What does cloud computing mean? Where did cloud computing originate? And what could it mean for your small business?
What is cloud computing?
Cloud computing is essentially the idea that you can store your data and your systems processes somewhere else, such as a datacenter (think Amazon, Google, Rackspace, or EMC). Depending on how much data storage is necessary, businesses pay for these services often through monthly fees. The term ‘cloud’ is actually a metaphor for the Internet in general.
The idea for cloud computing also owes some of its theory to the concept of paying fees for public utilities such as electricity or gas. Homeowners don’t have to produce their own utilities because they simply pay a centralized service provider to do so for them. In the same way, many businesses rely on cloud computing to store their data, manage their software applications, hardware installations, file services, and email. A user’s computer, therefore, might only have a barebones operating system and a web browser – all the remaining information can be accessed through the cloud.
To put it in simpler terms, if you use Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo! mail, or even client programs like Outlook, you are using ‘cloud based’ email services.
Where did cloud computing come from?
The cloud diagram that you often see today originates from images used to describe pre-Internet telephonic network design. Once computers were invented and became much more effective, they were clustered together to form a single larger computer. Users would access and communicate through command lines and protocols. Whatever CPU (central processing unit) was the most high-powered would be the one that ran the programs for the cluster. This is essentially the concept of ‘the Grid’, borrowed from the pay-to-play public utilities system. Grid computing expanded the “techniques of clustering… multiple independent clusters act like [an electricity] grid” because they are not located in a single domain.
These clustered computers were all physically connected, making it fast and easy to access any of the information on the grid. But what about computers that held data in remote locations? Problems with data residency (where the data is held) arose when CPUs thousands of miles away caused a delay in data recall; if this data was, for example, connected to the stock exchange, this could cause some serious economic problems.
As technology advanced and data recall/hosting became more effective, so did cloud computing.
What cloud computing means for small business: Drawbacks
Should businesses migrate their sensitive information to a third party source? How can banks, hospitals, and insurance companies trust these data storage providers to protect such information?
What if the cloud crashes? On April 21st of this year, Amazon’s hosting services called Elastic Compute Cloud crashed and took down such websites as Foursquare, Quora and Reddit. These sites are useful, but they are not critical websites that NEED to be accessed. What if Gmail’s cloud and host servers crashed? What would this do for the business world? What about servers hosting sensitive government information?
And what if these servers are hacked? What of ‘cyber-terrorists’ that may access and destroy or corrupt critical government information hosted in these datacenters? Are these datacenters secure enough to prevent such attacks?
Amazon’s EC2 crash is certainly fair warning as to the drawbacks of using the cloud to store information:
Any system or website faces the possibility of an outage, whether it’s cloud-based or not. But when a cloud provider goes down, it can take its customers with it. One of the concerns about cloud computing has been the implications of having a single point of failure for multiple sites or services. Amazon’s troubles could provide ammunition for that argument.
What cloud computing means for small business: Positives
With cloud computing, you can use sites like Dropbox or services like Google Documents to save, edit, and modify files that are purely stored online. This offers incredibly easy ways to collaborate with partners all over the globe.
With cloud computing, you can aggressively track who is visiting your website through services like Google Analytics. What browsers are your audience using? Where are your referrals coming from? How old are your followers? And so on.
Cloud computing also allows your business to take advantage of competitive software as a service applications (SaaS) that streamline the backend of your business processes. SaaS hosted on the cloud can provide your business with efficient CRM (customer relationship management) tools like Salesforce. Enterprise Resource Planning platforms can incorporate finance, accounting, human resources, manufacturing, supply chain management, and project management – all entirely hosted on the cloud.
While the drawbacks to cloud computing are obvious, it seems that the benefits massively outweigh the negatives. It is certainly something to research and look into as your business grows. The ability to ‘outsource’ all of your data and store it on remote servers is an incredible advantage and allows your business to be mobile, flexible, and ready to take advantage of any opportunity.