FEATURE: The cloud computing debate

Cloud computing is one of the clear future trends in the IT industry. It’s an old concept in a new package

BY ROGER KEENAN

IBM used to sell it years ago as ‘Business on Demand’ but it never got the traction that it has today and never took off. Perhaps its time had not come then, but the industry certainly believes it has now.

A few applications, notably salesforce.com has shown that the concept of having critical data, database and processing running virtually, with no physical presence associated with the enterprise can work and work well for a specific, well-designed application.

The biggest benefit of cloud computing is in scalability and is particularly applicable to small and medium-sized businesses. A company can start with one salesman and grow to an entire nation-wide or world-wide sales force without ever buying new hardware or new software, without having to worry about upgrades, hardware, software maintenance, upgrade issues or having to do much when a new member of the sales team comes on board. The sales management of the enterprise can get on with its job of selling, without worrying about all the peripheral issues like IT management. That’s a big gain.

It may also translate into direct and measurable cost savings as well. But that depends on the enterprise, the savings the supplier can make through economies of scale and the way the supplier prices the services. To get adoption from an uncertain user community, the supplier needs to price low to build momentum through market share.

There are also advantages in energy conservation. Certainly there are advantages in reliability, resilience and physical security compared with the small enterprise “server-cupboard-under-the–stairs” arrangement. However, those are the advantages that come from locating the physical equipment in a reliable environment and should really be attributed to moving from the cupboard to a good colocation data centre rather to the cloud. The green advantages are much less for a large enterprise, since the economies of scale apply less – 1,000 servers in the enterprise data centre consume just as much power as 1,000 servers in the cloud.

The biggest issues for the user community are security and control, and the cloud suppliers still have a lot of work to do on these to allay fears and gain adoption.

According to the Access Assurance survey recently published in SC Magazine, a shocking three quarters of participants are confused about who is responsible for the security of cloud-based data; the enterprise, the application provider or the cloud service provider. A lot of clever and well-paid lawyers are working very hard to clarify the overlaps at the moment.

The emotional questions go deeper than lawyering. If I’m the IT Director of a small business and everything goes wrong, I can go back down through various levels of resilience to recover. At the very, very bottom level, if I have a disc with my data on it, I can take it away to a specialist agency and recover my data (if I don’t have a disc and I didn’t have backup in place, that’s different and I’ll probably and deservedly get fired). But in the cloud, I have no disc, and I am totally and completely reliant on someone who I’ve never met having correctly operated procedures I know nothing about and have never tested. Giving up that safety blanket requires a leap of faith. Some will do it, some won’t.

Who can see my data is another big concern. As most IT professionals know by now, anything sent on the internet is liable to interception. Government agencies intercept vast amounts of data traffic and have massive computing power to decrypt and sort the nuggets of meaningful information from the enormous amounts of irrelevant data. GCHQ in Cheltenham for example. And anything that goes over US-owned infrastructure (which potentially means anything) is open to inspection by the CIA, FBI and NSA. In the cloud, no-one has any idea where anything is, so all of it is open to inspection and examination. Now, if I’m a distributor of pencils in Scotland that may be irrelevant. But what if I sell radars? Maybe the US Government thinks I might sell them to Iran? Or maybe I’m competing with an American company for a big order? Do I really want all my pricing information in the cloud? And if I’m inclined to believe in the innate goodness and integrity of government organisations, what happens if a commercial company with a big computer gets hold of my content?

So there is a long way to go yet. The user community has seen real-world examples of the cloud that work, and there is no doubt that this is an industry trend which will grow and whose growth will accelerate. But there are still a lot of very raw emotional concerns out there about the cloud, and the industry still has a lot of work to do to overcome them.

Roger Keenan is managing director of City Lifeline

 

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