.

Economics is also key. There is a misconception that the Cloud will not only be the panacea for all things computer, but is also less expensive. In reality, over several years, it may actually cost you more in terms of out-of-pocket dollars. However, the trade-offs in hard dollars saved on equipment and valuable personnel time can usually make the justification an easy one.

In conclusion, the application is the key, and unless you are in the software development business, where you end up in the Cloud is really not that relevant. The connection criteria for you as an end user will pretty much be the same. You will be accessing your applications via an address on the Internet. You just might not know (or care) where the actual address is.

Nick Carter is president of WoodWare Systems in Memphis, Tenn.



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