Cloud Computing Defined
We often hear questions regarding cloud computing: What is “the cloud” and where is it? When should I move everything from my server to the cloud? How secure is the cloud?
There are volumes of information about the cloud and what it (supposedly) can do for you. It promises to keep your data secure, allow remote access from anywhere, and reduce business expenses. But are we sure?
Just in case you haven’t heard, the cloud is what the computing industry calls any service that is hosted by a third party. What you might not realize is that we’ve had the cloud for several decades. From a technically speaking standpoint, companies like IBM and EDS were among the first cloud providers; they were housing mainframes within their facilities and allowing clients to purchase shared computing time via dialup or leased-line communications long before we had a public internet.
Once the general public started using the internet in the early 1990s, people started using web-based research tools, email, and shopping. All these transactions fit within the concept of the cloud; your computer doesn’t contain the data you seek, so you use another entity’s services located somewhere else on the planet.
So what makes the cloud today any different than its predecessors?
The main point is ease of access; we’re no longer tied to specific computers or offices for access to resources. If you need accounting packages, client relationship management, groceries, direct mail advertising, and companionship for the weekend, it’s all available with a few clicks. Just about everyone and every business has already used a cloud for something—and usage will only increase.
Some businesses will run entirely from within a “cloud” hosted service. Making a move to a hosted/cloud service requires a review of your specific needs. Some of our clients are oil and gas exploration firms that use industry specific applications for geologic mapping, planning, budgeting, and profit/loss forecast calculations. These applications move large amounts of data over high-speed internal networks, with the server just steps away from the user.
If you move this data across an internet connection to a remote hosting facility, with internet speeds a fraction of internal network speeds, these calculations would go from minutes to hours of time and would be a step backwards. But what about a business that has more common needs like word processing and spreadsheets, perhaps with some light accounting? A cloud computing solution might foot the bill here.
But what if your business has sensitive information like client or patient records, financial records, or intellectual property? You might be able to use a cloud for this. Several industry certifications (SAS-70, PCI) exist for providers; they help ensure government and best-practice regulations are being met. These facilities have regular audits of their business practice guidelines, financials, and security to verify client data is secure and access to the servers is restricted and recorded.
As for security across the internet, we all have encryption built into our computers that can safeguard data while it’s in transit between the computer and the hosting provider. These aspects are very different than just 10 years ago when communications between you and the provider were not only over slow internet connections or across expensive leased lines from the telephone company, but regulations were either weak or nonexistent (situations like Enron helped change this).
The basic lesson for today is that everyone on the internet has used a cloud resource, possibly without even knowing it. What we call cloud computing today is nothing more than a reinvention of what we’ve always done, but with some modern enhancements built in.