Time to put your head in the clouds?

You can back up a lot of data using tools like Google Docs and Windows SkyDrive, but what are the pros and cons of adopting a cloud-computing model for your business?

About three years ago, my company decided that we needed an application to help us manage our changes, workloads, incidents, asset management, and other key components of an effective IT department.

After a relatively thorough search, we ended up making a choice that, in hindsight, was not very good, but probably was not much different from other competitors’ products available at the time.

The challenging part of the contract negotiations with the vendor was the all-too-typical issue of what was promised before the contract was signed and what was delivered after. If my memory serves, the contract promised everything from increasing my attractiveness to the opposite sex to making food taste better.

That was two years ago. Now the only time I can get the vendors to return my calls is when the next licence fee is due or when they want to sell an upgrade that will let us actually do some of the things they promised originally. And for the record, I am still more chunk than hunk and everything I cook needs more pepper.

{advertisement} When we remind the vendor that we can’t get the application working as promised, they make it clear that they will be more than happy to help us fix it — if we can find $30,000 for their trouble and if we buy an add-on product.

It makes me wonder two things: how do they say these things with a straight face, and what other add-on service will I have to buy in the future to then get this first add-on product working?

A Rainmaker?

With these lessons learned behind us and cloud computing before us, I really wish we had broadened our requirements and looked at getting this service from the cloud instead of the effort and risk we incorporated by following the traditional method of purchasing the software and storing it on our own servers. I believe cloud computing is about to really rain on the parade of the stalwarts.

They call it a cloud for a good reason, as the definition is quite nebulous. Generally, cloud computing falls into two areas: software as a service (SAS) and outsourcing of computing power and/or data storage.

This article will be mostly about SAS, but if remote computing power is your interest, you may want to pick up a copy of Management Strategies for the Cloud Revolution by Charles Babcock (McGraw Hill).

The book is about as dry as Stephen Wright’s delivery, but I am not sure how anyone could make a book on cloud computing overly dynamic. And it does a good job of covering the benefits and challenges of the service.

Every organization should consider cloud computing, especially small to medium-sized ones. The key benefit is that the hosting is done for you, as opposed to more traditional models where your software applications are kept on servers in your organization that you must purchase, maintain, pay the energy costs for, etc. On top of this, you have to duplicate your efforts to maintain a twin-test environment that perfectly mimics your production environment — effectively doubling your effort and
increasing costs.

Now enter cloud computing, where all that is maintained by someone else. Naturally, one would assume that the costs must be borne somewhere else and you will pay for it with much higher licensing costs. From what I have found so far, this does not appear to be the case, and when you count not having to purchase or maintain hardware, this is an attractive and simpler solution. Some companies have server farms so large that cost savings from economies of scale are passed onto the customer.

Save Time and Money

Five benefits of cloud computing are substantial enough to warrant consideration the next time you are looking at a significant software acquisition. Even if only a couple of the benefits apply, it may put you on cloud nine.

Time savings — Cloud computing leaves the security, maintenance, and upgrades to the provider. This allows you to use your time to focus on your business and your customers.

Lower cost — With lease costs usually lower than software acquisition, significant savings can be had. On top of that, servers require frequent upgrades, are prone to failure, and at times must be entirely rebuilt. By renting space in the cloud, companies offload many of the maintenance costs. And perhaps even more importantly, upgrading to a new version or release can be far more cost effective and nowhere near as labour intensive.

Patching and virus protection — Let the vendor deal with being on top of version control, virus and malware protection, and finding and fixing bugs via patch releases. They do the testing and implementation, freeing you up from that daunting task.

Specialized knowledge — If you need an application for a specific task (asset management, for example), going with an organization that already provides and supports that service for a large number of existing clients in the cloud means you are leveraging their knowledge and not having to learn painful lessons as you go along. They can help you by sharing what other similar companies are doing and can provide faster enhancements to all customers at all times if several have the same need.

Capacity — Just as no restaurant should be built on the crowds that show up on Mother’s Day, a perpetual challenge for IT shops is the requirement for enough capacity to handle peaks of usage (month end, quarterly board reporting) but then not using this extra expensive capacity most of the time. Cloud computing lets you ramp up usage when you need it and use much less (and pay much less) during the typical lower usage patterns that flow on typical days.

As with most new technologies, pitfalls are common. You don’t want your venture into cloud computing to be a mushroom cloud. Ensure you have clear service-level agreements in place so that your service provider is aware when they can and cannot upgrade your services or take them down for maintenance reasons.

Also be aware that you are probably storing your company’s most valuable asset — your information — offsite. You need to be clear about where the data is stored (if it is across borders, for example) and who has access to it.

If you take the time to understand your requirements and your current costs, and can offload some of the work and risk to another organization while saving money, I think you will become a big proponent of cloud computing. And dare I say it, but you may find yourself spending more time on a cloud than St. Peter.