The Cloud: To Surf or Not to Surf

You're running late for an appointment when you realize you forgot to pay the light bill, and it's due today. Rather than scramble to get to a payment center by 5, you simply turn to your trusty smart phone, right where you are, and pay the bill online.

Welcome to cloud computing, where software and information are stored on the Web and accessible through multiple devices, including smart phones, wherever the Internet is available.

From a business perspective, the cloud - essentially, the Web - saves customers money by eliminating the need to purchase computing infrastructure and allowing them to simply rent it from a cloud provider such as Microsoft Azure. It affords small businesses, especially, the chance to cut costs by outsourcing those infrastructure needs - servers, disk drives, software - and pay for only what they need and use.

"Businesses no longer have to worry about their major IT resources and facility upgrades, which usually require careful planning and major budget spending," said Kenji Yoshigoe, assistant professor for computer science in the College of Engineering & Information Technology at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. "Instead, they can rent more resources to meet their demands as their businesses grow."

Of course, there's a side to the cloud on which the sun doesn't always shine. Last fall, whether they wanted one or not, users of T-Mobile's Sidekick smart phone were treated to a crash course in the dark side of cloud computing.

The tutorial took place the first week of October when a Microsoft server failure - or, as many speculate, a botched upgrade with no working backup - led to a massive service interruption and loss of users' personal data. Much of the data was eventually restored, but the initial loss and service outage shook industry confidence in the cloud to the core.

 

The Next Big Hype?

Depending on whom you talk to, the cloud represents either the future or the latest round of hype that also entails some risk.

Either way, it's more integrated into people's lives than most realize.

"Cloud computing is much more prevalent than you might think," said Steve Hankins, founder of Accio, a Fayetteville technology-management firm. "A huge number of Web sites are hosted in the cloud - Google search, Google Docs, Bing, Amazon Web services, YouTube. A large number of e-commerce applications are hosted in the cloud. Financial applications hosted there are growing rapidly - one example being Netsuite.

"Most of an individual's Internet use today involves cloud computing."

Many in the industry are wary of putting all that potentially sensitive data out there beyond the owner's direct control.

"While cloud computing has some benefits, I believe that the risks far outweigh the benefits if you weigh them accordingly," said Ted Clouser, executive vice president of PC Assistance in Little Rock. "For example, the concept of sending my confidential business data 'into the sky' so that it can be stored on servers in places I don't know, managed by people I can't see, and shared with people I don't trust sends bells off in my head louder than I can imagine.

"We all read the papers - we know there are people committing crimes every day and doing things that we don't want to be a part of. Do we really want our data sitting out there somewhere, being shared with people who run their businesses in a way completely polar opposite from us?"

Clouser believes the cloud has been around for a while in various formats, despite its recent emergence as a popular practice.

"Cloud computing is just starting to really take off, but there are some legitimate arguments that cloud computing has been around for a while," he said. "In reality, Citrix or any sort of remote connectivity is, in a sense, cloud computing."

Facebook, MySpace and Yahoo mail are all examples of the cloud, he says.

"Cloud computing takes the Facebook concept and sends our accounting data, confidential business intelligence, e-mails and customer-relationship management solutions to the same locations and gives us a Web interface to access them," Clouser said. "Where cloud computing differs is when everything goes into a Web format. When we use a Web browser to access data over any connection, that becomes cloud computing."

Hankins believes the cloud is here to stay, pointing out a study by the Gartner Group that predicts the market for cloud products will grow from $46 billion in 2008 to more than $150 billion by 2013.

"While it can't be said that cloud computing is appropriate for everything, for the majority of computing applications it serves well," he said. "I think it will represent the majority of future technology implementations."

Hankins believes the cloud is a no-brainer for new businesses that would otherwise have to invest in some expensive infrastructure.

"You don't have to build server rooms and worry about special air conditioning and pay someone to take care of everything," he said. "All of that stuff can be rented by the month. You can get world-class software, much better than you can afford to buy outright, and pay for it by the month. You can size it for what you need today and grow it as you need to grow. You pay for only what you need and use. There's no huge down payment required just to get started.

"You can get to everything you need and work from anywhere you have an Internet connection. No special trips to the office. Maybe no real need for a big office that everyone has to come to for work. With everything living in the cloud, your data backups and disaster recovery are already taken care of for you. Less worry, better cash flow and better software."

 

A Matter of Trust

Clouser, though, is hesitant to trust someone else to back up his data. After all, thousands of Sidekick users assumed Microsoft was performing that function for them.

Ultimately, cloud computing represents a leap of faith. Users are forced to trust cloud providers to protect their information. Laws were implemented in late 2008 to ensure that financial institutions and creditors adopt measures to protect consumers against identity theft, but what's to ensure that Microsoft won't suffer another breakdown like the one that affected Sidekick users?

Remzi Seker, associate professor for computer science at UALR's College of EIT, specializes in security issues. He says businesses looking to incorporate the cloud need to thoroughly assess their needs and expectations before taking that leap.

"Every company that wants to utilize some services of cloud computing needs to sit down and think of what services it wants to receive, do their cost-versus-benefit analysis, and do a risk assessment," he said. "Quality of service can greatly vary based on what service you are utilizing and with which service provider you are utilizing it."

Take the leap, Seker advises, if it benefits your company. Just don't take anything for granted.

"Service-level agreements have to be crafted such that the customer - the company that receives the cloud computing service - is not liable from issues that may arise from the service provider. Asking questions on how, for example, confidentiality of your data will be preserved by the service provider is one of the most basic questions I would ask.

"Before making a decision, I would want to answer the following questions: Can I do it better? How much am I saving by going to the cloud way? What are my long-term gains and how does cloud computing fit into my vision? What are the risks and do I feel comfortable with this service provider after I asked all my questions and received their response? Does my decision make good business sense - reducing cost, not sacrificing security and quality?"

Security and control issues aside, Clouser believes the trend toward cloud computing simply represents a transfer of funds.

"First, an Internet connection becomes absolutely critical. The cloud argues that rather than investing in expensive servers, you invest in the cloud," he said. "However, you also need to factor in Internet redundancy to make sure that you have 100 percent access to the Internet at all times. Everyone could certainly use their phones, or an air card from a wireless provider, but those all cost money, too.
"Cloud computing will change the way everyone spends their money, but it is not the silver bullet. The money will still be spent - you'll just have a lot less control as you send your complete business future into the cloud and rely on others to keep it running for you.

"You'll lose 99 percent of all control and will be at the mercy of the cloud with minimal control of decisions regarding upgrades, changes, enhancements, etc. The cloud has more to do with the cost shift of your IT expenses more so than the user experience."

None of which has scared off one Arkansas startup from embracing the cloud. Capsearch.com is a Little Rock Web-based legislative research service that is banking on the cloud being more than just the latest hype.

"Cloud computing allows us to keep up with our clients' needs," said Capsearch chief technology officer Karl Hills. "With the amount of data utilized in today's Web applications, cloud computing gives easy and cheap access to store and access the data needed."

Otherwise, firms like Capsearch might not be able to afford the startup costs.

"Cloud computing has the potential to provide on-demand computing for anyone with access to a terminal and an Internet connection," said Matt Price, Capsearch CEO.

Yoshigoe agrees that the cloud offers some tantalizing benefits, but thinks it'll take some time for the concept to fully catch on.

"It is already taking place and will certainly become a mainstream of how businesses can effectively cut their IT budget," he said. "At this point, however, many businesses are still reluctant to embrace the idea of letting the cloud, which is many miles away from their desks, store and manage their sensitive data. So, it will take some time before they fully trust it and jump in to the new way of running their business."

That trust is being put to the test in California. Last fall, Los Angeles signed a five-year, $7.5 million deal with Google to provide e-mail and other Office apps to its roughly 30,000 city employees.
"The success of that will play a huge role in the future of cloud computing," Clouser said. "There have been concerns raised about security of the data, and rightfully so. It will be interesting to see what transpires."

In the meantime, smart phone users - Sidekicks notwithstanding - will keep on keeping on.
"Cloud computing makes you able to get just about any information stored in the world from your cell phone," Hankins said. "It means that people will continue to stare at their phones a lot."

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