The Cloud: Capabilities, Costs and Concerns

A History Lesson

Individual computers used to fill entire rooms. People would submit batch jobs to run at night. If an office had a computer that people used during the day, people would most likely connect to it from what I would call a “thin client”. There would be a screen and a keyboard which would communicate with the “mainframe”. There would not be a hard drive or other elements that you would consider to be part of a normal computer system today. This situation, while it still exists in many offices where you see those horrible green and black screens, trended towards going away as the development of the personal computer progressed. In most cases now where a legacy system is used it is accessed by using some sort of terminal program on your normal desktop PC.

We started with processing being done with big computers somewhere, moved to having the work done on a computer sitting on your desk, and we are now trending back towards sending that data and processing out to “the cloud”.

What is “The Cloud”?

The cloud means different things to different people. Every person trying to get a job in IT that pays better than entry level tech support is probably putting “cloud” somewhere on their resume. I would define it, in general, as using software, storage, computation and other related services that are typically accessed remotely. These services are normally provided by someone else, though if you are a large enough operation you may have your own “cloud”. The offerings range from free to quite expensive and with capabilities ranging from useless to fully functional. There are many companies that would call themselves cloud providers, including Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Rackspace and many more.

Consumer Clouds

First it was .mac, then MobileMe, now they call it iCloud. That is the Apple Cloud for consumers. This type of “cloud” basically serves as some file storage and allows for easy synchronization of your calendar, etc... If you have an Apple iPhone you can easily have access to your files, music and whatever else shared across multiple devices. Microsoft and other companies have similar offerings. I have seen people purchase access to the Apple Cloud when buying a new machine and not having known what they were buying, or knowing that the data and files they create were being automatically sent to be stored on machines that Apple owns. There can be security and privacy concerns though for most users it is probably not a problem.

The prevalence of mobile phones should not be ignored when thinking about issues relating to the cloud. Ubiquitous access to the internet through cell phone data providers and WiFi hotspots everywhere opens up a number of possibilities, and using mobile devices as a “thin client” can enable you to do things that would not have been possible 10 years ago. I can log in to one of my Linux servers via cellphone and issue commands directly to the command line. You could use a remote desktop client and control your computer that is sitting on your desk while you are on the train. Consumer devices are the driving force behind many of these options.

Software in “The Cloud”, or how I learned to stop worrying and pay them monthly

“Software as a service” (SaaS) is a way to get access to great software while minimizing upfront costs.

A great example of software that runs in “the cloud” are some of the components of Google Apps. By visiting the Google web site you can can access your email, use a calendar, keep track of your contacts and much more. There is a fairly well functioning word processor, spreadsheet and other productivity software. For individual users access to these platforms is provided at no charge and is often supported by showing you ads. While the price does occasionally change for business users, it is currently $50/user per year. That is a small price to pay for access to these high quality services.

Microsoft has a similar offering where you can pay by user and have access to their office suite as well. They will host your Outlook server and Sharepoint and all of their fancy technologies and you pay monthly by user. It is significantly more expensive than the Google offering but I have clients that use it and are happy with it.

The rental of software is a business model that has become more popular over the last few years. Intuit, maker of QuickBooks, now has a monthly fee you can pay for access to their online offering. In the past you may have needed a server and then needed to buy a copy of QuickBooks and then provide remote access to the users that needed to share the file. Why go through all of that mess when you can just pay $30/month and have multiple users able to access it right from their web browsers.

Look at the prevalence of companies like Salesforce. Salesforce is a suite of web apps for managing many aspects of a business. Almost all of the work is performed directly in a web browser. Using these types of software, especially when hosted remotely, can lead to huge savings and increases in reliability. Your IT costs will be spent on quality web applications that require little or no maintenance.

Adobe now offers a “cloud” version of its flagship products. For $50/month you can subscribe and have a legal copy of all their Master Collection including Photoshop, Illustrator, Dreamweaver, Premiere, After Effects, Flash, Acrobat and much more. That suite, if purchased normally, would cost approximately $2500. As long as you continue to make payments you have access to the software. It does come with other benefits like some storage and some other related things. You receive updates and new programs as they are released. Instead of planning to spend $500/year on upgrades you can just budget in $50/month and have the current version all the time with no up front costs.

Let us look at a quick example, perhaps you are adding an additional employee during a certain time of the year, or bringing in a contract employee to work on a project for a while. Rather than having to buy licenses for a bunch of expensive programs, you merely pay for the programs they need for the time you need them. If you have a summer intern and they are going to be working on marketing materials for you, just license the Adobe Suite for 3 months at $50/month and then cancel it after they leave.

Need a dedicated server? Have one up and running in 10 minutes.

You can often rent the hardware, storage, load balancers and whatever else you need without having to purchase it. This is commonly referred to as “insfrastructure as a service” (IaaS).

Traditionally, if you wanted a new server you would need to buy the software, buy the hardware and then set it up at your location or somewhere else (co-location). You would need to pay your IT support people to maintain it. Proper power redundancy, including uninterruptible power supplies and generators would need to be acquired. You would need a solid internet connection, preferably multiple connections. Even 10 years ago it was commonplace to buy your hardware, or rent hardware from somewhere else and then have “your” server sitting in a datacenter somewhere.

Today virtualization is all the rage. There are a number of companies, notably VMWare, who provide solutions that allow you to have one big server and use it as multiple “virtual servers”. Say the accounting department needs extra server capacity during end of the year tax time. A traditional solution would be to buy more equipment and set it up and then have it laying around the rest of the year. With virtualization a new server could be created just by an administrator logging on to the “big” server and provisioning a new one.

This gets even easier when you deal with companies like Rackspace. You do not need any server equipment on your premises. You do not need to buy any hardware or purchase any server operating systems. Those costs are all built in. You can spin up a server with 4GiB of RAM running the latest version of Windows 2008 Server for about $240/month. You do pay extra for outgoing bandwidth at a pretty low rate.

You can spin up a Linux server with 2GiB of RAM for about $60/month. By logging into the control panel you could have a clean server install up and running in about 10 minutes. You could set up special purpose servers and then turn them on and off as you need them. Billing for these servers is by the hour.

Amazon has similar offerings with their elastic compute cloud (Amazon EC2). There are many providers offering these services.

While there may still be a need to have a server on site in some cases, serious money can be saved by spinning up virtual servers on demand. Up front hardware costs disappear. You don’t need to worry about the hardware breaking, your backups can be done automatically to a large scale storage array and your costs are the hourly server rate and the time of consultants to configure and maintain it for you. Most small businesses that have a server in their office pay a lot to maintain their often outdated equipment. Why bother?

Storage in the Cloud

Many of you are probably familiar with Dropbox. It gives you a virtual, shared network drive that lets you easily move files around between different computers. It can also let you gain access to your files when you are somewhere else where your computers might not be present.

There are a variety of storage options and if you have the budget you can basically purchase all the storage you would need. Amazon S3, Rackspace Cloud Files, Dropbox, Google Drive, the list goes on and on.

Storage is usually paid for by Gigabyte per month and by bandwidth used by people accessing the files.

These storage services can also function as a content delivery network. At your option, you can make these files available to the general public and then they can be geographically distributed to make the user experience better. Video is a good example. If you are launching a new movie and you expect high demand for users viewing your movie trailer, you can host your video files on a content delivery network (CDN) which will make them load quicker for the people viewing it and cost less than serving it from traditional web hosting. A company you may have heard of in this domain is Akamai.

Platform as a Service (PaaS)

If you are in need of a specific type of hosting, for example PHP running on a Linux based service, there are providers who offer a stable version of that service. You don’t need to worry about maintaining your own server. You can purchase the specific services you need. This could be anything from web hosting to Outlook email accounts.

Database hosting is a great example. You can spin up dedicated database clusters and have your databases hosted worry free. Do you need a high performance, redundant MySQL database server? It can be only a few clicks away.

There are plenty of more advanced services, like load balancers, that you can get up and running immediately if you are willing to pay the rates. PaaS solutions often take the day to day maintenance out of running your key services.

Fear and Loathing in the Cloud (Security and Privacy)

While the infrastructure and services you retain from various cloud providers may promise never ending uptime, there may be caveats. To start with, a company that you are doing business with may close down or may be bought by someone else. That new entity running things might not see the service you are using as one of their priorities. I have seen this happen in the last few years. While Gmail may not disappear any time soon, some great “cloud” product can come and go at the convenience of some boardroom.

Outages do occur, no matter how well designed a platform is. While I can not think of a time where Google search has been down, I know that Gmail has from time to time. Earlier this year a good portion of the Amazon Cloud went down due to extended power blackouts in the area. There are plenty of ways that various types of Force Majeure can interfere with your services.

If your Internet connection goes down you can not get to your applications and services. In most cases there is a not a way around that. I was explaining this to someone the other day that if the world is ending they will not be able to access their data. They replied, most cleverly, that if the world is ending they will have bigger problems than not being able to access their data.

Bandwidth issues can be a problem as well. If you are editing huge video files you probably do not want to be moving them back and forth while working with them. If your internet connection is not fast enough certain things might not work for you. While outsourced storage may be less expensive than traditional options, and can be accessed from many locations, you need the internet connection to back it up. In many business use cases it is not a problem but if you are dealing with very large amounts of data that needs to be taken into consideration.

Security as it relates to “the cloud” is, in general, beyond the scope of this article. A hacker with time, skill and resources could theoretically get in to any system. I would like to think that many of these large providers have more security people on staff than you do. While a system could be compromised in any number of ways, most large and respected companies work very hard on this problem and I do not personally believe that your data is less secure in “the cloud” than it is on the server in your office. An exception being if your server is not connected to the internet, in a large bank vault and protected by armed guards.

The issue of privacy is somewhat distinct from security, though without adequate security it is hard to keep your data private. When you deal with a company in some manner they can have all sorts of information about you. Any company can have unscrupulous employees that may be able to get access to your data. When you fire an employee they might steal your mailing list to start their own “new” company. No industry or scope of data is immune to data breaches.

It is possible that someone at Google could read your emails for their own personal gain, though it is unlikely. Surveillance by the government or compliance with court orders may be an exception. If you look out your window and see 10 squad cars pulling up you might have time to shred some documents before your door gets kicked in, if your data is stored in “the cloud” a third party could gain access to it by a court order and you might not even know that it happened. You could log on and “delete” everything and there could still be information recovered or retained. The retention of information can actually be a benefit in same cases, for example Sarbanes-Oxley requires financial companies to maintain records of client communications and you can set up your Gmail to do just that and meet the regulatory requirements for you. Your privacy may be compromised in some ways but the benefits may outweigh the potential implications.

Conclusion: Resistance is futile.

There are a variety of cloud offerings in many different forms. In some cases you can save money and get excellent services from “the cloud”.

It all sounds great in theory until your internet connection or cloud provider is down. While there may be reasons to keep things local in some cases, cloud offerings from the major providers should at least be considered before you spend a bunch of money on other solutions.

A lot of computing is moving towards a utility model where you pay for the resources you need and use. Additional capacity can be added and removed as needed and up front costs can be minimized.

Use of “the cloud” can also be enabling to small companies by providing access to services and technologies they would not be able to otherwise use or afford.

About the author

Bob Lindquist is an expert consultant with extensive experience building web sites, databases and performing internet marketing work for his clients.  He has over 20 years of experience working with clients from a wide variety of industries along with a degree in Computer Science.  Bob is a professional member of the Association for Computing Machinery.

In his free time, Bob is a volunteer Firefighter / EMT and has served on the boards of several not-for-profit groups.

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