Moving business and organization information technology (IT) solutions “to the cloud” is a hot topic based on the articles, discussions and posts that I see.  After spending some time reading through several discussion threads on this topic, a number of recurring themes come through: There are many advocates who see it is the greatest thing in the world.   They go on to describe the efficiencies they have achieved and the thousands of dollars that have been saved on hardware and support costs.  Others share their fears regarding data security, protection from “prying eyes” and concerns with the potential acts of disgruntled employees.  Finally, there are the horror stories concerning poor technical support, “loss of service”, and the loss of mission critical data.

As I think about this, I can’t help but wonder what the average small to medium size business, organization or school would and should make of all of this.  Questions that I think they would ask include: What, exactly IS cloud computing?  Is it a good thing or a bad thing?  Is it something I should consider for my business or organization?  What is it going to do for me?   How do I sift through the alternatives and avoid the pitfalls?

To answer these and other related questions, I will be writing a series of posts over the next few weeks focused on cloud computing.  My goal is to put this topic in some perspective for small to medium size business, organizations and educational institutions that may be considering a “move to the cloud”.  This is the first post in the series.

What exactly is cloud computing?

Let’s start with a good definition provided by SEARCHCLOUDCOMPUTING.COM:

Cloud computing is a general term for anything that involves delivering hosted services over the Internet.  These services are broadly divided into three categories: Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS), Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS).  The name cloud computing was inspired by the cloud symbol that’s often used to represent the Internet in flowcharts and diagrams.

One element all cloud solutions have in common is some level of remote hosted services, i.e. services that are provided over the Internet.  These services will typically compliment services that are provided in house.  This is important to note.  Cloud computing isn’t an “all or nothing” proposition.  For most organizations and businesses, a combination of local and remote resources will likely make the most sense.  This mix can and should evolve over time as the needs of the organization change.

For this discussion, let’s focus on two elements of cloud computing: IaaS and the combination of PaaS and SaaS, which we will refer to under the broader umbrella of “Software Applications”.  For clarification, in this context software applications refer to standalone programs like Microsoft Word through much more complex applications such as a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system or a shared software development platform that is accessed by multiple users.

What are the benefits of cloud computing?

Benefits typically cited by the supporters of cloud-based solutions include:

Reduced internal infrastructure costs – Rather than purchasing, operating, maintaining and upgrading on-site server hardware, network and storage solutions, businesses and organizations lease hardware, software and support services from others. Done properly, this can reduce capital investment and lower operating costs.

Flexible capacity to meet changing needs – As the needs of businesses and organizations evolve over time, capacity can be added or removed in order to tailor actual capacity to real time demand.  This can increase operational performance and help to control capital expenditures. For businesses or organizations that need to respond to heavy seasonal demands, cloud computing solutions offer the ability to efficiently scale capacity up or down to meet short term needs.

Ability to link to multiple locations and a mobile workforce – While this need can be met without moving to cloud computing, the skills, resources and overhead costs to interconnect multiple sites and users through a single office location will grow exponentially as the number of remote offices and remote users increases.  Moving some portion of daily operations to the cloud makes sense in this instance.  Depending on the implementation, linking multiple sites and users through the cloud can also offer an effective means to manage software licensing and the associated expenses.

You are no longer “on your own” – The health and effectiveness of an internally supported information technology solution is only as good as the people who designed it and the people that maintain it.  Let’s face reality, it is increasingly difficult, and expensive, for small to medium businesses and organizations to staff and maintain an internal IT capability.   Keeping abreast of the increasing complexities and new developments in information technology only makes this more difficult.  Cloud computing can be an effective means to leverage external expertise through your IT “buy”.

To this list, I would add one  additional benefit that could far outweigh the others in terms of the impact on a business or an organization:

Opportunity to implement a robust solution for data backup, privacy management, security and administrative control – This is an item that many people don’t like to talk about, or more importantly confront.   Far too many businesses, organizations and schools do not have appropriate procedures in place to adequately secure and protect their data, to ensure proper privacy controls are in place, and to properly secure their systems. Cloud computing doesn’t magically solve this problem, but it does open the door to solutions that can enable a better solution IF the right set of local business and operating practices are also put in place.

These are some of the advantages.  No doubt there are others.  After reviewing this list, one might ask, “So why hasn’t everyone moved to a cloud based solution? ” We will turn our attention to that topic in the next post.

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