Addressing common cloud computing misconceptions

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This feature first appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.

Do you know as much about the cloud as you think you do?Would you like to store this on your cloud drive?

Cloud drive? Honestly, I didn’t even know I had a cloud drive — but the question really wasn’t surprising. Whether we realize it or not, the cloud has become an integral part of our daily lives. Whether we’re consumers, enterprise-level business associates, or somewhere in between, the cloud is changing the way we communicate with others, access personal media, play games, conduct business, collaborate, and so much more.

According to an article printed last year in Forbes magazine, more than half of all businesses in the United States use the cloud. And corporate America is far from the only customer. Consumers have also embraced the convenience and ease of accessing everything from e-books to movies to music via cloud environments. The possibilities for data exchanges in the cloud are seemingly infinite. Despite the growing popularity of the cloud, however, confusion lingers (at least among some demographics) as to what the cloud is and what it isn’t. What it can do, and what it can’t.

As part of my research for this article, I conducted an informal survey of family, friends and small to mid-size business owners in my community to see what they actually knew about the cloud. I also threw in a few conversations with some of my tech-guru friends who work for enterprise-level businesses. My question was three-fold. What do you know about the cloud? Do you use the cloud, and if so, how do you use the cloud?

Simple questions, right? Unfortunately, the answers weren’t as simple or straightforward as I’d hoped. The responses were often a bit nebulous. Despite the fact that the cloud has been around for quite a while now, I detected a measure of uncertainty and confusion in the responses to my questions regarding what the cloud is and what benefits it provides. A fair number of people, it would seem, could benefit from learning the truth behind some of the common cloud computing misconceptions.

The Cloud is Just Too Difficult to Use – I Don’t Get It!

Actually, the cloud is easier to use — and understand — than many have supposed. At its simplest level, cloud technology is merely a new way of doing something that’s been around forever. Whether on personal computers, mobile devices, enterprise-level mainframes, or machines at every level in between, we store information and data — pictures, videos, documents, personal information, health and financial records, and more — every minute of every day. We live in a wired world.

In the traditional model, we simply save vital information directly to various storage media (the hard drive on a personal computer, the jump drive that attaches to your keychain) and then retrieve that data at our convenience. Information storage and retrieval is easy. Simply locate the file you want on your storage device, click it and voilà – information retrieved!

The difference between the traditional model and the cloud is simply that all of our mountains of data are stored remotely, on servers and other machines that don’t have to be carried around and provide backup in the event of a hardware or software failure. End users, consumers and businesses store and retrieve information from the cloud environment via the internet. Consumers can read books, listen to music and watch movies — all nestled safely in the cloud — without the necessity of downloading any files to a tablet, PC or other computing or mobile device. Thanks to cloud computing (and a multitude of apps that make it faster and more transparent), all of this and more happens in real time.

Businesses have also embraced the cloud environment, using it for anything from storing mission-critical documentation to providing applications and solutions to customers. The power of the cloud is that as long as you have an internet connection, stored information and data, along with business applications (and much more) can be accessed anytime, anywhere by customers, clients and employees.

Why bother? Isn’t the Cloud Just Another Computing Fad?

Cloud computing may seem like a relatively new concept, particularly to consumers outside the IT industry. Most average consumers had probably never even heard the term “cloud” used in a computing context until the use of apps began to gain in popularity around 2009.

The reality is that the concepts behind cloud computing aren’t new or novel. They’ve been around for at least 40 years, dating back to the late 1960s, when J.C.R. Licklider (whose vision and leadership enabled development of the worldwide web precursor Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, commonly referred to as ARPANET) first conceived of what he called an intergalactic computer network (obviously a Star Trek fan), and John McCarthy proposed delivery of computing services as a public utility.

Businesses were introduced to cloud computing environments well before “cloud” became a household word. Salesforce.com took the first covered wagons over the mountain in 1999, when it introduced a way for businesses to deliver applications through websites. Swift to recognize a winner, Amazon introduced Amazon Web Services in 2002.

Cloud adoption hasn’t happened as quickly as some initially predicted, but businesses aren’t exactly sitting on their hands. According to global management consulting firm McKinsey & Co., corporate spending on cloud environments is expected to exceed $70 billion in 2015. That’s more than a 50 percent increase from similar spending in 2011, reported then at a mere $28 billion. (It’s worth noting that these figures are for public-cloud and third-party-managed cloud environments only, and are not reflective of private cloud expenditures.)

McKinsey also reports that 80 percent of executives surveyed say they are either currently using a cloud environment, or have plans to migrate to a cloud environment and use the cloud to host applications in the future. Given these levels of financial investment and corporate commitment, it’s almost a certainty that the cloud is here to stay.

The Cloud is Too Rich for Me

Is cloud usage prohibitively expensive? The answer to that question likely depends on where you sit on the spectrum of cloud usage. For consumers, the cloud is certainly very affordable. As a purely personal example, I regularly store e-books, music, videos, documents, and so forth in the cloud. As a free-lance writer and editor, I frequently need to deliver large documents, images or other data which, due to their size, can be difficult to deliver through traditional e-mail services.

As a result, I routinely use a cloud-based service where I drop my files into a virtual filing cabinet for editors to retrieve at their leisure. Despite the size and volume of the data used, I’ve yet to be charged a fee for any of these services. That pricing model is pretty hard to beat — who doesn’t like free? Particularly for individuals, storing data and information in the cloud can be a real sweet deal.

Is the same true for businesses? Obviously someone has to make money from cloud services, so businesses aren’t afforded the same sweet deals that individual consumers get. Does that mean, however, that the cloud is a money pit for businesses? Actually, if managed correctly, cloud services may result in significant savings for corporate America.

According to McKinsey, executives reported expected savings of between 30 and 40 percent when hosting applications in the cloud versus traditional in-house hosting of services. Savings of as much as 60 to 70 percent are possible when deploying software-as-a-service (SaaS) over custom internal applications. Caution should be exercised, however: Contracting hasn’t yet caught up with cloud computing and businesses may find themselves paying unnecessarily for cloud services they don’t use or need.

To determine the true cost of cloud usage, businesses should consider taking a closer look at items such as:

— How much storage you’re paying for versus the amount that’s actually being used
— Overbuying storage to accommodate usage peaks when it might be more prudent (and cost effective) to simply pay the overage during peak usage times
— Paying for services/storage which are no longer used or needed
— Not understanding usage needs prior to migrating to the cloud and once again, paying for storage not needed

Businesses unfamiliar with the cloud model should also consider not only direct costs, but indirect costs: procurement, personnel to manage contracts, resources to manage the network and storage, and so forth. These may not be quite as transparent at first glance. Also worthy of consideration is the total cost over time to move from existing platforms to the cloud.

So, is the cloud too expensive for businesses? The answer is, it depends.

It’s a Question of Trust

Is the cloud secure? Can I trust the cloud to keep my data and information protected? The truth is that despite safeguards, nothing is ever completely secure. As long as there are persons with illegal intentions in the world, systems will be compromised. As with traditional environments, cloud environments can be compromised, and critical systems and sensitive information can fall into the hands of those with less than honorable motives. In 2011, cloud environments experienced some major breaches (Expedia, Trip Advisor, Sony, Epsilon Data Management and others were affected). Most recently, a number of celebrities’ very personal photos were stolen from their iCloud accounts.

Despite these very public breaches, cloud usage continues to grow. According to a recent article by Business Insurance, most cloud breaches typically result in downtime, and not loss of sensitive or personal information. By contrast, Business Insurance indicates that the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse reported 535 breaches of in-house corporate computer systems, involving more than 30 million records, between 2005 and 2011.

According to Business Insurance, small to mid-size businesses appear to be targeted more frequently than large enterprise accounts when it comes to attacks on cloud environments. Despite the fact that cloud breaches have been relatively few in comparison to corporate systems, IT research and consulting firm Gartner, Inc. still warns that caution should be exercised when using the cloud: Many companies place sensitive data into cloud systems that aren’t designed to support the level of security required to protect such information.

At the end of the day, it comes down to a question of trust. When you’re using the cloud, your data (whether public, sensitive, top secret and so forth) is being stored on systems which you may not own and which may not be under your control. Do you trust those entities to adequately protect your data?

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Mary Kyle

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mary Kyle is a full-time freelance writer, editor and project manager based in Austin, Texas. Formerly employed in various positions at IBM, Mary has more than 10 years of project management experience in IT, software development and IT-related legal issues.

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