We're often told that cloud computing is the future, but making that assertion seems premature when arguments over what "the cloud" actually is continue to rage. Once that becomes clear, everything falls into place.
The world of professional IT is filled with buzzwords, but they're often undefined, misunderstood and abused. This week, our Myths And Realities series defines some much-discussed concepts and busts some of the myths that surround them.
What Cloud Is
Conventional business IT involves installing operating systems and software on servers which you maintain on your own premises. In larger businesses, that might involve setting up your own data centre.
With cloud computing, rather than installing software yourself and setting up servers, you access services as required via the internet and pay as you use them. Charging models vary: some cloud services charge per user per month; others measure the amount of use and charge based on that.
An important feature of cloud is that it is elastic and scalable. If you need extra resources during a period of high demand (such as a sale in your online store or running end-of-month accounts), you can upgrade temporarily and pay for that extra use, then scale back when you don't need that extra grunt.
Cloud is often sub-divided into categories depending on the services you need. Software-as-a-service refers to applications such as email, ERP or office suites. Platform-as-a-service refers to the platforms used for those apps, while infrastructure-as-a-service covers the underlying networks and OSes.
What Cloud Isn't
Anything that uses the internet. A cloud service should be scalable and elastic. Many online applications are neither.
Impossible if the service is hosted offshore In some specific industries (such as financial services), it pays to be cautious when using an offshore provider. However, blanket assertions such as "it's illegal to use an overseas cloud service" often don't hold up to scrutiny. Using a provider based in Australia makes sense if latency is a particular issue, but for many purposes the location of the servers that provide cloud services really isn't an issue.
Cloud: The Challenges To Accept
You can't always buy cloud services on a short-term contract The ideal cloud service charges you only when you use it. However, many software-as-a-service cloud offerings ask you to sign up for a 12-month (or longer) contract. Assess your needs carefully or you'll spend more than you need to.
Customisation is often a challenge In order to scale, some cloud options don't allow you to make many changes to the basic configuration. This is more often an issue with software-as-a-service, and it's something you need to check carefully, especially if you're migrating from an existing platform.
Management and integration need constant monitoring While individual departments may enjoy the flexibility of rolling out services as they need them without requiring those decisions to be routed through IT, the result can be a series of silos that can't easily exchange data.
Make sure you have network redundancy If your business becomes reliant on cloud services, it will also be reliant on always-on connectivity. What happens if your main network provider goes down?
Cloud picture from Shutterstock