Cloud computing is all the rage. It’s become the “phrase du jour”, with every company providing IT products or services using the label as a sales pitch. As a metaphor for the Internet, “the cloud” is a familiar cliché, but when combined with “computing,” the meaning gets bigger and fuzzier. The problem is that (as with Web 2.0, another favourite IT-speak buzzword) everyone seems to have a different definition.
Some analysts and vendors define cloud computing narrowly as an updated version of utility computing: basically virtual servers available over the Internet. Others go very broad, arguing that anything you consume outside the firewall is in the cloud, including conventional outsourcing. One thing the industry agrees on, however, is that cloud computing is the future of computing.
For the uninitiated, cloud computing generally refers to providing access to computer software through an Internet browser; with the software and data stored at a remote location; at a datacentre or “server farm” instead of on the computer’s hard drive; or on a server located on the user’s premises. This collective of connections is known as ‘the cloud’. It is a powerful tool that allows even the smallest of businesses to provide an enterprise class environment for web applications. In a nutshell, the cloud is nothing more than the ability to rent computer services on demand from a third party provider.
In an age where pacemakers, industrial sensors and parking meters are Internet connected, cloud computing is the next logical step. Managing all of our various connected devices is only the tip of the iceberg, however. According to Zoaib Hoosen, Enterprise Country Lead at Microsoft South Africa, there is another dynamic taking place, one where the prosumer is calling the shots and the use of technology continues to evolve as users change the way they interact with technology.
“The consumer is changing and evolving. If you look at what is happening from a social media perspective, for the first time people are changing the way they interact with technology and it’s on their terms. I want to choose to do my work and banking after hours, at a time and way that suits me. I want to engage with financial institutions in that way. I want to watch TV on demand,” he explains.
And the same applies to business. Just as consumer demands forced Apple to give birth to the iTunes Store, many companies desire a consumer electronics-style experience for their business needs. Enter cloud-based application stores, where an enterprise can purchase, download and deploy business applications or software in their cloud environment.
“Cloud computing comes into focus only when you think about what IT always needs: a way to increase capacity or add capabilities on the fly without investing in new infrastructure, training new personnel, or licensing new software. Cloud computing encompasses any subscription-based or pay-per-use service that, in real time over the Internet, extends IT’s existing capabilities,” says Gerald Naidoo, CEO of Logikal Consulting.
What made this possible was the penetration of broadband – Internet connections that were fast enough to ensure that interactions with distant machines happened at a tolerable speed. Once these types of connections became widespread, the die was cast. For individuals, reliance on cloud computing came about mainly because companies such as Microsoft, Google and Yahoo offered useful services – think search (Google), webmail (Gmail), image hosting (Flickr, Picasa) and social networking (Facebook) – that were apparently free and required no special software (other than a browser) running on their computers.
“For companies, the route into dependence on cloud computing was driven by economics. Building and running IT services for thousands of employees is an expensive and unrewarding business,” Naidoo adds. “But for several decades companies had little alternative – just as a century ago they had no alternative except to build and operate their own electricity generators. But eventually it became possible to purchase electricity off the grid, and so most companies shut down their generators and left the messy business of producing electricity to utility companies. Now they’re doing the same with computing services, which they regard as a utility – just like electricity or water. In other words, the net has become another kind of grid.”
Why the hype?
This move toward cloud computing is mainly the result of the cost pressures that businesses are facing in today’s tough economic climate. Tied in with this, however, is the growing appreciation for, and understanding of, the concept of sustainability. Technology is not just essential to the effective running of a business, it is the world’s biggest consumer of electricity and its subsequent contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is beaten only by the airline industry.
IT companies have therefore been focusing on greening their operations throughout the supply chain – from manufacture to disposal – for many years. Cloud computing is an effective solution to technology’s biggest polluters and energy hogs: the datacentres or server farms that most businesses rely on in order to operate.
By consolidating the datacentres of any number of companies into one central location operated by a single provider, energy usage is reduced. Not only is there less wasted space on servers, the cooling requirements are vastly decreased. In addition, the efficiencies of cloud computing extend to an improved management of internal resources for the companies that outsource to a cloud provider. Proponents of this approach list benefits, including lower costs, less need for on-site support and “scalability”. “Scalability” means that the number of licenses and available resources can easily be adjusted as the need increases.
While clients largely relinquish control over the IT elements they move to the cloud, the primary advantage of cloud computing relates to its perfect scalability; it is paid for on a purely on-demand basis. Since companies are under increasing pressure to maintain service, manage change, and do it cheaper, cloud computing can help any business achieve these goals.
“Moving to the cloud is a completely new model of doing business,” says Clive Brindley, Channel manager, HP Software at HP. “Business is reliant on IT, but we have seen the concept of ‘shadow IT’ grow as the disconnect between business and IT has grown. With the cloud, business is in control again, because executives don’t have to wait for IT to provide them with a service any more. It’s now as simple as calling a service provider and ordering the application they need, and having it delivered in a short time.”
According to Rory Green, Cisco Datacentre and Virtualisation Product Sales Specialist, cloud has changed the way IT services are consumed, by doing things automatically and more efficiently. “The way tasks in organisations are repeated is often manual, but with cloud you can draw from a pool of services or products on demand,” he says. “There needs to be a self-service aspect to IT, where anyone in the organisation can order the service rather than the technology. Cloud enables that.”
One group of businesses that particularly stand to gain from the cloud are SMEs. The cloud has the capacity to universally level the playing field, bringing down barriers that stand in the way of smaller companies. Brindley explains that SMEs are often lag behind big organisations in their technology usage, mainly as the result of the cost associated with purchasing “enterprise grade” solutions. “There is no bureaucracy in SMEs, so the cloud alternative is perfect for them: it’s cheaper, and if they decide on a solution, it’s available almost immediately.”
Pros and cons
Kobus De Beer, Enterprise marketing manager for Africa at Dell explains that the global trend is for 80% of IT budgets to be spent on keeping the lights on – literally and figuratively. “This is inefficient on every level. It is using unnecessary energy and resources, and is preventing businesses from using those IT assets to help them further their goals and innovate.”
Cisco’s green agrees. Ultimately, he says, cloud computing allows IT to evolve its existing function as a department somewhere in the building that runs the reports and keeps the lights on in the server room to a business unit that helps take its organisation to the next level of efficiency.
“If it’s not adding value to the business, why is it there?” asks Brindley. “If you can use something that is cheaper, faster, more agile, potentially safer, and ultimately reduces your carbon footprint and impact on the environment, why wouldn’t you?” De Beer adds that it’s not realistic to expect companies to move over into a complete cloud solution, but the goal is for businesses to manage a 50-50 split between traditional IT and cloud computing.
But adopting a cloud model for your company is a multifaceted decision-making process, explains Hoosen. “Before even sitting down at the negotiating table with a vendor, IT managers and CIOs need to make sure their infrastructures are virtualised and cloud-ready, and that they have a firm grasp of their own security and compliance regulations.”
One of the main concerns raised about migrating to the cloud is data security. South Africans are more aware of security issues than many other markets. This applies to both the physical world and that of the digital one. “It comes down to cloud service providers needing to assure their clients that the necessary security is in place,” Hoosen says.
“It is somewhat ironic that most organisations have concerns around the potential security risks posed by cloud computing when their employees are using cloud applications such as gmail and Facebook or LinkedIn from their desktops without any major problems. The reality is that most enterprises have already put their faith in the cloud!”
Reality or pipedream?
According to analyst firm Gartner, the cloud services market grew 16.6 percent last year, and predicts that by 2014 cloud services revenue will balloon to $148.8 billion worldwide. Research company Forrester agrees, predicting that while cloud hype from vendors, the media and other sources will continue to exceed actual user adoption, the various cloud markets and services will start making more sense to business buyers. A recent KPMG global survey of organisations that will use the cloud and companies that will provide cloud services has shown that the cloud is moving beyond IT and widely starting to impact on business operations.
“Truly pervasive cloud is still on the horizon, but there are a lot of companies that have taken advantage,” says De Beer. “While South Africa may not have as many providers as in other parts of the world, and while our broadband is limited, we are seeing increasing interest in, and uptake of, cloud services.”
Logikal Consulting’s Naidoo says his consultants have picked up the same trend. “Cloud computing is making headlines and South African businesses and organisations are starting to look for ways to integrate it into their operations. Part of this recent growth in interest could be attributed to the increased awareness of sustainability by business and the energy efficiency cloud offers. This is why I think South African companies are more receptive now than ever before to moving at least some of their business activities to the cloud.”
However, Brindley adds a caveat: “Business professionals need to focus on the sustainability and efficiency of cloud as well as its business value and potential over its technical capabilities or merits. It’s not just about offloading assets and power and cooling. Companies should embark on a cloud strategy to improve efficiencies across the entire organisation.”
Naidoo feels that it is inevitable that all organisations will have to eventually to be part of this shift so as to avoid another risk - losing ground to competitors that are taking the risk. “Cloud calls for executives to challenge their thinking, to look at old problems in a new light, and to create new opportunities.”
Since the network is fast becoming the computer, cloud computing is the technology of the future, and it’s here to stay. “If you think this is just a fad, think again. Cloud computing is about taking a leap of faith holding your breath, and accepting that in the name of energy efficiency, sustainability, utility, agility, flexibility, and economy, this move will take your organisation to new horizons,” Naidoo concludes.
Key features: Google has a number of cloud services that increasingly interlink. Gmail, for example, now offers an impressive 7.6GB of free storage for e-mails and attachments, while also storing your contacts. Another Google cloud service is Google Calendar, which stores your engagements in the cloud so you’re never far from a device telling you when your dentist appointment is. Google Docs is for creating, editing and sharing documents, spreadsheets and presentations – an online equivalent of Microsoft’s Office (although in response to Google Docs, Microsoft now has one of those too).Google eBookstore is a cloud service for buying ebooks and accessing them from any web-enabled device, while the company has a music service live in the US, and coming our way soon.
Devices: Google makes its cloud services available across every device possible: computers, tablets and smartphones. On the latter two, this is a mixture of apps and mobile websites. They work particularly well on devices running Google’s Android software.
Ease of use: Google’s experience shines through: its services are easy to use, with Google Docs presenting no problems for anyone switching from desktop tools such as Office. Over time, the different services have also linked together in some good ways, such as prompting you to make a calendar appointment from within Gmail.
Privacy and security: Google’s policy of selling ads relating to keywords in your emails can spook new Gmail users, but the company says its systems are entirely automated – and are also used to screen out viruses and spam from your inbox. Security-wise, Gmail can offer a two-step verification process to enter an additional code when logging in.
Great for... Cost-sensitive web users who buy into the Googleplex dream.
Key features: Dropbox is the independent option in the four main cloud services we have chosen: it’s a startup that doesn’t make its own devices or operating systems. Its pitch is simple sharing, with files saved to Dropbox made instantly available across all your other devices. Other key selling points are the fact that Dropbox works when you’re offline because the files are actually stored on your devices, but it also keeps data usage to a minimum – important for mobile users – by only transferring the parts of files that change when you edit them. Dropbox also includes sharing features to give friends, family and colleagues access to specific folders, so that it’ll feel like that folder is stored on their computer too. You also have a Public folder where every file has a link for anyone to view.
Devices: Dropbox works on just about anything: its website is fine for PCs and Macs, while it has apps for iPhone, iPad, Android and BlackBerry. Phone users can edit files and then upload their photos and videos.
Ease of use: Dropbox has been designed to be easy to start using straight away, even if you’re not a geek. The focus is on simplicity, from uploading files to sharing them with others. From the moment that your different devices are set up to synchronise your files, it’s seamless.
Privacy and security: Dropbox caused a stir earlier in 2011 with a change to its terms and conditions taken by many people as a claim to ownership over the files stored on it. The following week, however, it clarified to users that “You retain ownership of your stuff… We don’t own your stuff.”
Great for… Independently minded souls with a range of devices from different manufacturers.
Apple / iCloud
Key features: iCloud launched in early October 2011, promising a simple and elegant way to store music, photos, documents and other files on Apple’s servers and then access them from iPhone, iPod touch, iPad and computers. The key point is that a lot of this is done automatically in the background without you having to do anything. For example, a feature called Photo Stream makes all the photos you take appear on your other devices for up to 30 days. iCloud also lets you download all your previous purchases on Apple’s iTunes Store to your Apple-registered devices. Meanwhile, developers making apps for Apple devices can also use iCloud’s storage. Early examples include game saves being accessible across iPhone and iPad, and document editing apps working across all these devices.
Devices: iCloud works on any iPhone, iPad or iPod touch running the iOS 5 software, as well as any Mac running the OS X Lion operating system. But it also works on PCs, through iTunes.
Ease of use: The key to iCloud is that, often, you don’t have to “use” it: the service does things in the background without you needing to upload or download anything. The idea being that quickly, you’ll just assume your files and content are available on whatever device you’re using at the time.
Privacy and security: iCloud involves a lot of your personal content being sent over the internet and/or stored on Apple’s servers, although the company uses encryption technology to keep it secure. Apple also has a policy of only storing location data from individual devices for 24 hours on its servers before deleting it.
Great for… Anyone with an Apple device, but particularly for those with two or three.
Microsoft / SkyDrive
Key features: Microsoft’s SkyDrive is part of its Windows Live service, with strong links to services such as Hotmail, Windows Messenger and Xbox Live. It’s more of a virtual hard drive in the cloud, using a similar system of folders to organise your stored files. You can store documents, photos and videos in your SkyDrive, as well as other files. Documents can be edited within Microsoft’s Office web apps – just like Google. Meanwhile, Hotmail is the basis for synchronising your contacts, e-mail and calendars across all these devices. SkyDrive also has the ability to make certain folders public – to share their contents with friends and family, for example. This feature is useful for workmates collaborating on big documents or projects. Like Apple, Microsoft wants developers to incorporate SkyDrive into their apps, both on PCs and Windows Phones.
Devices: SkyDrive is accessible from PCs and Macs, but also from smartphones running the Windows Phone operating system. It has a good mobile website, too, which works on other mobile devices.
Ease of use: One easy way to use SkyDrive is from within Microsoft applications, such as the latest version of Office, which lets you save documents directly to your SkyDrive. It’s also integrated into Windows Phones, allowing you to save photos to your SkyDrive immediately after taking them. Using the main website to upload and access files is simple, too.
Privacy and security: Microsoft gives every file you store on SkyDrive its own web address, making it easy to share them with friends – and the URLs are long and complex enough not to be guessed. You can also set files and folders to share with specific contacts or to be entirely private.
Great for... Anyone with a Windows Phone and the hardy people who are still using Hotmail in 2012
Explaining the acronyms
Cloud computing is at an early stage, with a motley crew of providers large and small delivering a slew of cloud-based services, from full-blown applications to storage services to spam filtering. Yes, utility-style infrastructure providers are part of the mix, but so are SaaS (software as a service) providers such as Salesforce.com. Here’s a rough breakdown of what cloud computing is all about:
This type of cloud computing delivers a single application through the browser to thousands of customers using a multitenant architecture. On the customer side, it means no upfront investment in servers or software licensing; on the provider side, with just one app to maintain, costs are low compared to conventional hosting. Salesforce.com is by far the best-known example among enterprise applications, but SaaS is also common for HR apps and has even worked its way up the food chain to ERP. And who could have predicted the sudden rise of SaaS “desktop” applications, such as Google Apps?
2. Utility computing
The idea is not new, but this form of cloud computing is getting new life from Amazon.com, Sun, IBM, and others who now offer storage and virtual servers that IT can access on demand. Early enterprise adopters mainly use utility computing for supplemental, non-mission-critical needs, but one day, they may replace parts of the datacenter.
3. Web services in the cloud
Closely related to SaaS, Web service providers offer APIs that enable developers to exploit functionality over the Internet, rather than delivering full-blown applications. They range from providers offering discrete business services to the full range of APIs offered by Google Maps and even conventional credit card processing services.
4. Platform as a service
Another SaaS variation, this form of cloud computing delivers development environments as a service. You build your own applications that run on the provider’s infrastructure and are delivered to your users via the Internet from the provider’s servers. Like Legos, these services are constrained by the vendor’s design and capabilities, so you don’t get complete freedom, but you do get predictability and pre-integration. Prime examples include Salesforce.com’s Force.com and the new Google App Engine.
5. MSP (managed service providers)
One of the oldest forms of cloud computing, a managed service is basically an application exposed to IT rather than to end-users, such as a virus scanning service for e-mail or an application monitoring service.
6. Service commerce platforms
A hybrid of SaaS and MSP, this cloud computing service offers a service hub that users interact with. They’re most common in trading environments, such as expense management systems that allow users to order travel or secretarial services from a common platform that then co-ordinates the service delivery and pricing within the specifications set by the user. Think of it as an automated service bureau.