Tuesday 14 May 2013

The Cloud. What it is and why it matters

The cloud is now on every business person’s agenda – understanding it, using it, profiting from it.  But why is it so important?  And what makes it worth investigating? 

Firstly, internet connections are now faster and more prevalent; WiFi, 3G and 4G connections are available in more places to more people.  Secondly, computers are smaller.  Ten years ago, your choice was either the PC sitting under your desk, or the laptop that caused sloping shoulders.  Now your smartphone will fit in your shirt pocket, and a tablet slides easily into a handbag.

So although the idea of accessing a computer resource from a remote location isn’t new, the speed and ease with which we can access it is.  The rise of cloud computing means that businesses can now buy a range of services from companies based miles away, and use their computing as if it were located in their own building.  Perhaps more importantly, though, the maintenance and upkeep of this computer infrastructure is taken care of by full time specialists.  That means a higher quality of service for users, and fewer mistakes. 

Specialisation has long been shown to be at the heart of efficiency, and therefore competitiveness.    So the more any company is able to specialise, the more competitive it will be. 

Cloud computing itself is an umbrella term for a number of different specialist services that can be split into three broad groups: 

1. Software as a Service (SaaS) – this gives users the ability to use a fully functioning hosted application by just connecting to it.  SalesForce.com and Microsoft Office 365 are both SaaS.  All you have to do is set up the users, and use the software.  Oh, and pay the monthly invoice.

2. Platform as a Service (PaaS) – this is where you use a shared computing resource to host an application.  You may need a database, and perhaps a web site.  With PaaS, all the “platform” software is ready to use.  The license fees are included in your monthly fee, and the configuration is all done.  You just upload the software you want to use onto the preconfigured operating system and database, and off you go. 

3. Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) – this is where a company uses one or more virtual machines, in exactly the way that suits them.  Because you are paying for a virtual machine, rather than a shared resource, you configure it exactly as you want it.  So if you want to use your own operating system, you can upload it and configure it to suit you.  You can use your own copy of SQL Server if you want to, providing you have a license of course.  The reason you have so much flexibility is that you are paying for a dedicated virtual machine, not a shared one.  So it’s much closer to working with your own systems, apart from the fact that someone else is worrying about the air conditioning, the power, and swapping out the hard disk when it fails. 

This range of cloud services enables companies to use “the cloud” in a way that best suits their needs – from connect-and-go to configuring systems exactly as needed.  This type of flexibility, and specialisation, will ensure cloud computing is not a passing phase, but a key component in enabling businesses to focus on their core skills, and creating world-beating customer offerings.

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