Heads in the Clouds

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When I was a kid, I used to lie on the front lawn and stare into the sky. For countless hours, I’d try to identify shapes in the clouds.

These days, my head is still in the clouds, except it has nothing to do with meteorology. I spend much of my day working on a Web browser, running software that sits on an anonymous server — also known as cloud computing, or software as a service (SaaS). Although I still have a few boxes of software sitting on my shelf, my shift away from installing applications locally is well under way.

And I’m not alone. The Pew Internet & American Life Project reported recently that 69 percent of online users now employ cloud computing in one form or another. Anyone who uses Hotmail, Gmail or Facebook is working in the cloud.

Further, in the wake of the success of Salesforce.com — an on-demand customer relationship management (CRM) solution — software vendors have been scrambling to produce online offerings, leading Gartner to project that cloud computing soon will be pervasive.

It seems this transformation is a result of three closely related paradigm shifts:

  • The ubiquitous availability of high-speed Internet access for businesses and consumers.
  • The move from static Web 1.0 pages to dynamic Web 2.0-based applications.
  • Increased demand from mobile users.

Before these shifts, only a conventional desktop, laptop computer or LAN-based server had the guts to support a full-featured business-productivity application. Mobile devices had neither the horsepower nor the wireless network capability to support anything beyond simple messaging. Running rich apps remotely was science fiction, and the Web was an extensive collection of mostly unchanging HTML-based content.

But today’s Web-based apps are increasingly capable. While the Google Docs feature set doesn’t yet threaten Microsoft Word’s desktop dominance, adoption promises to lighten the complexity and cost of IT infrastructure in situations that don’t demand a full-blown desktop app. Besides, Web apps will continue to evolve and may eventually eclipse their desktop-installed software ancestors.

It’s easy to see why so many CIOs and IT directors are starting to stare at clouds, too. Instead of maintaining multiple licenses, integrating the software into complex, PC build configurations and managing ongoing software upgrade projects, cloud computing allows companies to simply subscribe to the service.

For a relatively straightforward monthly per-user fee, the vendor delivers the app via the Web, supports it, maintains back-end data integrity and backup, and owns the upgrade schedule. Huge capital investments in software upgrades are no longer required. Users can access their data and apps from any device, anywhere — no syncing required. It’s as close to real time as it gets.

However, cloud computing comes with a cost. Namely, control: You’re forced to give some up when you sign on. You no longer own the box where your app lives. Your service-level agreements now must include a vendor that may or may not be able to deliver the same quality of service that your in-house shop has been delivering for years. Your data could be anywhere. And you have no idea how secure — or insecure — it truly is.

Security takes many forms, of course. And for small companies struggling with maintaining Exchange servers in hidden closets, outsourcing business-critical services could be just the ticket. We all know people whose businesses suffered server meltdowns that took them offline and forced expensive, time-consuming restoration.

A friend of mine who runs a PR agency curses every time he has to reboot his mail server. “I’m running a business,” he says, with a sigh. “I don’t have time to fiddle with a server that hasn’t worked properly from the day I bought it. This isn’t my thing.”

Soon, it won’t be everyone else’s “thing” either. The IDC predicts that by 2012, IT will triple its spending on cloud services to $42 billion. Further, spending on cloud computing will account for 25 percent of total IT spending growth by then, and almost 33 percent by 2013.

While it’s perfectly acceptable to question whether cloud-based solutions protect your precious data as well as more traditional solutions do, it’s easy to forget just how risk-prone the average business-owned-and-operated technology can be. If you asked me whether I trust my last five years of data to a distant Google data center or a rickety server in the back of my office, don’t be surprised when I choose to keep my head in the clouds. I suspect you would, too.

Carmi Levy is a technology journalist and analyst with experience launching help desks and managing projects for major financial services institutions. He can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.

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