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Discovering the Cloud's Silver Lining

In a business landscape overrun with buzzwords and catchphrases, "cloud" is undoubtedly one of the leaders in the last several years. Just as with other popular phrases of the day, there are myriad definitions varying widely depending upon whom you ask. Gartner Research defines it as a "...style of computing where scalable and elastic IT capabilities are provided as a service to multiple customers using Internet technologies."

Meanwhile, if you check out Wikipedia, it identifies cloud computing as the use of computing resources, both hardware and software, that are delivered as a service over a network. Furthermore, according to the Wikipedia entry, the broader concept of converged infrastructure and shared services lay the foundation for cloud computing, which entrusts remote services with a user's data, software and computation.

Head spinning, yet?

It's important to point out right away what cloud computing is not: Someone hovering in the sky holding onto your data, protecting it as if it is under lock and key. It's simply a marketing term for data that is stored off of an organization's premises where its servers and people happen to be.

If you dig deeper into "cloud computing," you'll find that there are a variety of concepts and services, including:

1. Infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS);
2. Platform-as-a-service (PaaS);
3. Software-as-a-service (SaaS); and
4. Virtualization.

Regardless of whether or not you may believe cloud computing is really a maze that seems to have trap doors and hidden passageways, there is a great deal of opportunity. According to Forrester Research, the global market for cloud computing will grow from $40.7 billion in 2011 to more than $241 billion by 2020—which marks an approximate 488% increase in less than one decade.

As you may have already deduced, with this tremendous growth opportunity has come many vendors to the fore in order to provide cloud services to enterprises—including salesforce.com, Amazon Web Services, Google and, of course, Microsoft—with Windows Azure as well as now Office 365.

As more organizations read, watch and listen to the hype on cloud computing—particularly for those utilizing Microsoft SharePoint as an enterprise collaboration platform—it is important to be clear on the benefits of the cloud, its challenges and the different deployment options one has in utilizing the cloud.

Cloud benefits.
Many will immediately correlate cloud computing to cheaper costs. While reduced total cost of ownership can, in fact, be true, there is much more than meets the eye. While saving money is a goal of most enterprises today, a more important goal is business agility. How can one remain nimble and quick to act in a hypercompetitive business landscape? This is where cloud computing can shine, with benefits including:

  • Manageability: Cloud computing can remove the need for physical servers and hardware with a pay-as-you-go model. The lack of these things can lead to not needing to manage underlying infrastructure as you typically would with on-premise software, which also eliminates time-consuming tasks such as application software updates and monitoring;
  • Scalability:  As workload and storage requirements increase, so does the cost. As utilization decreases, so will the cost. Cloud computing means that you don't necessarily pay for "shelfware"—which has given on-premise software a bad rap over the years because it can lead to expensive infrastructure sitting idly. Over time, this can mean that cloud computing is more cost-effective than its on-premise counterparts;
  • Binding service level agreements (SLAs): Most cloud offerings target a 99.9% uptime, which equates to approximately 8.74 hours of downtime in one year (8,736 hours). For organizations using only on-premise software, maintaining high levels of service such as this can be extremely resource intensive and expensive;
  • Infrastructure disaster recovery: Planning and management is transparent to the enterprise with most cloud offerings, as they already possess a disaster recovery plan. For example, a geo-redundant data center architecture, with a stand-by replica data center to continue service if the primary data center goes down;
  • Firewalls and access: Worried about meeting stringent compliance and privacy standards? Cloud computing looks to assuage those concerns, as most cloud solutions are typically hosted on infrastructure that is accessible over the Internet and already architected to meet the aforementioned standards and regulations; and
  • Sustainability: Cloud infrastructure consolidates server resources, optimizes power usage and potentially reduces the carbon footprint of a solution—as there is an increased push for green offices and green living, this can come in handy.

Cloud challenges.
While there are many potential benefits to taking your business to the cloud, as with any software or service there is no perfect solution for all scenarios. As you continue to define your strategy for the cloud, it is important to note the potential pitfalls of cloud computing, including:

  • Security: Cloud computing is an exercise in relinquishing control—of your data, servers and hardware. Organizations, understandably, usually have significant concerns about storing business data outside the walls of their enterprises. Why? Non-employee IT administrators are going to possess a high level of access and control over their information; available technology options to secure and manage user access and authentication; or even intentional or accidental actions of employees or contractors;
  • Storage costs and limits: Most cloud solutions are priced based on the number of users accessing the system, with caps on the amount of available storage. While this may seem like democracy at its best, it does also mean that there can be significant costs associated with additional data that goes beyond the predefined storage cap. Usually, this is a per-gigabyte fee, which can become more costly when compared to on-premise scenarios and especially if storage grows into multiple terabytes;
  • Data sovereignty: In many cases, cloud services target large organizations that have data centers in the United States, central Europe or Singapore. That's great if your organization is headquartered in those areas. But some organizations and governmental agencies—such as those in Australia or New Zealand—cannot have data stored outside of their country as that would be a breach of policies requiring data to reside in the country of creation;
  • Reliability: Compared to on-premise predecessors, cloud offerings—particularly SaaS ones—do not have a real track record to assure organizations they can meet the service level agreements for their growing customer bases. For example, in August, 2011, there was a three-hour Microsoft Office 365 Exchange 2010 outage for a select customer base in North American data centers, in addition to multiple other outages that have taken place since Office 365's launch in June, 2011;
  • Low bandwidth and network availability: When organizations adopt cloud computing, they are accepting that the infrastructure is not going to be located locally within their respective buildings, which means that it must be accessed via the Internet. When Internet bandwidth is poor, particularly in remote locations, it means that the quality of service will experience degradation. While most cloud vendors offer 99.9% SLAs for availability, that doesn't necessarily equate to performance. You'll be hard pressed to find a cloud vendor offering a similar SLA for performance;
  • Policies: In large, information-sensitive organizations, there are policies for where data can be stored as well as how much data can reside in one place external to the organization's facilities. Why? Organizations largely must adhere to policies that dictate how to keep customer details secure and private. In some situations, this can become problematic due to having to literally ship data on hard drives or through file transfer protocol to migrate into the cloud services from on-premise instances;
  • Content separation: For those looking to diversify their storage portfolio—meaning a mixture of on-premise and cloud-based repositories—they usually encounter immediate difficulty in classifying content in the same manner across systems. This can wreak havoc to IT governance, as governance committees find it challenging to provide end users an easy-to-understand strategy for where content should reside. Many try to work around this by having a formal document management system on premises, and a collaboration environment in the cloud in order to ease the delineation of content; and
  • Development: Most cloud offerings only provide a production environment, which removes the ability to stage a clone of the production environment for testing, including user acceptance testing. Therefore, change-control scenarios carry an increased risk because there is no opportunity to test developed solutions against content in the production environment.

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