What is this ‘Cloud’ and Are You Using the Best One?

The Cloud – Public Cloud, Private Cloud, My Cloud, Your Cloud. Why is computing so cloudy lately?

The Term “cloud” is a loosely defined term used to describe any internet-enabled computing technology. When you snap a picture or listen to music on your smart phone, chances are pretty good that file is stored in a cloud somewhere. Conversely, when you sit down to work at your office computer, there’s also a good chance it’s using cloud computing services, whether you know it or not.

The answer, then, to “do you have the best cloud for you?” is really dependent on what type of cloud you have and how you’re using it. There are typically three primary types of clouds structures; Public, Private, and Hybrid Clouds.

A good example of a Public Cloud is Google. Nearly every Google product – Gmail, Google Apps, Google Drive, YouTube, Waze, etc. – is a cloud-based application. There is, however, a key security concern with Public Cloud solutions – your data is typically “co-mingled” with other users data in the same databases and systems. This means that if someone is able to gain access, destroy, or shut down the systems serving the Public Cloud, everyone using it could be affected. And, with Google, that means virtually everyone.

A Private Cloud is usually a system owned by the business which is hosted in a secure datacenter. This is different than traditional on premise server solutions because, in a Private Cloud scenario, a centralized datacenter / server cluster may serve many different purposes for geographically dispersed offices or users. It differs from Public Cloud in that the business typically owns and controls its own hardware and infrastructure. This makes it more flexible and less vulnerable to attack.

One variation of Private Cloud infrastructure is a Semi-private Cloud structure in which a company, such as TNSC, provides clients shared Private Cloud infrastructures. In this scenario, while a company’s servers are sitting on shared hardware, each server is self-contained and any connectivity between the systems is firewalled. This means that your data is never co-mingled with another company or client. It also means that you can enjoy the flexibility, reliability and scalability of a Private Cloud without all the upfront cost to build the infrastructure yourself.

A Hybrid Cloud is typically a mixture of on premise servers and cloud solutions. For example, many small businesses now are using Microsoft’s Public Cloud for Email (Office365), while still maintaining local on premise servers for their line of business applications, and then add TNSC’s Cloud Standby servers for Disaster Recovery preparedness. This is a great way to get the best of Public Cloud, Private Cloud and on premise solutions in a cost effective manner.

Cloud Computing offers many advantages to businesses, such as reliability, scalability, and pay-as-you-grow pricing models. In Public or Semi-private Cloud computing contracts, the company providing the cloud usually is responsible for all maintenance, upgrades, repairs etc., thus making the computing more like a utility service. This model relieves the business of the headaches associated with systems lifecycle planning, capacity planning and budgeting etc.

Like most things in life, there are some tradeoffs and risks associated with Cloud computing which should be carefully considered before deciding to move a business system to the Cloud. Some of the key concerns are security, flexibility, and user experience.

The Cloud means that it’s connected to the internet which, by nature, means there is some degree of security risk. But – since using the Cloud is pretty much inescapable these days – it’s a risk we’re all taking together. The extent of the risk is dependent upon what type of cloud you’re using and what type of data you’re processing or storing in the cloud. Everyone is equally vulnerable to cyberattack; the level of damage incurred, however, is dependent on what data has been compromised. Using Google’s Cloud to email vacation pictures to grandma is fine (so what if a cyber-thug gets his hands on them?!), but I sure don’t want my social security number or medical records floating around Google’s Cloud.

Since Cloud Computing is designed to function much more like a utility service such as power or telephone companies, you can expect about as much flexibility with large public clouds as you can with large public utilities. Meaning, precisely zero. Companies like Microsoft – who provide email services at a rather inexpensive rate of $5 per user per month – simply do not entertain the thought of customization. That’s the tradeoff for the reasonable fee.

Perhaps the most overlooked tradeoff when planning a move to the cloud is the user experience. Cloud technologies usually have a slightly different look and feel than their on premise counterparts, and – depending on the specific uses for the cloud – may be a bit slower. Therefore, some business systems (3D CAD/CAM design or high-resolution medical imaging) are not a good fit for Cloud Computing. In addition, if you plan to integrate the data or functions of several different applications, for example, your accounting and CRM systems, cloud based applications make this more difficult to do.

Clearly, with the number of variables involved, the only way to ensure that you’re using the best Cloud is to be sure it’s designed around your specific needs and objectives. If you have questions about your specific needs and how cloud based applications can help, consult a qualified IT provider.

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