consumer experience, enterprise solutions, regulation, technologies

Breaks in the Cloud

What is Cloud Computing and what can it offer businesses?

A foggy November afternoon cloaked the new-build surroundings and military grade security around BT’s anonymous Cardiff Bay datacentre. I guessed at a right turn and considered that the subject of Cloud Computing was rather suitable. After offering my details to an intercom box, a man on the other side gave precise instructions where to park and a pair of mean looking gates clanked apart.

CloudsThe event was entitled “Cloud Computing – What Can It Do For My Business?” and was organised by the Digital Communications and the Digital Systems Knowledge Transfer Networks, in partnership with Cardiff County Council.

My understanding of the Cloud was mainly confined to experience of Google Docs and Salesforce.com. It’s clearly an area of massive business scope as well as deeper-laid ambiguities. My primary question concerns the relationship with applications – desktop, mobile or tablet. Where do they fit in the Cloud equation? Are they part of it or separated, or both? A couple of people offered long convoluted replies, but I’m not sure there’s a simple answer.

Speakers explained subsets of Cloud in more detail..

  • Software as a Service (SaaS) – our familiar Hotmail and Gmail solutions, together with those regularly used for large businesses, such as salesforce.com
  • IT as a Service (ITaaS) – on demand tailored services giving rapid, measurable elasticity and location independent resource routing
  • Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) – where full Operating Systems live within the Cloud, such as Amazon, although fully fledged platforms like Google’s are considered to be more popular.

..and Cloud types,

  • Private (secure and usually expensive because of that)
  • Public (open solutions such as Hotmail etc.)
  • Community (solutions for groups such as Healthcare sites)
  • Hybrid (initial capacity for business only but with the ability to ‘burst out’ into public communities for short term campaigns: ideal for charities).

A BT representative mentioned that ‘Cloud’ was delivered directly from the building. I wondered if that meant it was always misty around there.

I suspect all of these subsets are open to argument, different names and interpretations. With transient media like this the semantics of what you call everything will often be contentious.

Other tricky issues surround regulation and governance. Who owns the data, where does it live and what happens if there’s a leak? This has, up until now, inhibited wide governmental adoption. (Presumably carrying CDs on trains is thought to be safer). But trust issues were palatable amongst members of the audience: the murky cartel or alliance question was pitched, and countered with ‘maturity before regulation.’

For all the murmurs of discontent, substantial evidence exists to suggest Cloud Computing is the logical next step for IT as customers expect access to services on demand. Some say it’s set to take the ‘T’ out of IT altogether.

But it’s not new.

Cloud Computing has been with us in various forms for a long time. How old is your Hotmail account? Cloud has simply grown more sophisticated, practical and competitive. Microsoft Office 365 now competes with Google Docs, betting companies employ campaign-based solutions, many in the Financial sector use the private Cloud.

What of the solutions and their customers?

Salesforce.com is one of Cloud Computing’s guiding lights, a CRM package – as many Cloud Services are, at their bare bones – which can coordinate the progress of sales and leads, tracking communications and relationship progress. BT engage also resells NetSuite – a financial package, Sugar – a CRM for SME suite, Ribbit – a voice-to-text CRM solution, and BT eSignature – a solution for generating contracts. These are solid utilities.

A presentation from BT engage IT (BT’s IT Services division), illuminated how larger players with better known brands are performing simple but effective reselling functions, adding margin to this with implementation specialism. BT engage IT apparently banked £1million last year in deals with small to medium sized businesses through this model.

In doing so its main customers were Chief Information Officers and those in Business Change, seeking to work smarter and freer, unchained by location or software. Businesses ranged from security solutions providers and banks to retailers, recruitment companies and even a Garden Centre.

Cloud Computing is here now, working well in unlikely pockets of industry as well as those larger corporations to which it would appear well suited. Issues linger which probably won’t have a short-term answer, such as regulation and resilience. It would probably be wise not to throw all a business’s Cloud eggs into one basket. Employing a dual provider strategy or at least having a reliable contingency option would be recommended.

Greater mainstream adoption of the Cloud will follow, and with it should come improved efficiencies, more fully mobile workforces and intuitive web-based solutions.

I left the seminar at dusk, the fog just beginning to thin away.

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