What is the Cloud – Really?

Did you know that the typical clouds you see on the average day are called cumulus, and the clouds that are visible during a thunderstorm are often nimbostratus? There are actually dozens of different cloud types, and they all appear in different, specific atmospheric conditions.

Like in meteorology, all things in the world of technology are very specifically defined to make sure computers and users know how to make things work. Computers are given both names and numbers to identify them on a network; applications are given names, version numbers and build numbers to identify them on a computer, and devices are assigned a unique identifier to make sure they work properly when attached.

When you start talking about “the cloud” in terms of technology, things get surprisingly vague. microsoft Office 365 is a cloud service as are Dropbox, iTunes, Netflix and Amazon’s Web services. unlike meteorology, the technology cloud is still a bit loose in its definition. Now the that term “cloud” is popping up in commercials, print ads and on prime time TV shows, it is time to understand how it might affect your organization

 

First, we need to understand the cloud in general, but before that, a little technology primer. Traditionally, a company would build a facility to house servers, communications equipment and wiring. The servers in this room, in general, are assigned a task; some authenticate users, some store data in the form of files and folders, while others take care of specific corporate applications.

Think about your organization — you most likely have a server for accounting, email, production management, sales tracking and customer management. All of the computers on the corporate network have access to these servers when they
are attached to the network by wire or wireless connections or connected into the network via a secure VPN connection. In most cases, a corporation with multiple facilities would connect each remote site back to the network center via expensive, dedicated communication lines. so in general, the network is a collection of managed, private computers and servers.

To understand the cloud, let’s consider one application, email, and how it works both in and out of the cloud.

Email is frequently housed on a server (or servers) in a corporate network. That server requires floor space, power, another server as a spare (because we cannot be without email, right?) and a server for backup management. Generally, an email server also requires spam prevention, virus protection and remote access for users, so they can access email while out of the office, as well as access so users can receive
and send email from the mobile devices. Because email is communicating with other servers outside of the organization, it also needs special considerations in your corporate firewall. All of that complexity usually requires special working knowledge of how to manage and maintain all of those working parts – that means IT staff (people, training, certifications, benefits, etc.).

Cloud-based email removes all of that complexity without eliminating any of the functionality of having the servers kept in house. You still get your email, calendars and contact management in Outlook (or your choice of client application). With email in the cloud, you eliminate the need for dedicated hardware, along with all of the complexity that hardware brings. moving email to a strong cloud provider will generally result in better spam and virus prevention, increased uptime and more robust remote and mobile access options.

The cloud is not free and it is not without worry. While moving email to the cloud will eliminate all the cost associated with the server your email is managed from, it will add cost in the form of a monthly per-person license fee. Cloud email services from companies like Microsoft and Google can cost anywhere from $5.00 to $25.00 per month for each user. These fees never go away, and email now becomes another utility bill. As with everything else, a cost comparison between keeping your in- house service and outsourcing to the cloud is required.

Email is not the only option if you are looking to move to the cloud. Cloud versions of office productivity suites are available from microsoft and Google. Many vendors are offering cloud- based (also know as saas) versions of popular accounting and payroll suites. There are even options for outsourcing your entire network infrastructure to the cloud.

What is good about moving to the cloud? You entrust the complexity of managing your systems to people who can focus on managing that one system in particular. right now, your current IT staff needs to be master of all IT, while the outsourced email provider has staff who can focus on that one area they have expertise in. moving to the cloud also gives you some built-in disaster preparation. If a catastrophic event happens to your network and you have outsourced email, you can still send and receive email, as long as you can connect to the Internet.

Cloud negatives? You are handing over your important applications to someone else, and you are now one bad Internet connection away from not getting email or sending the payroll files to the bank for payment. You should also pay attention to the provider’s Terms of service (Tos) for things like uptime and accessibility. In addition to the Tos you also need to pay attention to the privacy policy — how are they protecting your data from other users of their service or from evil-minded hackers?

As with any other long-term investment, you need to compare both the advantages and disadvantages of moving from your current network infrastructure to a more cloud-based infrastructure. Do your due diligence, get feedback from others in your industry, and check with your value-added resellers to ensure that you are making the right move.