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Cloud Computing: What is it all about?

A buzzword in business and IT circles for the past several years, cloud computing continues to grow in popularity. While there are many different variations of the cloud, they all share several common elements. All cloud implementations feature individual computers or devices connecting remotely to central servers, often over the Internet.

In many ways, cloud computing is not a new concept, and derives its roots from the old client/server systems. In these systems, a low-powered terminal accessed a mainframe computer, which performed all the transaction processing. The newer cloud systems function in a similar manner, but with current technology, such as tablets or a web browser instead of terminals.

Several common cloud computing platforms are in use today.

Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) – This type of system offers remote servers and network equipment that are physically located in an offsite data center. These systems often allow companies to easily scale up and scale down computing resources. For instance, if your company’s website was running on a cloud-based system, as traffic and demand on the website increase, you could automatically devote additional resources to handle the load.

Platform as a Service (PaaS) – The platform sits between the infrastructure and the software. Often, this is where the database system or the specific webserver would reside. In other cases, the platform includes the environment where the software is hosted or programs are written.

Software as a Service (SaaS) – With this type of system, all the software that is needed by the user is installed on the server at the cloud provider. Often, the user accesses these programs through a web browser, mobile device, or other software. The software could include a specific web application or a program that normally would be installed on a system physically located in your office.

What does all this mean for me?

By moving some of the key systems that are currently in your office to the cloud, you could realize several benefits. First, you no longer have to worry about updating those programs, as this is often handled automatically by the cloud vendor. Software licensing may be simplified as well. Also, in many cases security and disaster recovery is improved since you’re moving those applications from the old server in your office to a distributed cloud vendor. Reputable cloud vendors use secure data centers that are audited regularly, feature strong encryption, and offer offsite backups in real time.

Are there any risks associated with this?

As with anything in business, there are risks associated with benefits of cloud computing. These must be understood prior to undertaking any cloud project. Some of these include the fact that you no longer control the equipment (or the personnel) that is processing your business or customer data. In certain regulated industries, additional controls must be in place both at your business and the cloud vendor. Since these services are accessed over the Internet, extremely reliable Internet service is a must. Businesses that are heavily in the cloud often have redundant Internet service providers, obtaining service from two separate vendors in the event the primary vendor goes down. Service level agreements, contract terms, laws and regulations, customer support, and controls and audits in place at the vendor must all be clearly understood before you move to the cloud.

With careful consideration and proper planning, moving to the cloud can offer resources that may be out of reach on your own.