Cloud-cuckoo land?

John Hope-Bailie, technical director at Demand Data

While there is still a significant degree of hesitation and uncertainty about the viability of ‘cloud computing’, an increasing number of businesses are getting to grips with the technology in South Africa, so says John Hope-Bailie, technical director of Demand Data.

Easy enough to understand in concept, the ‘cloud’ is actually a metaphor for the Internet and stems from the cloud icon that is used to depict it in computer network diagrams. The cloud is therefore an abstraction of the underlying infrastructure of the Internet.

What is probably more difficult to grasp is that cloud computing represents a new way in which IT services are delivered and consumed by companies and individuals, often involving the provision of virtualised resources as part of the service.

Despite a perceived level of complexity, the new breed of cloud computing service providers are at pains to point out that it is mostly common business applications that are provided, all of which are easily accessed from a web browser.

Sometimes confused with traditional hosting options, there are three unmistakable characteristics that set cloud computing apart.

Firstly, cloud computing services are sold on demand, typically by the minute or the hour. Payments are made either as a utility (similar to an electricity bill) or as a subscription.

The services are flexible. A user can have infinitely varying amounts of the service – at any time. And, finally, cloud computing services are fully managed by the provider, with the user requiring little more than a PC and Internet access to get started.

With the last point in mind, a key benefit of cloud computing is its ability to help users avoid capital expenditure on hardware and software.

The applications most suited to the cloud environment are Software as a Service (SaaS), Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), and Platform as a Service (PaaS).

SaaS is the broadest market. Through SaaS, companies can access applications and large amounts of virtual computing power without buying it, dramatically cutting setup and maintenance costs. These applications can be anything from data storage solutions and web based email, to Facebook and Twitter-type social networking.

IaaS is an evolution of web hosting and virtual private server offerings. It represents the delivery of computer infrastructure as a service. Rather than purchase servers, data centre space or network equipment, clients instead buy these virtualised resources as a fully outsourced service.

PaaS is a set of software and development tools hosted on the service provider’s servers. Developers can create applications using the provider’s application programming interfaces (APIs). Google Apps is one of the most popular Platform-as-a-Service providers.

One of the advantages of the cloud computing model is its low barrier to entry. Risks are limited as contracts with service providers are often covered by service level agreements and – should the worst scenario play out – they can be cancelled at any time.

Cloud computing supporters believe the technology will simplify business processes, at the same time adding value to software applications and lowering costs by moving the epicentre of IT applications outside the confines of traditional businesses. They also expect cloud computing to help them provide more cost-effective services to their customers, improving efficiencies in the process.

Perhaps it is significant – given the threats lurking on the Internet – that any hesitancy about cloud computing tends to centre on security. Antagonists maintain the move ‘to the cloud’ may open the door to unauthorised access to sensitive information and corporate secrets.

The reality is that security in the cloud is often as good, if not better than that found in traditional systems, mainly because cloud computing service providers are prepared to devote sizable amounts of time, effort and resources to resolving security issues – which their customers cannot afford or lack the in-house skills to achieve.

Moreover, security is greatly increased when data is distributed over a wider area or a large number of devices – as it is via the cloud.

One of the major variables when opting for a cloud computing solution is performance. Users may have a performance level in mind that could be exceeded – or not – depending on any number of criteria, mainly associated with capacity levels at the service provider or the bandwidth available at a particular user site.

When looking at cloud computing options, users should have a clear idea of what their tolerance level would be for latency – and establish whether the service provider is able to regularly, reliably and contractually meet this benchmark with the infrastructure at his disposal.