IT & Infrastructure
Almost every business problem can be solved in part or in whole by IT using an astute selection of software and the hardware it runs on. Business can automate, capitalise on previously unseen trends and bring people thousands of miles apart together through IT.
Yet, even today, there are organisations that are relying on paper for mission-critical business processes. Most businesses are paying costly annual software licences when they can have similar software for free.
Onley Group can dramatically cut your annual IT bill. We can replace cumbersome business processes with secure, low-cost automated systems that get the job done effectively and release more value.
"Cloud Computing" or "The Cloud", is a revolution that has been sweeping through IT users and providers in the last two years. It offers all sorts of businesses the opportunity to save money on their IT, get new operations up to speed more quickly and do more business away from the office.
Much has been written about "The Cloud", however a lot of publications are full of technical jargon which makes the task of evaluating The Cloud as a business decision fairly tricky for managers unfamiliar with the technical field. Standing out from the jargon and hype, we, the Onley Group have produced this guide to explain in plain english what the Cloud is, and why it may help you.
As you will see, "the Cloud" is a very simple concept to understand when explained properly. However, moving to the Cloud is a big process and not a straight-forward business decision given the range of Cloud providers out there and spectrum of Cloud solutions. It also requires a phased approach to do well rather than an overnight switch. If you require expertise when it comes to thinking about the Cloud for your company, Onley Group will be delighted to help.
What is Cloud Computing?
"The Cloud" is a term to describe putting the software and data that your company uses, onto one or more high-performance 'data centres' run by a third party. It is a way of having access to all of your applications and data from any company network device (be that a laptop, desktop, PDA or smartphone).
Instead of having a copy of all the software your company uses installed on every desktop and laptop your company owns, one copy is installed on servers in the third party data centre. This central copy of software can then be accessed and used by all your computers via the internet, without the need to install it on any of your own computers. Similarly, "the Cloud" also describes moving all the data your company uses to third party data centres, again making it accessible to all computers in your company without the need to store it locally. Most of the time, your data and software is kept in the same data centres thus the software can then access and process the data entirely at the third-party data centre, drastically cutting down the amount of IT hardware you need to keep in-house. This means that every computer your company owns only needs to have a bare-bones operating system plus a modern web browser installed to be able to access everything your company needs. All you need apart from the stripped-down computers is a basic local network connected to the internet.
When using The Cloud, since a company's data and software are stored in third-party data centres, data has to be transferred across the internet between the data centre and your employees computers whenever a company document is edited or read. To ensure your data is not intercepted, data is moved using "secure sessions" where it is encrypted before transit and decrypted on arrival. The data centres themselves typically have high levels of security ensuring that only users with the correct credentials can access your company's data and software.
Cloud providers make money by effectively renting out the storage and processing space of their data centres to businesses. This means that the data and software of multiple businesses exist at the same time on the same servers in the data centres. However due to the way the servers are setup (using a process called "Virtualisation"), data and software belonging to one business is inaccessible to anybody apart from that business. So it's a way of getting more out of the same machines.
The data centres owned by Cloud providers are usually large-scale, powerful and resiliant in the case of power-cuts, internet outages and physical damage to machines (e.g. fire / flooding). This is achieved by the virtualisation process whereby your data and software is stored in several places on several servers (around in several geographically separate data centres), so that if one server or even a whole data-centre fails, your software and data is still available to you. The virtualisation process also allows the data centre to automatically dedicate more storage space or processing power to your company should you suddenly need it (such as rapid expansion of your business). Cloud providers therefore usually charge clients based upon exactly how much they use the service rather than the number of servers their software and data runs on.
Real world examples of "Cloud" applications include Gmail and Google Docs your e-mail and documents are stored on Google's servers alongside the Gmail and Google Docs software required to access and edit them. All you need to send and receive e-mails and manipulate your documents, is a web browser and an internet connection. Another example is Dropbox, whereby you can place lots of files in a secure directory on the web, and retrieve them in any internet connected computer anywhere else in the world.
Naturally a range of spin-off terms have evolved due to the Cloud phenomenon. These are quite logical when explained properly:
"Client" = any computer, or user that is trying to view / edit data or use software that is stored on the Cloud
"Server" = a specialised type of computer that stores and processes data, providing it in a usable format for a Client to use. Servers stacked together so they can operate together makes up a "data centre"
"Thin Client" = a desktop, laptop, or mobile computing device that has been stripped back so very little software is installed on it itself. All it contains is an operating system and a web browser which is used to access all your software and data hosted by the Cloud provider. This contrasts with "thick clients" which are the traditional desktops and laptops each filled with their own copies of software (such as MS Office).
"Virtualisation" = a process that happens at a data centre whereby multiple businesses and users can share the same physical server machines, but their data is kept functionally separate due to the way the servers are configured and one business' data cannot interact with another. If the servers are programmed in such a way as to be aware how much 'load' each of them has, they can be programmed to automatically redistribute data and processing to less busy servers in the data centre to improve performance. This intelligent automation of resources allows businesses access to more storage space or processing power if their usage increases.
"Autonomic Computing" = whereby a series of servers automatically assign the various data processing and storage tasks between them to ensure the optimal performance of those servers. This approach allows them to cater for wide fluctuations in demand.
"Software as a Service (SaaS)" = putting software into a data centre, allowing any client computers access to the functionality of the software through a browser, without having to download and install the software themselves.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Cloud Computing
- Potentially lower cost - by using Cloud services, you are billed for what you use (rather than having to have extra redundant server space that is unused except for the occasions where demand peaks). You can also dramatically cut down the numbers of in-house IT staff saving wage bills. You also do not need to fork out on software licences for every computer you own as one copy of the software is stored in the Cloud.
- Easier maintenance - each of your own computers are stripped down to a bare-bones operating system and web browser, making them standard across the company and very easy to maintain and replace when broken.
- Lower barrier to entry for IT projects - there is no need to buy and configure more servers when launching a new department or new project which requires more IT, you can simply rent more from the Cloud provider often at a moment's notice. Start ups can gain access to enourmous computing power without needing to build capital to buy their own servers.
- Device independence - the same data and software can be accessed no matter what type of device is used, be it a desktop, laptop, iPhone, Android smartphone or PDA.
- Remote working - employees working away from the office or from home can connect to exactly the same data and software as they would have if they were in the office, meaning less need to tie employees to their desks.
- Potentially better reliability - depending on the selection of Cloud provider, most operate in large 'Tier 3' data centres, which are data centres with storage, power and hardware backup redundancy that also have backup data centres at different geographical locations, ensuring your data and software is accessible no matter what disaster befalls a hard disk or server rack.
- Scalable - you can have more storage space and processing power on-tap, and the amount allocated to you can increase automatically as you need it.
- Performance - a good Cloud provider with good load balancing operating in a proper Tier 3 data center can out-perform most home-brew company server racks in terms of storage space, processing power and equipment condition.
- Potentially Better Security - Reputable Cloud providers operate in reputable data centres which are configured with physical and virtual security in mind. By restricting who can physically access the servers your data is on, and who can log in to the servers remotely, security can be better than your in-house efforts.
- Standardisation - all company's computers have access to the same applications and potentially the same data. Updating a Cloud application or Cloud data means all computers instantly begin using the updated application or data.
- Security - Whilst security can be better, often it is worse, especially regarding remote (virtual) access. Choice of Cloud vendor is very important as you are putting your company's data security and potentially reputation in the hands of someone else. Ultimately Cloud vendors are there to make money and aspects of their service which do not directly create revenue (such as security) are often under-resourced. Whilst servers themselves may be secure, the applications installed on them may have vulnerabilities allowing unauthorised access to your data; with many servers and many clients to watch out for, Cloud providers may miss detecting and patching these vulnerabilities. Co-hosting of other services on the same servers as part of virtualisation can to some degree compromise your security whereby certain vulnerabilities of another company's applications can cause a server to be compromised, leading to a hacker being able to access all data going through that server, including yours. In Cloud computing you can rarely fine tune user access permissions to the same degree as private servers. Often only a few tiers of access permissions are provided. Examples of major Cloud security breaches include where a flaw with Yahoo's password recovery system enabled the hacking of famous users' Twitter accounts.
- Support Response time - In-house IT teams typically boast response times of minutes to hours. Cloud vendors who are sometimes under-resourced in personnel typically respond in the order of days, potentially increasing your downtime.
- Potentially more costly - A pay as you go service might work out more expensive in certain companies where usage is consistently high thus running own internal data centres would be sensible. Investment banks with large data analyses to perform, and leading web retailers are potential examples.
- Privacy - The service agreements with Cloud providers often permit the provider to monitor your usage and view your data, or do not mandate sufficient barries to prevent the Cloud provider from doing so. This has implications when the data is extremely sensitive or mandated by law to be kept confidential.
- Pipe limited - All data that a Cloud customer uses has to be transmitted between the data centre and users, thus requiring good internet connections between the two. An office block of 1000 employees simultaneously using Cloud apps would frequently saturate a 100Mb bandwidth connection resulting in slow transfers. It is not just bandwidth that counts, latency (the delay between asking for data, and it arriving back) is important for Cloud software to be usable. Latency and bandwidth depend on your connection, how busy your connection is, the Cloud vendor's infrastructure, the vendor's connection, the vendor's geographical location and how busy the vendor's connection is.
- Downtime - Even big Cloud providers get it wrong. Although large Cloud providers boast uptimes in excess of 99.9%, this applies to their whole data centre(s) or an average figure of all customers. Therefore if you happen to be on of the users experiencing downtime, this can be much longer than the 45 minutes per month the figure would suggest. The slower response times of Cloud providers compared to in-house IT teams mean an outage can persist for longer and cost you more than you saved by moving to cloud. The likelihood of downtime depends on the vendor, and the cost of downtime to you will depend on your individual IT needs and business sector. An example of major downtime was Amazon's EC2 Cloud failure in April 2011 which took businesses Reddit and Foursquare offline.
- Dependence on vendor solvency / legal status - Your entire company's data and software becomes dependent on the operative state of your Cloud provider. Many jurisdictions including the UK have legal provisions which allows a Court to seize equipment for the investigation of merely an alleged criminal offence. Thus should an unscrupulous customer use the same Cloud provider as you, whole data centres could be seized. Should the Cloud provider become insolvent, your data and software could go down with them.
- Performance variability - As a Cloud provider fills up with customers, the load of their servers and storage increases, meaning less is available for you to use at peak times. Should a Cloud provider fail to keep pace with demand by installing more capacity, the performance of your data and software can suffer as time goes on. Few Cloud providers write guarantees of server headroom and maximum loads into their service agreements.
- Little / No support for bespoke applications - cloud providers often only support commonly used applications (such as Word processing, business intelligence and spreadsheet applications) plus a small range of platforms (e.g. some providers do not support Java-based applications). Thus more obscure or specialised business systems may not be usable with some Cloud providers or even on The Cloud at all.
When to use Cloud Computing
Cloud computing cen be immensely beneficial for the right range of businesses when they pick the right vendor, in the right location, that has the right infrastructure, right security arrangements, and right platform support. However there is no situation where moving to a bad cloud provider is favourable!
Client businesses that stand to benefit most from The Cloud include businesses that:
- Are service-orientated (rather than manufacturing a physical product)
- Are dependent on collecting and processing data
- Have multiple employees performing similar tasks
- Have multiple offices / business sites
- Have employees who undertake field-working away from the office (in areas where internet readily available)
- Have widely fluctuating usage of IT across days or weeks
- Use 'hot-desking' at their offices
- Rapidly develop new IT products, or rapidly expanding into new fields
- Depend on remote collaboration / employees working from home
Alternatives to Cloud
Putting your entire faith and majority of data and IT in the hands of a third party vendor is not the only option available when it comes to getting the benefits of The Cloud. Depending on your business type, size and the things you use IT for, a whole spectrum of Cloud solutions exist ranging from having everything on a desktop computer, right up to throwing everything onto a third party Cloud data centre.
Desktop installations with a LAN network drive:
In situations where a business has only a few computers, or has employees who each require a different selection of software programs, a humble server on the company's own internal network (LAN) with network storage may suffice. This allows employees to store data centrally, and with basic backup precautions, uninterruptable power supplies, intrusion monitoring and detection, and hard-disk redundancy; data can be kept safe. Simple secure protocols like SSH / SFTP can provide remote access to data. Software is still installed and run on each computer, but software licensing costs can reduced to nothing by selecting Open Source components. In-house IT support will still, however, be required.
LAN client-server "private clouds":
In situations where companies have numerous desktops or laptops that all need to use a similar range of programs, but where security is paramount and the individual access permissions of each employee needs fine tuning, a Private Cloud may be ideal. Businesses which handle very sensitive data such as medical records, trade secrets or governmental information may have a legal obligation to keep such data on-site or entirely separate from the Internet; in these cases a Private Cloud will suit.
A Private Cloud is where a set of servers owned by the business itself is usually installed on the company's own internal network (LAN). This local 'data centre' hosts all of the software applications and data that employees need. Each desktop / laptop / mobile device is simply a basic operating system plus browser which accesses all the data and applications by connecting to the internal data centre. Secure remote access is still possible through SSH and SFTP for example.
Private Clouds do still require in-house IT expertise, and a limited range of company-owned computing hardware. However, the benefits are a highly customisable centralised, standardised computing environment which the company can tweak precisely to its needs.
Hybrid Clouds or "Combined Clouds":
Where companies need large-scale centralised data and software for regular tasks such as word processing / spreadsheets / communications / handling client accounts, but who also ship around highly sensitive data or want to run very specific unusual software, a hybrid model can suit. This essentially is where the majority of the non-specialised and non-sensitive data storage and manipulation is done on a third party vendor's Cloud service, but the very secure or very specific tasks are kept on the company's own "Private Cloud" servers. All company desktop / laptop computers can have seamless access to both the third-party and the private Clouds.
A smaller degree of in-house IT support is required compared to doing the lot on company-owned infrastructure.
Cloud Computing can offer incredible benefits to all sorts of businesses. However, these benefits can only be realised when the correct Cloud solution is chosen, from the correct provider where applicable.
Onley Group provides a full Cloud Appraisal service. We have helped many large to small businesses evaluate their IT requirements and identify the ideal IT setup, Cloud solution and vendors for them. Our Cloud Appraisal service also ensures our clients know what to demand and expect from Cloud vendors, and what terms to seek and avoid in contract agreements.
If you are considering migrating your company to the Cloud, it is important that you get proper advice before making the big switch. Get a quote today for our Cloud Appraisal service.