There continues to be a lot of confusion and hype around cloud computing among SMEs - often fuelled by vendors with a vested interest. Here is - I hope - a layman's explanation of cloud computing and practical advice on purchasing considerations.
What is cloud computing?
Cloud computing is the delivery of computing services through a computer network - either via a company's internal data centre or the Internet. In practice, this means accessing the application via a web browser rather than it being hosted on your computer or local server. There are two main types - public and private cloud. If that's not confusing enough, there is also IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service) and PaaS (Platform as a Service). What an SME should care about is how secure the environment is and what levels of availability are guaranteed. These may differ greatly if the application is hosted by the vendor themselves, a 3rd party hosting company, or a major cloud provider such as Microsoft or Amazon. Either way, make sure you ask the question and assess the level of risk.
Why the fuss?
Cloud computing promises to make IT easier for SMEs - by sourcing IT from ‘the cloud', an SME owner gets rapid, easy access to IT services which they might not be able to run themselves. IT becomes an operating expense, rather than a capital expense. You pay for what you need, when you need it. IT becomes a utility, like water or electricity. Someone else hosts and upgrades it for you, so you don't need your own server.
Who provides cloud computing?
Because of the hype, every man and his dog tout their IT as being cloud-based. Much of this is vendor marketing. In the SME space, many smaller vendors claim they provide cloud, when they really offering traditional hosting. For many this may be good enough. But it's not taking advantage of the full scalability and cost benefits of the cloud. Microsoft, Google and Amazon have invested massively in data centres to provide the scale for genuine cloud services, which few other vendors can match. However, some smaller vendors are running their IT offerings on large cloud platforms like Microsoft's, and passing the performance benefits on to their own customers.
Is cloud computing right for my business?
Cloud computing sometimes threatens to resemble the tale of the emperor's new clothes; everyone is keen to join in the fun - sometimes forgetting to acknowledge the realities. Cloud is a delivery model - it does not by itself guarantee innovation. Whether cloud is right for your business depends on your needs. If you have a mobile sales force who wants to access customer data on the move, then it's probably suitable. Likewise e-mail, Customer Relationship Management and sales processing - all have obvious benefits for remote access. Similarly, allowing a 3rd party such as your accountant access to your data may provide benefits to both of you.
Think before you leap - experiment safely
I would recommend that prior to purchase, you carefully review the provider's terms and conditions. Consider the following:
• Horses for Courses - be clear on why you are considering using cloud applications. Is it because you need remote access to some functionality, or is your main objective to avoid the need for your own infrastructure?
• Consult with the experts - Some accountants have specialist knowledge in IT, such as members of the IAAITC, but there are also many specialist IT consultancies that can assist with IT selection
• Consumer Protection - Has the vendor signed up to a code of practice or charter as offered by organisations like BASDA and the Cloud Industry Forum?
• Mix and Match - Don't be afraid to combine traditional IT and cloud - this can offer flexibility and resiliency. Some companies provide a ‘software plus services' approach, which sources functionality from a private cloud, whilst the user retains the actual application on their device (much like Apple's iTunes model)
• Try before you buy (wholesale) - Run a pilot project with non-critical IT before anything essential goes ‘cloud-ward'
• Avoid cloud ‘lock in' - If you decide to switch providers in the future, can you retrieve your data? Is there an additional cost involved?
• Security first - Find out who is hosting the application and how reliable and secure is it. Where is data stored? Which types of encryption are used?
• Partners for life? - Is the provider's business model sustainable? Do they have a good reputation?
• Have a plan B - No cloud service is 100% reliable. Ensure your provider has backup systems - also consider regularly backing up data on-premise
• Ensure 24/7 access to critical IT - If the application has to be available 100% of the time - literally ‘around the clock' - it may be best to keep it on-premise
The above is by no means exhaustive, but I hope it helps guide you during your first foray into the clouds.
Bryan Richter is the UK Country Manager for Mamut Software, a provider of integrated software solutions and internet services for SMEs. He joined Mamut in May 2009 to head-up the UK launch of Mamut One. Mamut are an active member of BASDA and Bryan participates in the Cloud Computing Special Interest Group.
Jon Collins’ in-depth look at tech and society
Phil Muncaster reports on China and beyond