Cloud Computing, if or when?

The question is not “if”, it’s when and how fast

Most companies and individuals already use a variety of cloud based services to meet at least some of their computing needs. Hotmail, Gmail, Dropbox, Netflix and Salesforce.com are examples of commonly used cloud based services that many of us are familiar with.

So the question is not if you will use cloud computing, its how fast will you adopt this new way of working, and how to best plan and take advantage of the benefits.

At a minimum, cloud computing is a type of technology or service that does not predominantly depend on physical resources within your physical sites. Cloud based systems are also typically accessed through your Internet connection.

Cloud computing represents a tidal shift in business and personal computing. Over the years to come, there will be a continued increase in cloud based server setups, with on premise servers and related resources becoming less common.

  • Scalable: You buy only the computing capacity you need, and you enjoy an improved capacity to expand (or reduce) your use of computing expenses as your business needs change.
  • Reduced costs: Elimination of server maintenance and update tasks, reduced need to frequently upgrade systems, and a greatly simplified internal setup with cloud based computing all contribute to lower long term computing costs. Economies of scale achieved by massive, geographically spread cloud systems, allows computing services to be delivered at lesser costs than ever before.
  • Reduced risk of computer related business disruption: With economies of scale, large cloud based service providers can install and maintain more redundant server systems, multiple internet connections, power backup generators and other similar items that are usually not practical for small to medium sized businesses.
  • Vastly simplified disaster recovery / data backup requirements: Maintaining data backups is a significant cost and time burden. Even with daily data backup routines, there are potential system failure scenarios that could take several days to recover from. Cloud based services are normally regarded as “too strong to massively fail” and systems like Office365 work with multiple and geographically separated servers to help ensure the highest possibility reliability for your computing operations. Realized cloud setups also typically allow for the elimination of fail-over” sites and all their attendant costs and complexities.
  • Continuously upgraded features and technology: Cloud service providers have a market driven motivation to keep their client facing systems updated and competitive, or their customers can simply move their business to a different cloud computing service provider. It can be difficult and time consuming to move computing activities between service provider, but customers do it all the time when they are unhappy with a particular cloud service provider. Environmentally friendly: With cloud computing you only use the computing resources that you actually need, skipping past the need to keep significant additional capacity online to accommodate future growth. With less “extra room for growth” set aside and unused for future growth, your carbon footprint (power usage) is reduced. With less power usage, you also have a reduced need for complex and expensive battery backup systems that need to be replaced in order to remain effective every 3-4 years.
  • Simplified branch office connectivity: The need for complex and expensive wide area connection schemes can sometimes be reduced or eliminated with a cloud based setup, without giving up reliability or performance. This goal is often accomplished by redirecting some of the savings from elimination of MPLS circuits into faster and more reliable internet connections for your branch sites.
  • Downtime issues induced by poor connectivity: This isn’t really a cloud computing specific concern, but any centralized computing setup can be hamstrung by poor connectivity at your various work sites. Limited connectivity continues to be a significant challenge in some location, especially in rural areas.
  • Avoid the “Same setup, “just doesn’t happen here” phenomena: In many cases, I think the best choice is to maintain internal computing facilities until something truly better and “next generation” is available to replace a current in house system. For example, you can “rent access to a Timberline accounting server.” You end up with the same Timberline system, just running in a different place. You also remain responsible for updating and supporting many aspects of the system, in terms of version upgrades.
  • In my view, cloud computing should be more like telephone service. You pay the bill, and it works – simple as that. It should the service provider’s job to upgrade, repair and improve their systems over time. Avoid long term contracts: Computing technologies and pricing structures change rapidly over time. In most cases I don’t think it makes sense to commit to anything more than a one year contract for anything that is IT related. A good service provider should be confident enough in their service level such that they can retain their customers with excellent service and productive service features, instead of entangling legal contracts.
  • Beware of free services: Free usually isn’t truly free. The owner of data within a cloud system is often deemed to be the party that is paying for the service. If the service is free, the owner of the data within the system is less clear. Free services also typically have no committed service level. If you have a complaint, you often end up simply with no one to call for help.
  • Keep it modular: We recommend that clients maintain direct ownership of their cloud computing accounts, and avoid situations where for example their “web designer hosts their website.” Unhappy with your web designer? Its an unwelcome inconvenience when you have to move your website when you switch to a new designer.
  • Record retention requirements: Make sure your cloud service provider can meet all record retention requirements mandated by your industry. What happens if someone deletes an email or other data and the issue isn’t noticed for a year or more? Generally any cloud system that is widely used by public companies will meet even very stringent retention requirements.
  • What happens if the internet goes down at your office? Do you have a backup connection in place? Sometimes this point is mentioned as potential pitfall for cloud computing. Its important to remember that users can typically continue to use their mobile devices or simply go home and work even if the main office internet is down, or if the main office burns down for example.
still applies to all endeavors involving the cloud or any computer setup for that matter. Its a good practice to look for solutions from companies with an established track record of success. Microsoft for example, is a long respected provider of high quality software and their cloud based products are also of similar quality. Similarly, Amazon’s cloud computing service are well regarded, remaining consistent with other services they offer.

In terms of security, there are two sides to the coin with cloud based systems. Your information ends up in a concentrated data center location often along with many other customers, so from that angle the location where your data is stored may be of more interest to intruders. The other side of the coin though, is that cloud based systems are typically kept up to date aggressively with regular security audits and updates so the location of your data is likely better protected. Again, you go back to the quality of the company you are dealing with.

Cloud based systems are often also more feature laden than internal systems. For example, the Office365 email system includes features that most small companies would never quite get around to setting up. Office365 email includes a powerful “global search” feature that is designed to help companies comply more easily with data production needs. There are also retention settings that prevent deletion of all emails for a defined period of time.

Another potential drawback is that data stored in the cloud may end up being searched or produced to third parties (such as governmental entities) without your knowledge and / or consent. Basically with the cloud, a third party is in physical control of your data and they could potentially interpret and satisfy any court mandated order to produce data on their own. This concern may be a bit of a straw man though, even with cloud based setups, data owners are typically called upon to manage their own data productions.

The pros and cons of cloud computing may be moot over time. There was a time that many people debated the value or need for an office internet connection and similar pro and con conversation occurred about that subject, and now look where we are on “that one.” People act like they need to leave work and go home if their internet connection is down. I see cloud computing as a similar inevitability.

As a bottom line, each computing function within a company, such as: accounting, email, document storage, manufacturing support (ERP), etc, should be individually reviewed and considered for a cloud based setup when the existing computing resource reaches a point where it needs extensive expansion or renewal. Moving email to the cloud is usually a good place to start, with more planning and research needed to consider other computing areas.

With any potential system change, the needs of your internal customers must always be put first. The training considerations, and process for any change, especially the use of an appropriate pilot implementation for a new system are all important factors.

  • The business objectives being served by the upgrade or system change. State the objectives briefly, free of detailed technical language when needed.
  • ROI provided by the upgrade should be provided.
  • Documentation for the current state of the system that is to be changed.
  • The desired end state for the system after the upgrades are completed, described with diagrams or other appropriate documentation.
  • Major risks for this upgrade. Are there any failure scenarios that would create an inability to “fall back” if the upgrade fails?
  • Will a pilot or test migration / upgrade be used? Usually a pilot or test migration is a great idea for all but the simplest system changes.
  • What downtime will be required to implement the upgrade?
  • What is the user training plan?
  • The specific tests or criteria will be used to determine if the upgrade is successful.

The march toward cloud computing is gradual and existing processes and “ways of doing things” still need to be accommodated and maintained. The march toward cloud computing will be slow, but over time the changes will be drastic and impactful to every business.