Saturday, April 30, 2011

Cloud Discussions: What small businesses need to know about Cloud Computing

My next few articles will concern Cloud Computing. Here is the first of the batch.

Lately, I have had many people ask me if Cloud Computing was appropriate for their needs or not. Its obviously a new trend and many providers are trying to sell this as the way of the future. So is it? I prepared a small FAQ to answer some of the main questions.

1- What is Cloud Computing?
I like the way Bob Moul puts it: “Cloud has simply become a very handy, very trendy way of describing all things that occur “outside the firewall” as it were”.

My simplified definition would be that Cloud Computing refers to all services that are offered on Internet whether software or hardware.

2- Are the Cloud and the Internet the same thing?
No, although they are often mistaken for one another. Cloud Computing uses the Internet but it isn't the Internet.

If you've ever seen some Internet diagrams, they probably looked something like this:

The diagram shows different computers connected to one another without exactly knowing how. The cloud actually represents Internet on this diagram. As you probably know by now, Internet is a huge complicated network. We don't need to know how the data is transferred from one server to another but they are.

Cloud computing is a set of services or resources offered by different providers through the Internet. You connect to these services through Internet.

3- What are the different services offered by Cloud Computing?
Essentially there are two different services :
  1. IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service) : IaaS consists in offering hardware through the Internet. Instead of installing your own servers and to manage your own backups, you can do it through Cloud Computing. Providers will offer you servers in order to allow you to manage your data without needing to manage the server itself
  2. SaaS (Software as a Service) : SaaS consists in offering software services through the Internet. A good SaaS example is an Internet email account. Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo are all such SaaS examples. There are many other kinds of SaaS such as ERP and CRM solutions. 

4- Is Cloud Computing Secure?
It all depends on your provider. But keep in mind that if your provider manages the data of hundreds or thousands of businesses on his servers, he probably has quite a heavy duty security process in place. If you want to do the same, you can but, as a small business, it'll cost you in money, time and responsibilities.

So how is it more secure? Let me answer this by asking you a few questions about your local installations:
  • Do you make backups?
  • Are your backups held in the same location as your servers?
  • Are your servers in a bunker that will resist a disaster?
  • If there is an earthquake, is your data and applications securely mirrored in another location (another continent)?
  • Do you have 24/7 security in your data centre?
I could go on but the point is that if you answered “no” to any of these questions then your servers are probably not as securely handled as they can be in appropriate data centres. And if you answered yes, then let me ask you : How much does it cost you to manage this security level? Is it comparable to what the Cloud provider is offering?

I wanted to take the time to answer these questions since I get them quite often.  The Cloud services are really starting to stack up and small businesses are the main marketed target. It is therefore important to understand them correctly to choose wisely. In my following post, I'll try to explain when and how Cloud solutions can be appropriate for your small business.

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