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Is It Time to Join the Cloud?

Wondering if joining the cloud is the right move for your company? It’s a question that many CTOs have considered recently as the advantages of cloud computing are frequently heralded as the next evolution of managing an IT infrastructure. Moving your IT infrastructure to a cloud could save your company money on hardware and software costs, it could save time by providing maintenance and management for your data, and it can save resources by eliminating the needs and requirements for equipment storage.

However, any shift from the norm is met with some fair amount of healthy skepticism. And no company should hastily make the switch to cloud computing without first examining the disadvantages as well as the advantages. The reality is there is no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to cloud computing and ultimately the decision must be made by examining the needs and operational requirements of each company and comparing these to the available cloud computing  services

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Understanding the benefits of cloud computing first comes by examining the three different levels of service that cloud computing can provide: infrastructure-as-a-service, platform-as-a-service and software-as-a-service.

Infrastructure-as-a-service, also known as hardware as a service, uses virtual machines to connect to a partitioned space on the cloud servers. The local computers connect through via the Internet to the cloud server that does all the heavy lifting. The obvious benefit here is that it eliminates the cost of an in-house infrastructure – companies do not need to invest in capital expenditures like servers, data center space, and network equipment to get up and running. You can still use your own software, but it is all run on the cloud instead of your local computers. This is a great option for small, startup companies because they can immediately have access to an enterprise-grade infrastructure for a fixed monthly fee. Some vendors of hardware as a service include Rackspace, Sunguard, Cloudscaling, Amazon, Google and IBM.

The next level of cloud computing is platform-as-a-service. This option provides you with a development platform where you can develop software applications for the web. The cloud provider takes care of handling the loading for you and ensures your applications are elastic with the number of users. Think of Facebook as an example of a platform as a service provider. Third party developers can write new applications that Facebook makes available on their social application platform. Google also provides APIs to developers to build web applications. This service is useful for software development companies because the cloud provider facilitates the development of applications without the cost and complexity of buying and managing the underlying hardware and software provision hosting capabilities. You have all the facilities required to complete the development life cycle, from development, to testing, to deployment, to hosting, to maintenance in the same integrated development environment. This is a useful solution for companies that want to focus exclusively on software development because it relieves their platform woes. For companies that already use a platform internally, the platform-as-a-service advantage is that the cloud platforms are designed to scale linearly. Cloud development platforms have guidelines that help the application scale to accommodate any number of users. SalesForce.com’s Force.com is an example of a platform as a service vendor

The highest level of cloud computing is software-as-a-service, also called software on demand. Here, companies simply use software on a cloud rather than buy it, license it, upgrade it, and patch it on their local machines. Anyone using a service like Yahoo Mail or Google Docs is already using software as a service cloud computing. This is the most popular form of cloud computing because it is highly flexible and minimizes the maintenance of software. This service is best suited for companies that are not specifically in the technology business and simply need their software to be available and require little maintenance. Even companies who already have their own software should look into using software-as-a-service if they spend a lot of time on the maintenance of in-house software. There are many providers of software-as-a-service, including Amazon, Microsoft and Google.

Now, while many of these cloud computing solutions sound beneficial, there are still some disadvantages to take into account before jumping into a cloud. Keep in mind that all of these services require an Internet connection. If your connection goes out, you won’t be able to connect to the cloud and use the hardware, platform, and/or software that your company requires to operate. In this case, companies may want to still invest in some local infrastructure so operations do not come to a crashing halt.

Another concern is that some companies are apprehensive about turning all their data over to a third party (not to mention, it can be a chore to migrate massive amounts of data to a cloud). How can they be sure their data is protected? What if the cloud server is hacked? While these questions should be investigated, remember that cloud computing services live and die by their reputations, so information assurance is a high priority for all of them.

These fears of cloud computing stem from the fact that your company is at the mercy of a third party. There is a loss of control and it is not a predictive as having a local infrastructure. If something goes wrong, you have to depend on your cloud provider to respond and troubleshooting can be very complicated. Many companies are still reluctant to give up control over their data.

But with these warnings in mind, cloud computing has many general advantages that all companies can appreciate. Company data is backed up and secured by your cloud provider. Less equipment and hardware saves space and reduces electricity costs. Users have access to the same data and software no matter how geographically diverse. With less time spent on “keeping the lights on” with in-house maintenance, CTOs can better spend their time and resources on future growth. And with a fixed cost structure for the service, you can better allocate your IT budget.

Companies may want to consider first testing the waters by using an existing cloud offering as an extension of their in-house architecture. Then, if the company is comfortable with the service, they can move new projects to cloud-based services. Finally, the company can migrate their existing applications to the cloud if the cloud is reliable and it makes sense economically.

In the end, it is up to each individual CTO to determine if the advantages of cloud computing make sense for their company. This can only be determined with a thorough assessment of the costs and requirements of their technology needs and comparing it to the costs and risks of a cloud computing service. While it may be economical for some companies, it may not be for others. But for every company, it is worth at least worth the time and effort to look into.

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