These days, marketers and media alike are focusing their attention on the “cloud” creating a lot of interest and buzz.  But what exactly is the “cloud”? This term is sometimes used as a metaphor for the Internet  as a whole.  In business, it really refers to the software platforms and infrastructure delivered as services via the Internet.  In some ways, almost every organization is operating in the cloud already.  Websites, social media, email, online meetings and video calls are all examples of cloud computing.

Typically, end-users access cloud applications via a browser or mobile device, while key information and back-end software are stored and processed on remote servers controlled by a third party.  To be more formal, we can use the definition from the EU Agency for Information Security (ENISA) which defines cloud computing as “an on-demand service model for IT provision, often based on virtualization and distributed computing technologies.”   They further break down the types of services.  SaaS has the most visible offerings which run the gamut from free applications targeted to consumers (think Hotmail, YouTube, Flickr, etc.) to vast systems targeting businesses of all sizes (Microsoft 365, Salesforce, WebEx) and those who target both  (Google Docs, Skype).  But platform as a service or PaaS (Amazon Web Services, Azure, IBM SmartCloud) and hardware as a service or HaaS (Dropbox, OneDrive, Rackspace)  form the backbone for countless transparent transactions.

Before the explosion of the Internet into our day-to-day lives, computing systems were typically self-contained and deployed on-premises under the charge of an information technology department.  The personnel might have been outsourced, but most equipment was kept in-house. All aspects of communication, hardware, software and networking remained under internal control, including the buying, repairing, upgrading, patching and maintaining of systems and software.

However, the advent of the the web revolutionized the focus of computing by allowing realistic off-premises storage, connectivity – and most of all – content and application creation.  For the first time, computing power could be distributed across multiple servers in multiple locations.  This allowed economies of scale to be factored into expansive offerings.  The workforce became increasingly mobile as virtual private networks and telecommuting gained support.  Marching alongside these innovations were cloud services targeting consumers.  These enjoyed increasing popularity which, in turn, created a comfort level with new technology. Internet speed and capacity increased, and soon the reasons for holding onto the traditional model began to break down as users (and management) demanded the flexibility and choices offered by doing business in the cloud.

Benefits of cloud computing

The benefits of cloud computing are numerous.  It has been touted as especially helpful for small- and medium-sized businesses as it levels the playing field, allowing for the deployment of up-to-date technology and tapping into untold computing power without costly expenditures.  For many, working within a cloud-based framework allows for both flexibility and savings.  These systems allow information or resources to be accessed anywhere, at any time, by anyone who has the right credentials. In addition, cloud computing allows organizations to focus on their core competencies, rather than expending precious resources on IT infrastructure needs.  Vast, scalable computing resources are available near real time, with pay-as-you-go models.

Incorporating cloud services is designed to be flexible, easy and efficient.  It can be done piecemeal to avoid disruption or all at once to maximize efficacy.  Equipment maintenance, patches and much of the ‘up-time’ risk is taken over by the cloud vendor. Software is automatically updated and backups, redundancy and disaster preparedness is handled behind the scenes.  In fact, many providers are giving their cloud-based offerings priority over their on-premises solutions.  Cloud computing, in many ways, is the future.

The Risks

The “cloud” industry is expected to grow at more than 20% a year, five times faster than the IT industry as a whole.  Even though the offerings have matured, not everyone is convinced that cloud computing is the right choice: highly-published snafus like the recent Heartbleed security flaw throw a spotlight on the perils of increasing interconnectivity.  The clearest risks revolve around control, specifically around the security and privacy of data.  Many companies are simply not comfortable moving critical data assets outside their own organizations.  Even the most rigorously audited cloud vendors might not pass scrutiny in highly-regulated industries.

There are other challenges with moving data or operations to the cloud, including questions of data ownership.  One murky area is determining which company has the fiduciary and legal responsibility for the data: who is subject to subpoena, disclosure, claims or discovery – the host or the data creator?  Can the vendor be obliged to provide information to legal authorities without the client’s knowledge or consent?  Another contentious topic is the location of the back-end systems that run the cloud.  They can be located, literally, anywhere in the world. As different countries have very different privacy laws, this factor alone can be a showstopper to certain types of deployments.  Other issues include the challenges involved with the co-mingling of data and the difficulties with direct access to data sources for legal, security or HR teams.  Although most cloud providers have provisions for all these situations, their solutions may not be as flexible as on-premises systems.

Specific concerns affect some industries more than others.  Users who transfer large files or enormous amounts of data may be concerned about speed across the internet, while others may wonder what happens to records if a cloud-based provider doesn’t work out.  How data is extracted, in what timeframe, and in what format are all legitimate questions.

With all these areas of concern, it becomes clear that due diligence is needed when researching cloud-based solutions.  Some providers, such as Sherpa Software, address these issues by using a hybrid cloud approach where data never leaves the customer site.  However, to best answer the question of whether the convenience of cloud computing outweighs the challenges, research your options carefully.  Calculate specific scenarios based on your business’ total cost of ownership for each business function under consideration.  Read Service Level Agreements (SLAs) with care and make sure all questions are answered before committing to a decision.  Only this way can you confidently decide whether the risks are worth the rewards.