Spotting trends is hard to do with the distraction of the ‘doom and gloom’ in the media at the moment. It can create a fog of what is really going on around us. But if we step out of the fog for a while, we may spot a fresh breeze that could change the patterns in the way ICT is used by business and individuals, and that is the continuing rise of ‘Cloud Computing’
In you haven’t heard of the term, go to the Microsoft or IBM sites. If these heavyweights are driving the market towards cloud computing then we better pay attention. And while some may say that their sales literature creates its own haze, this is not what we are talking about. Cloud computing requires a complete rethink of the way computers are used in business (and in our personal lives). At its most basic cloud computing can be defined as the use of the internet (the ‘cloud’) to satisfy most, if not all, of your information technology and data management needs. This means, for example, that businesses will no longer purchase a vast array of local software running on local hardware (PCs and servers) but they will instead buy internet based services that perform the same tasks. Software as a Service (SaaS) offerings such as Salesforce.com have been initial steps in this direction.
Cloud computing aims to make use of the current combination of faster processing speeds, faster networks and reduced digital storage costs to deliver ‘supercomputing for the rest of us’. It does this by shifting computing power from a local computer that, powerful as it may be, is limited in speed and efficiency compared to a server farm that may number in the thousands. These economies of scale create savings, including energy and therefore greenhouse gas savings.
The main benefits of this approach are:
- Stability: The implications of local computer problems or crashes are minimised as data processing and storage take place remotely. Of course network reliability remains crucial.
- Speed: In crude terms cloud computing moves us from one machine working on a problem to possibly thousands doing so. This means that complex modelling and calculations (e.g. financial risk analysis, medical profiling etc.) can be done in a fraction of the time.
- Accessibility: Many cloud based programmes are browser-based, meaning that you need only a web browser to access them wherever you are in the world. Some also provide phone based interfaces.
- Cost: Cloud computing systems have very low start up costs as you can normally start with a low cost, perhaps even single user subscription and then expand from there. It is therefore perfectly suited to smaller business without the capital to fund upfront purchases, but may wish to scale up rapidly in the future. It is this cost efficiency factor that translates directly into Green outcomes too.
The main cloud that hangs over cloud computing (sorry about that I couldn’t resist) is with security, privacy and ease of access. Many managers may not want crucial business information stored on a server outside of their own enterprise. Security lapses and downtime for critical business processes do impact heavily and will remain a crucial issue. Supplier performance and commercial considerations will count for much. There is already one legal dispute that I am aware of underway for a cloud based supplier that entered receivership resulting in questions over data ownership with one of their clients. The resulting business disruption can be imagined quite easily.
The reason why this is important is that the rise in cloud computing will lead to more than a shake-up in the IT Department; it could have profound implications on just about every aspect of running a business. Most significant among these are:
- Standardisation: Having all employees log on to cloud based applications wherever they are in an organisation, or the world, means that it will become easier to develop similar (and ultimately familiar) standards and systems across an organisation.
- Collaboration: ‘Seamless Virtual Collaboration’ has always been one of the promises of the internet age. Cloud computing brings this ideal much closer by providing the essential backbone for such collaboration to take place.
Does the move towards a flatter and more open world have a chance of being mirrored inside the slower moving hierarchical structures of global corporates and government organisations via cloud computing….perhaps? It certainly has the potential to support that change.
It remains to be seen whether cloud computing will live up to the current hype surrounding it. What is clear, however, is that having a cloud computing strategy in place could be a very smart move for the year(s) to come.
So if you can see through the fog of doom and gloom to the cloud above, this may very well help to reduce costs and increase adaptability, at a time when we are seeing out our economic winter and preparing for our next spring.