Understanding: Cloud Computing


[By Sudarshana Banerjee]

Cloud computing is a way of using a network to access hardware/software based in a remote location, on demand. It is basically computing over a network, and similar to a lot of things we have been doing for a while now.

We have been on the cloud for a while now? Think of Gmail, or any similar mail service you may be using.  Did you ever withdraw money at an ATM machine? Download songs over a P2P network? Use an online backup service?

What has changed between a few hundred thousand users checking mails online a decade ago (for example) and today, are among other things, the scale, breadth/depth of deployment, costs, scope, and of course, the technology. The price of computing came down, even as the hardware got more powerful, and a whole bunch of new technologies and platforms came about.

Why is cloud computing called ‘Cloud’ computing? Back in the days, network engineers would draw a cloud to represent the Internet; the tradition kind of caught on in graphical representations. The phrase ‘cloud’ entered the context of computing in 2006, when Google’s CEO at the time, Eric Schmidt, spoke about ‘cloud computing’ in a Search conference.

Cloud services for your personal use

Most vendors give a few GBs of storage and basic functionalities for free. You can pay as you go for additional space/features if you need them.

Once you push your files on the cloud, you can access them from any device, anywhere. Check out Dropbox,Evernote,Box,iCloud, Microsoft SkyDrive,Amazon Cloud Drive,Google Drive,Carbonite,SpiderOak, or Ubuntu One. 

Online backup is just one of the many things you can do:

If you are looking to store photos online, Flickr is offering 1TB of free storage. Take a look at Google Picasa Web Albums as well. Adobe Photoshop/Illustrator is available on the cloud as well. 

With Mint, you can consolidate your finances in one place, on the cloud.  

For music, try Spotify, Pandora, iTunes Match, iTunes Radio, Amazon Cloud Player or Google Music.

The list is by no means complete.

Cloud services for SMBs

If you are a small business or a startup, you can use cloud services to establish a working IT infrastructure out of the box, without any of the establishment costs and upfront technology investments you would have otherwise needed. Since you pay for only what you are using, you can continue to scale up as you grow without worrying about provisioning or capacity.

Any of the cloud services mentioned above, could be used for business purposes as well. Additionally, check out OfficeTime, Salesforce, Windows Azure, QuickBooks, Google Apps, Office 365, Adobe Creative Cloud, and DocuSign. There are also cloud-based task management and calendaring services you may find useful. Needless to say, the list can go on. 

Cloud for the enterprise

As your business grows, you will need to scale up further and further. You could try insourcing, outsource a part or all of your IT (including cloud services) to a third-party vendor who will work within your premises. You could try a hybrid cloud, or a private cloud perhaps, as you continue to scale up.

Cloud for large corporations can be a whole different ball-game. Think of a company with 30,000 employees spread across different continents. Typically such a company already has a legacy IT system in place, owned by the company, and located within its corporate walls. If it is operating in different geographies, there are existing legal and compliance issues it has to contend with. With cloud stakeholders spread across functions, geographies, and various layers of structure, decision-making can be time-consuming.

Why would such an enterprise want to move to cloud-based systems? Because the overall benefits outweigh the risks or disadvantages and the initial migration/adaptation bottlenecks.

There are no shortage of service providers for the enterprise. Technology companies, both software and hardware (like HP, or IBM, or Dell, or Microsoft, or Oracle, or VMware) provide cloud services as part of their services or solution stacks. Internet behemoths like GoogleAmazon have cloud solutions.

Telecom service providers like Verizon or Sprint offer cloud services, as do companies like Rackspace, that started out providing hosting services, and networking companies like Cisco. Then there are horizontal solutions provider like Salesforce.

Cloud Computing – Advantages

  • Agility Scaling up or scaling down is easy, and can take minutes or hours.
  • Price Upfront investment in a variety of hardware and software is no longer necessary.
  • Mobility – You can access data on the cloud wherever they are, from multiple devices. Collaboration is easier on the cloud.
  • Security – Data in the cloud may be more secure, because the very business of cloud service providers and vendors depend on being able to provide security.

Cloud Computing – Challenges 

  • Security – Once data leaves your premises, you have no control over it. Despite companies investing in security measures and audits, breaches happen. Or something like Prism.
  • Service Level Agreements – The industry is still maturing. Not all service level agreements are created equal, and there are grey areas in what may constitute a breach, and who is responsible for what, if a breach may happen.
  • Data portability – Can the data be moved from your servers to cloud service providers’? What about moving data from one cloud service provider to the next? Different vendors may use different technology, cloud networks may not talk to each other.
  • Vendor lock-in – Cloud computing also has the challenge of vendor lock-in; complicated further by the fact that no single vendor may provide all the solutions an enterprise might need.

Service Models for the cloud 

SaaS (Software as a Service) –  You are buying access to cloud-based software, and do not need to worry about platform or infrastructure details. Users can access the applications through a Web-based interface. 

PaaS (Platform as a Service) – You are buying access to a scalable and programmable computing platform and a solution stack as a service. You have control over the deployed applications, and can configure the application-hosting environment.

IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service) – You are buying access to a combination of computing resources (processing/storage/networks), which you can configure. You still have no control over the underlying cloud infrastructure, but can control the operating system, storage, and the application environment.

Difference between Public/Private/Hybrid/Community Cloud

Private Cloud –  The cloud infrastructure is used exclusively by a single company. Different business divisions (sales, HR) within the company may be using the service.  

Public Cloud – As the name suggests, anybody can buy access to public cloud services. The infrastructure is owned and managed by the cloud service provider.

Community Cloud – A community cloud is a public cloud configured to meet the unique requirements (security, compliance, and so on) of specific verticals. For example, a vendor can offer a cloud infrastructure that meets federal government security requirements for all federal government entities; or a cloud that offers data protection and audits meeting HIPAA standards for healthcare providers.

Hybrid Cloud – A hybrid cloud combines different cloud infrastructures, and shares data/applications between clouds. 

Cloud computing not just takes our computing elsewhere, into someone else’s servers, but our information as well. Users, vendors, policy makers, and developers are still figuring out how to ensure data safety and enforce service level agreements. The industry is adopting independent audits and service standards, as it matures.

In the coming months, more and more agencies, including government entities, will slowly but surely move to the cloud, perhaps Email first. The proliferation of smartphones and people bringing their own devices to work (and thus the need for providing multiple access points to company data) will fuel the growth for cloud, as will the potential cost benefits and efficiencies.

[Image courtesy: Microsoft]

(Edited: 06-24-13) 


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