Posted by: drmiw | February 10, 2011

Cloud computing: Questions and Answers

In support of an upcoming article in International Life magazine I was asked a series of questions about cloud computing and here they are below along with my answers. There followed a telephone interview which I haven’t transcribed but I think the key information is recorded here. The questions were posed by Peter Doherty, Director of Brand Communications, and are reproduced here with his permission.

Can you describe cloud computing as concisely and simply as possible in layman’s terms?

Cloud computing in its purest form is pay-as-you-go IT, online and on-demand. The IT capabilities provided as a service to businesses include single software applications or software suites; online software development platforms; and virtual computing infrastructure, ranging from data storage to computer grids.

What lead you to get so involved with this subject and to write this guide to Cloud Computing?

I managed one of the first UK cloud computing businesses, Extrasys (www.extrasys.com), for the NG Bailey Group before they sold the business, with my help, to Entrust IT in 2009. Extrasys hosted services enable business users to access virtual Microsoft Windows desktops and applications, along with their their business data, from anywhere at any time; and their employer pays per user per month for services subscribed to in that month so, for example, a temporary employee working from home can be given temporary remote access to a full Microsoft Office suite with Visio and Project, say, for as long as they need it, and then the account can be deactivated immediately when they leave so it is no longer chargeable. It was this flexible way of providing IT services that makes me such an advocate of cloud computing and this led me to blog on the subject, write a book and form a cloud consultancy practice, Muon Consulting.

What are the implications for big business?

Perhaps one of the biggest implications of cloud computing for big businesses is that small businesses now have affordable access to enterprise-grade IT so the playing field has been levelled. Big businesses have to decide where cloud computing fits into their business. Moreover, with the advent of Web2 and online social networking, internet presences overlap and business users are using multiple public clouds on a daily basis so corporate IT systems need to be able to accommodate this sea change.

When a corporate completely moves over to cloud would you say there’s really no turning back because of the sheer expense, skill sets and cultural change involved?

Corporates can take a ‘hybrid’ approach by which they can have a private cloud for some or their computing capabilities and a public cloud for the rest, so they can make a choice at some stage to go fully private cloud or public cloud if they wish, or perhaps switch to another provider for their public cloud. If, however, they completely move over to cloud computing then they should factor in an exit strategy so that they can retrieve their business data and business processes in a coherent form. And they can use multiple cloud providers as a failsafe, too.

But whenever a business moves into the cloud they need to take their people with them. Some employees may associate themselves with particular software applications rather than business functions, and some staff may find it hard to let go of systems they have used or managed, so there is some internal communication work to be done. The best thing to do is to get everyone involved in key decisions about cloud computing by asking them to try out particular services for themselves and to document what they do in their jobs day-to-day. In many cases it is the employees who discover the benefits of cloud computing first, though, and their familiarity with web-based applications means that they have many of the necessary skills in place already.

Which business systems are best suited to move to cloud computing and where can customers calculate their ROIs?

All office applications have their equivalent in the cloud, and most database-driven software, too. Many large businesses around the world have moved from Microsoft Office and Exchange Server to Google Apps, for example, because it has email, office applications and document sharing built in, and there are significant cost savings to be made in desktop support, hardware upgrades and software license renewals. Microsoft also offer cloud-based versions of their office and email applications.

Jim Graham of 3M is quoted on Microsoft’s home page as saying one of the benefits of Windows Azure, is it will ‘relieve our IT staff of the systems management and administration responsibilities of supporting a dynamic infrastructure’. Isn’t that a euphemism for job losses? Can you actually see Cloud Computing creating jobs and how?

Cloud computing allows talented technical staff to provide more value to the businesses they work for beyond just ‘keeping the lights on’. Less time is spent setting up and maintaining servers so more time can be devoted to developing or configuring business applications. As more business processes move into the cloud, IT staff gain new opportunities to have a bigger impact on their businesses than ever before.

Do you think cloud and non-cloud communities can enjoy a parallel existence? Won’t the future be driven by the market and how computer giants adapt to facilitate cloud? In other words won’t we all be dragged along by the decisions of the big guys if we like it or not?

Cloud computing adoption is driven more by the little guys than the big guys. As new entrants to the market gain a following amongst small businesses, large enterprises take notice and eventually follow suit. There will still be software running locally on computers or local networks, and, if anything, it will be the more risk-averse ‘big guys’ who will ensure that the non-cloud option still exists.

Cloud is being touted as the solution for just about any business. Does that include sole traders or small businesses that run on a shoestring to ensure they’re profitable?

Cloud computing is ideal for sole traders and small businesses. Unlike big businesses they do not have the capital to invest in their own IT infrastructure so they cannot save money over the long term by creating their own private clouds. Instead they benefit from a shared public cloud where they only pay for what they need when they need it.

At first I could see ‘open source’ friendly clouds where non-profit, education and freelance communities share and interact, but how are such (largely non-fee paying) communities going to exist with this pay for use model?

Some cloud computing services are provided free to education and non-profit organisations. For example The Open University now provides Google Apps accounts to all their students and they do not pay a penny for the privilege, and they could have done the same with Microsoft Live@Edu.

There are community clouds, such as those shared by government bodies and international academic collaborations, but there are shared costs involved. Nevertheless the metering technology is there now in open source cloud systems to ensure that the organisations within a community cloud pay in proportion to their usage so I can see this model becoming more popular in future.

Why do you see 2011 in particular as ‘the year of the cloud?

The past couple of years have also been touted as ‘the year of the cloud’, but 2011 is, perhaps, the year when cloud computing becomes the established norm for business IT.

How can one be sure that cloud-based applications can be customised to meet the exact needs of a particular business?

The great thing about cloud computing is that you can try a number of systems without paying a fortune on hardware or software. If you want to ensure that you can fully customise cloud-based applications then you can either use virtual servers so you have complete control of your applications or you can choose a cloud-based platform like Force.com upon which you can build your application in any way you like using useful component parts so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, as it where.

There are concerns about security and ownership. What happens to data if a business discontinues their subscription to a cloud-based system?

It depends on what agreement you have with a cloud provider, but, generally, the data is yours and it is removed automatically from the system when you leave. Cloud providers are well aware that data security is the paramount concern amongst potential customers.

A lot of software is used without license. Surely this rental model is an ideal solution for Software developers to eradicate piracy? So won’t all software be rented in this way and no longer sold as it is presently?

Some software runs best on local hardware. For example using CAD software or image manipulation software is very painful over a network. However it is possible to download and rent software for a time so that it becomes inactive when a short-term license expires so I suspect that boxed software will become more of a rarity in future.

I remember with mobile phones it was business users only for a year then all of a sudden within a 12 month period everyone seemed to have a smaller version of that clunky mobile and the shift had happened. Many of us are using cloud now in some form or other but are not that aware of it. At what point do you see the big cultural shift to cloud when everyone will be aware of its advantages?

In the case of cloud, the rise of feature-rich websites made it all possible. Suddenly a web page could respond just like a desktop application with instant feedback rather than clunky click-and-wait. This, coupled with virtualisation technologies and faster internet connections, made it possible to build web-based software applications, development platforms and systems administration tools that were as good if not better than desktop-based alternatives. So in this case the technological revolutions that made cloud computing possible were driven by consumers’ use of the web. And it is our familiarity with web applications at home that is causing the cultural shift in the businesses we work for. IT has usually been managed internally by technical people, but now a marketing director can sign up his or her team as users of an online customer relationship management system and get working on a campaign without any involvement by the IT department. That is the power of cloud computing and that is why the big cultural shift is happening.

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