Cloud Computing: What Is It and Should I Use It In My Business?
Cloud computing is becoming a popular buzzword these days but what exactly is it? And, as a business owner, should I be using it?
What is Cloud Computing?
Instead of starting a copy of Microsoft Word on your computer as you arrive at your desk, at 9:00 am, coffee in hand, you could instead connect over the Internet (over the “cloud”) to a copy of Microsoft Word that is running on a server possibly thousands of miles away from you. It would look almost identical to the copy of Word that you used to use on your computer and would operate in largely the same way. In fact, for most of the time, you would probably forget that you were using Word “over the cloud” instead of on your computer.
And it’s not just Word that you can use in this way. Many applications that you can buy as a program to install on your computer also have competing products (or alternate versions) that you can access “over the cloud”. This ranges from utility services such as spam filtering to full blown applications such as CRMs and accounting suites. And, of course, Microsoft is offering their Office suite “over the cloud” with their Office 365 product.
In fact, cloud computing is not new. It’s just the term that is new. In the 1960s, the renowned computer scientist, John McCarthy suggested that such an idea might become a reality and it became so in the early 2000s. I was personally involved in the development of a service offering Office and accounting applications “over the cloud” that launched in 2004 (although we didn’t call it cloud computing then!) One of the more successful cloud computing services was Amazon Web Services. This was launched in 2006 and continues to enable hundreds of thousands of developers to offer applications “over the cloud”.
Should I Use Cloud Computing?
Maybe! Cloud computing can offer many advantages:
- Accessibility: Anywhere you can access the Internet, you can (usually) access your application and its data. This means that you may be able to access your application from a PC, a Mac, a smart-phone or a tablet and it will operate in virtually the same way.
- Collaboration: Multiple people can access the same applications and the same information from many different locations across the globe.
- Standardisation: If the online application is upgraded or changed, everyone is immediately using the new version. There is no need to upgrade software on many different people’s computers.
- Security: Your application service provider will secure the application and your data, usually to a higher standard than businesses implement internally. You will no longer have to worry about taking nightly backups of your hard disks etc. And, if a computer fails or is stolen etc, you no longer lose any data and you can be back in business faster.
- Cost: Instead of purchasing applications as once-off costs, usually you “rent” the use of the application on a monthly basis which can help with cashflow. Also, adding another user to the system is usually a small incremental monthly fee, not a large up-front outlay for extra software.
But there are things to beware of too:
- Connectivity: If your Internet connection goes down, you cannot work. Internet connections are more robust these days but they do still go down. What will you do if your Internet connection goes down? Should you install a second Internet connection into your office to make sure that you are always connected?
- Speed: Every keyboard stroke and mouse click goes over the Internet to the server which then interprets your action and sends you an updated version of your screen. Previously these actions happened inside your computer. You may need to upgrade your Internet connection to provide you with the level of performance you need.
- Security: Your applications and data can now be accessed from anywhere that has an Internet connection. That means that they are open to hackers and other unwanted visitors too. Your “cloud computing” service provider will have security measures in place to prevent unwanted access but this is never completely preventable (as is demonstrated from time to time by high-profile stories about hackers accessing credit card details from major corporations etc). Make sure that you consider security carefully when migrating to a cloud computing solution and plan for a “worst-case” scenario of data loss, theft or tampering.
- Cost: Those monthly “rents” can mount up over time plus there are the continuing costs of quality Internet connections. You may find that the long-term cost of a cloud computing solution is higher than you expected.
- Migration: Usually there will need to be a “project” to migrate from the way you are working now to a cloud computing solution. Plan this out carefully to understand the tasks and costs involved.
- Provider relationship: With cloud computing you are now reliant on your service provider for your day to day applications. As this is no longer under your direct control, plan for the eventuality of you no longer wanting to work with them or if they go out of business or simply stop providing this service. At the start of a relationship everybody is thinking long-term and are happy with each other. The same is rarely true if it comes to a divorce so plan for it, as you will not want your business impacted by a supplier’s business failure.
Cloud computing is here to stay and with the growth of mobile computing, mobile apps will now play a larger role in delivering our IT services to us, wherever we are. This can give us the ability to do our jobs better and faster. So, embrace cloud computing where it can benefit your business but don’t do it without planning everything through first.
Cloud Storage and Cloud Hosting
While mentioning cloud computing, there are two other “cloud” buzzwords that are becoming popular these days that are similar but different!
Cloud storage is where you store data on the Internet. This may be for backups or for data sharing or so that the data can be accessed from “anywhere”. It is just like having an external hard drive connected to your computer … over the Internet. Your applications will still be on your computer, you are just storing your data in “the cloud”.
Cloud hosting is where your website is copied across multiple servers, usually in different parts of the world. For businesses highly reliant on their website, failure of any one server will have no impact to users as the website will simply be delivered from another server. They will notice no difference. This is also used as a method of ensuring that a popular website performs well, regardless of how many users are accessing it or where they are. For instance, Google has used cloud hosting to deliver its search engine for many years.