Indepth Articles

Introduction to Cloud Computing

Introduction to Cloud Computing - Indepth Article

The traditional model of an IT network set-up is that you have a server with data and files, then individual computers with software programs loaded on them such as Microsoft Word and Excel. The server is likely to be located somewhere in your offices with each individual computer connected to it.

With cloud computing, the servers are located elsewhere, such as a large data centre, with software accessed over the internet rather than via programs loaded on individual computers. It means less physical space is needed in your office and there can be lower-spec equipment on-site (as less memory is needed on computers, for example), plus potentially reduced maintenance costs because there is less equipment to look after.

The Advantages of "The Cloud"

The main advantage is reduced costs. Buying new equipment is cheaper as the individual computers can be of a lower specification, individual software does not need to be purchased "out of a box" and servers aren't required. Because everything is kept in one central place, the maintenance required should also be less as it needs fewer people, but potentially they need greater expertise.

So, in a nutshell, less capital costs and lower maintenance and running costs.

It can be particularly useful where there are a number of different offices, perhaps located internationally, that all need to access the same documents and data on a server. It also means that everyone can be on the latest version of software without having to update every individual computer.

An example of the concept is Google Documents. Users can type documents on applications that look like Word or do calculations on an application similar to Excel, before saving the document to Google, rather than on their own computer. It also means that other people can see the document if they choose to share it. A bit like a traditional network with a shared drive, in fact.

Applications suitable for businesses are not completely cost-free though. Software usually has to be rented with the cost dependent on the number of users and the internet connection may need to be upgraded to cope with the extra volume of traffic. The cloud provider will also charge for rental and support, plus there may still need to be localised IT support to cover individual computers and ensure that PC-specific software such as Antivirus is maintained.

Risks to be Aware of

Whilst it might prove to be cheaper, it's definitely not free and there are some substantial risks with it. For a start, the rental costs and broadband upgrade may actually prove more expensive than a traditional network arrangement.

Next, the broadband line strength needs to be substantial otherwise users will find access to documents much slower than they are currently used to. Users of traditional networks may already be saying that the internet and email is slow – imagine extending that to their documents as well. Users of Google Documents will be able to relate to this.

Remember too that whilst the technology is not actually new, it is on an organisational-wide scale. There may be issues with your data being held on shared facilities and the appropriate level of security given to these facilities. Plus, how would you check that back-ups are being performed successfully? It needs to be the security of the cloud provider that's checked, rather than your own facilities. And that provider may be in Israel, or South Africa or Bangalore. Would you be comfortable with storing all your company's data and applications in this way?

Finally, you might need applications from multiple providers, such as email, software, broadband, mobiles and applications specific to individual users. What seemed like a simpler solution might actually turn out to be more complex because of the number of different parties involved.

So what's the Conclusion?

Cloud computing has its place. For example, Google Documents can be very useful for remote workers or small-scale applications and the off-site facilities can be a key back-up mechanism.

But for those organisations who depend on their IT we would recommend that "the cloud" forms only a part of their overall IT facilities and a reputable IT maintenance company is used to ensure the network continues to work effectively. There are other, safer and more reliable methods of reducing IT costs, some of which are summarised in Five Ways to Reduce your IT Support Costs and explored in more detail in our Reducing your Maintenance Costs and Reducing your IT Equipment Costs articles.

If you want more details of how it has been used in some major organisations and an impartial view, visit this feature from BBC News.