Overview of Cloud Computing

Here is a guest commentary that Dr. Janet Bailey and I wrote on cloud computing for Arkansas Business.  Hopefully it will de-mystify some of the buzz around the concept! Open-mouthed smile

Business in the Cloud (Guest Commentary)
By James Parrish and Janet Bailey – 6/7/2010

Cloud computing is the current IT buzz phrase being tossed around as the next "big thing" that will propel businesses to newfound success. But what exactly is cloud computing and is it right for your business?

Cloud computing is an umbrella term. Sometimes it’s used to describe grid computing, which is combining multiple computers to provide increased computing power. Other times it’s used to describe utility computing, a model that offers on-demand access to third-party infrastructure controllable and configurable only by the third party. This model is metered and similar to paying for electric service. 

Cloud computing has aspects of each of these concepts and others. Cloud computing provides access to powerful and scalable third-party computing infrastructure and is most frequently paid for on a usage basis. Customers don’t control or configure the infrastructure. 

Despite similarities, cloud computing shouldn’t be confused with grid and utility computing. So why is the term used generically? First, it’s much easier for a salesperson to sell his offerings because of the popularity and hype of cloud computing. Second, it’s easier than explaining how current offerings differ from the cloud. Finally, there are three different flavors of cloud computing: software as a service (SaaS), platform as a service (PaaS) and infrastructure as a service (IaaS).

Many businesses are already using SaaS, a cloud environment that allows customers to use a provider’s applications over the Web. If you are using Gmail, Google Docs, Office Live or many other Web-based applications, you are already using cloud computing.  Some providers have relabeled hosted applications as cloud applications.

PaaS allows businesses to develop and deploy applications to the cloud using programming languages and tools either provided or supported by the cloud provider.  While the business doesn’t have control over the infrastructure, it does have control over the application. Examples include Microsoft Azure, Google App Engine and Force.com.

Finally, IaaS is leased access to computing resources such as processing, storage and networks. In addition to applications, businesses also have control over the operating systems and, in some cases, networking components such as firewalls. Amazon Web Services, Joyent, Rackspace and VMware are examples.

As with any change to your information systems strategy, determining whether cloud computing is right for your business requires a hard look to evaluate whether cloud computing – in any form – will support and be supported by your business and organizational strategies. Here are some questions we recommend a business consider:

  • Does my business have a static or dynamic need for computing resources? A key feature of cloud computing is scalability. Computing resources can be rapidly and easily provisioned on demand. If you have major spikes in the demand for computing resources or you are rolling out a new initiative and unsure how much computing power will ultimately be needed, then the pay-as-you-go structure of the cloud may be advantageous compared with the maintenance costs of an infrastructure that sits underutilized much of the time.
  • Does my business need to provide access to corporate data outside of the company firewall? Cloud computing offers access to third-party hosting of applications and data and, depending on provider, links to the on-premise applications you deem necessary without the need to open a port or create a VPN, or virtual private network.
  • Does my business have the capability or desire to manage advanced computing infrastructures and the information systems they support? Since cloud providers maintain the computing infrastructure, you can reduce costs in four main areas: 1. cost of the infrastructure, 2. staff to maintain the infrastructure, 3. physical space to house the infrastructure and 4. electricity necessary to operate and cool the equipment.

Cloud computing will not and should not replace all your current infrastructure.

Many issues involved with choosing a cloud provider should be considered if and when you make the decision to pursue cloud computing, such as security, level of service, capabilities and flexibility. If used correctly, the cloud has the potential to save you money and provide a competitive advantage.

(James Parrish, an assistant professor of management information systems at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, was the mentor for the Imagine Cup team that won the Cloud Computing Award at the Microsoft Imagine Cup National Finals. Janet Bailey, an associate professor of MIS at UALR, is a leader in the cloud arena through her research and work with Microsoft’s cloud platform.)

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