by Matt Parrill
1. A visible mass of particles of condensed vapor (as water or ice) suspended in the atmosphere of a planet (as the earth) or moon
2. Cloud computing is computation, software, data access, and storage services that do not require end-user knowledge of the physical location and configuration of the system that delivers the services.
The first definition, compliments of Merriam-Webster is well known. The second, courtesy of Jimmy Wales (of Wikipedia, not WikiLeaks), is intended to take some of the mystery out of “The Cloud” or “Cloud Computing”. Since I still don’t have a dollar for every time someone has said the word cloud in the past twelve months I have reckoned to write the answers to the multitude of questions I intend to be asked over the coming years.
What is cloud computing beyond the definition? At the speed I type the technology would have changed enough to make the article obsolete. So, to break it down as briefly as possible The Cloud refers to an outsourced online service. As is common in IT a few acronyms have developed ASAP. IMHO these are the terms that apply to small business (which I will refer to as SMBs):
SaaS or Software as a Service. SaaS refers to a system (most likely a database) that runs in The Cloud. You the consumer pays a monthly fee to store your data with the provider and use the interface. You may have limited control over the features of the system, but you also have little maintenance liability outside of your service agreement with the provider. Salesforce.com is an example.
ASPs or Application Service Provider. ASPs by general standards are indistinguishable from what is now known as SaaS and can be considered the predecessor of SaaS. Both services are synonymous with hosted applications.
Hosting. Although hosting is yet to be reduced to “H” it may be the most common cloud service and the easiest to understand. If you have a website, it is “hosted” somewhere. You may also have a domain (like www.domain.com), but that is merely a leased pointer to your hosting provider’s copy of your website data. SMBs are best advised to handle first-hand hosting accounts with known providers (such as, forgive me, GoDaddy). Lower tier providers - such as your neighbor’s children - are likely reselling you another providers services creating a disconnect between you and the hosting provider. Holding your own account but allowing anIT provider to manage the included services may be the best option when small changes to the included services can do funny things like bounce your incoming e-mail back to the sender.
There are Cloud-based Servers; servers that can be brought up in a few minutes and rented per hour. This is a fairly advanced service that is most applicable to developers.
Cloud Storage has become very popular and useful to SMBs in many ways. Files can be stored in a sharing service like Microsoft’s SharePoint and then shared among workgroups with various features like versioning (or version tracking) and check-in/check-out. Specific to SharePoint, we are often asked if there is a SharePoint for Mac OS. The answer is Yes...and No. Historically SharePoint has required Internet Explorer. This is true through version 2007. With SharePoint 2010, Microsoft has delivered cross-browser support. Although the system will not run natively on Mac, it can now be used in any browser (within reason) on most operating systems.
The type of cloud storage that may provide the greatest benefit to SMBs is what is commonly referred to as Offsite Backup, but is really cloud storage with an associated program and interface that can copy local files to a remote location for long term storage. These are generally delta copies (only changed files), and can often be configured for various data sets and time schedules. Mac users can think of offsite backup as a farther reaching version of Time Machine in distance and features.
As offsite backup has replaced the woeful days of tape-based backup (Yes, I know you’re out there. First, shame on you. Second, is there any data on those little relics? You may want to check) hosted basic e-mail services are giving way to the outsourcing of advanced mail services. Examples are hosted Microsoft Exchange Server and Exchange-like services like Google Apps for Business. This is commonly referred to as Hosted Exchange, but Google is offering their own nearly identical version in terms of features. The thrust of hosted advanced mail has been driven primarily by smart phones like Apple’s iPhone. When there is integrated support for Microsoft Exchange, the smart phone becomes a very powerful collaboration tool that allows us to read and edit e-mail, contacts, and calendar items in real time. The hosting provider’s viewpoint is lower complexity and lower cost of ownership. The IT provider’s viewpoint is actual ownership and no infinitely recurring monthly fee.
SMBs will be continually confronted with new cloud services and options. These aren’t limited to data, with the right system you can host your phone service as well. The one common factor and (generally) single point of failure is your Internet connection. We have seen instances where a careless backhoe operator, or failed call to Miss Utility, or some other chain of events has lead to a severed fiber optic trunk line that has left several square miles without connectivity from an Internet Service Provider (ISP).
In this scenario, or if your Internet connection decides to go dark for little nap one afternoon, you lose access to whatever it is you have stored in The Cloud. If your phone service is hosted you even lose the ability to call the office down the hall. There are services like data synchronization (versus storage) and Internet failover to a secondary provider that can mitigate this risk.
When examining your cloud services options consider cost, access, redundancy of access, and where and how the data is stored (geographically and with regard to how securely and redundantly it is stored). Proper cloud services are provided by larger providers like Rackspace, Amazon, and Google for a reason; these services are very expensive to provide correctly. By correctly I mean in large climate controlled data centers with human and electronic security, multiple layers of power and processing redundancy, and the skilled manpower to run the associated Network Operation Centers (NOCs). All of this is best considered before you begin your trip into the stratosphere.