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Cloud Computing – What businesses should know

Posted by millionking on August 10, 2012

Whether you are a manager of a business or an IT professional, you must have heard about cloud computing, one of the hottest buzzword on the Internet these days. Originating from the idea of utility computing, in which computing power can be provided as a service, the cloud promises a huge boost in efficiency for companies by reducing hardware and maintenance cost. In fact, as industry leaders (including Microsoft, Google, Amazon…) now embrace this technology as their strategic weapon, cloud computing is quite capable of becoming “the next big thing”.

How does that impact your business? Well, thinking to move your business on the cloud today may give you a competitive edge in the future. But it also comes at a price. The cloud has always been a realm of uncertainty, and its benefits tend to be exaggerated by massive marketing campaigns to overshadow its drawbacks. Nevertheless, cloud computing seems to have grown into a major trend for the near future. Is it your time to take off? Possibly, but first let us calm down just a little bit and see what awaits your business once you make a move!
The benefits

Cloud computing offers a lot features that, when utilized, can bring the following advantages:

Flexibility: by employing the “pay-as-you-go” service model, businesses are liberated from physical resource limitations. Not only can storage space, processing power, and virtually everything else be allocated on-demand, but you also have to pay for just exactly what you need. This is similar to what already happened with electricity and water. For many businesses, it means cost-saving, reduced manpower and simplified processes.

Scalability: one of the most appealing feature of cloud computing is that it allows for near infinite scalability, so that you no longer have to worry about your hardware being unable to catch up with the growth rate of your business. This is also very important to companies with seasonal workload, as they will always have enough resources even at peak time, and still don’t need to maintain any idle components when demand drops.

Capital investment: cloud computing solve the problem of IT spending by outsourcing most of the tasks, including hardware procurement and maintenance, to cloud vendors. Given the fast-changing nature of technology, where a piece of hardware can become obsolete in a relatively short time, senior managements will be relieved to transfer much of the risk to someone else. And that also means they will have more money in hand to deal with other urgent issues of their business.

Portability: with globalization, enterprises now often scatter across many countries, and they can make use of cloud computing to access computing resources from anywhere on earth. All they need is a moderate PC (also called thin client) and an Internet connection, which are quite ubiquitous. As geographic boundaries are blurred, enterprises find themselves with more freedom than ever before to operate in a global environment.
The drawbacks

Though the benefits of cloud computing sound very compelling, it’s wise to remind ourselves that nothing is perfect. Now let’s take another look at the dark side of the cloud! Some of the most notable pitfalls are:

Dependability: migrating to the cloud may also mean that you’ll have to give up control over your critical application and data. This is the main barrier for businesses which worry about the reliability of cloud services. And it’s a legitimate concern, as it has happened more than once that Google and Amazon have their services offline for some reasons. The problem here lies in the cloud vendors: they need to be able to guarantee about their quality of service (often explicitly stated in the Service Level Agreement) before companies are willing to take a move.

Security: where are the data stored? Even though some cloud vendors are kind enough to let you specify the region for data storage, most of the time you will not know exactly which physical servers are holding your sensitive information. What if those same machines are hosting applications from your main competitor? What types of isolation are there to prevent unwanted access? Which measures are employed to protect your assets from other common threats such as virus, Trojan horse, or DoS attack? While professionals are busy finding the right answer, some enterprises are now content with the hybrid cloud model: to move only unimportant part of the business to the cloud and keep the most valuable ones in-house.
Migration guide

Ok! Enough for the analysis! Now that you have some basic ideas about the gains and losses of cloud computing, you should be able to answer for yourself whether a migration is appropriate. Theoretically, cloud computing is great for SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises) as these businesses don’t have an abundant cash flow and the saving made by the cloud can help them concentrate their limited resources on core business processes. Of course, large corporates can benefit as well. The important thing is to know your situation and make sure you have several reasons to justify your action. Should you consider migrating, here are a few steps to start with:

Build your plan: just as with every non-trivial thing you do, you need to have a plan. Which components do you want to migrate? And which should remain on-premise? Generally, critical systems where integrity is top priority, such as domain controllers and servers that perform financial calculations are not a good choice to move, while web servers and mail servers will make some ideal candidates. Keep in mind that it actually depends on your specific circumstance, the decision is yours to make!
Execute your plan: there are three main phases in the migration process. The first phase is legacy data conversion, which converts old data into a new format compatible with the cloud environment. Next, the converted data will be loaded to the new system. Finally, a verification program will be run to ensure data transfer was a success. Due to the inherent complexity of the job, you may want to ask the cloud vendor for support or hire some professional consultants to deal with sudden problems, but the best way to identify potential pitfalls is to perform a trial upgrade before risking your valuable data. Though this is quite time-consuming, it will help avoid issues that are costly to fix once the execution has started.
Provide post-migration support: this step usually involves training to help user familiarize themselves with the new system. Note that the more educated your users are, the less effort you’ll have to put into help desk service later on, so make sure your employees are well-equipped to adapt to the new changes.

Conclusion

Though there’re certain concerns about the reliability of cloud services, the benefits it brings are real and interesting in many aspects. Migrating your business to the cloud might be your most important decision to make today, yet the process is complicated at best, so proceed with caution! A well-prepared plan will significantly reduce the risk and allow you to reap the full reward. Still, dependability and security remain the two major issues for the coming years, but should you be willing to take on those challenges to lift your business to a new high, the cloud is yours for the taking!

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