Ever so often, in your company’s IT department, you’ll hear someone say, “Why live in the desktop when you can live in the cloud?”
At this point, nobody is going to blame you if you wonder what the IT department has been smoking. It might pay to get on board though, tiresome as it may seem. After all, you just finished mastering “wet lease” and came to terms with “rainmaker”, and now there’s “cloud” to contend with. In the world of jargon, there’s never a drought, is there?
But the good news is that “cloud” and “cloud computing” are swiftly saturating, lurking in the corridor of every company that wants to bring down costs and be liberated from the “tyranny of the geeks”. In other words, IT departments are simply using the term—made sexy by Google’s Eric Schmidt in 2006 to describe his company’s approach to Software as a Service (SaaS)—in a bid to describe the client-server model (hang in there, we’ll translate this too, in just a moment).
To begin with, we’ll get rid of your chief anxiety-inducing question: What if I don’t use cloud? Am I a technological troglodyte?
Chances are really low that you are not already using cloud computing. If you use a Web-based email service (such as Hotmail, Yahoo, Google, GMX or Gawab), you are already using “cloud”. Congratulations.
But this might leave you scratching your head and asking, “So, what’s new then?” Well, what’s new is that cloud computing has now begun to radically change the IT business, transforming it for large and medium enterprises as well as for individuals such as you and me.
Assume you have a small business or run an NGO. Using a Web-based email service helps you do three invisible things: move the load of computing from your desktop or laptop to a machine owned by someone else on the Net; stop adding storage space or backup devices as the volume of your emails grows; and not purchase the software on which the email runs. Yes, as a business and as an individual, you are not buying software licences any more. And you are still on the right side of the law. How cool is that? Because anyone who runs a business is familiar with the nightmare of buying additional licensing as the workforce grows (for specifically business-related cloud computing services, see “Nine ways to live among the clouds”).
Even if you’re not a business owner or manager, but have used Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Flickr, Photobucket, YouTube or Vimeo, you are a veteran cloud user. If you use Google Docs to store, share and collaborate on your documents, you have moved a step ahead on the cloud computing platform and qualify as an advanced user. And if you’ve begun to use Wikis for content management and collaboration, you are perhaps a cloud computing champ. In fact, you are qualified to use terms such as “distributed-access workspace” just to confound everyone and effectively keep competition anxious.
The SaaS syndrome
At this point, you may wish to describe cloud computing as “Internet-based computing, whereby shared resources, software and information are provided to computers and other devices on demand, like electricity”. That’s the simple Wikipedia definition. Notice how it also carefully includes a rough-around-the-edges definition of SaaS.
When you put software on the Web and make it accessible to multiple people, you get SaaS. “Because SaaS can be designed to be modular and ‘pay-as-you-go’, it has become the hot option over software that you buy, own and keep paying licence fees for even when you are not using all the features of the package,” says Darshan Jadav, CEO of Pune-based Widget Factory Software, a decade-old company that has expertise in financial software and offers small and medium businesses with supply chain management capability in cloud.
Fundamentally, Widget Factory brings SAP-style resources to small firms in the area of pay, accounts, inventory management and control, HR management, business intelligence and reporting tools. What providers like Widget Factory enable for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) is the ability to use and pay for what they need, without having to worry about platforms, infrastructure, software upgrades, availability, backup and crashes. “Best of all,” points out Jadav, “they don’t need an IT team to run around managing complex technology. Cloud takes the headache out of computing.”
It’s raining convenience
What cloud does is reduce start-up costs for enterprises by bringing down investments in hardware, controlling spiralling software and hardware upgrade outlays and shrinking IT maintenance crews.
But what does it do for you and me?
To begin with, thanks to cloud computing, you can work from anywhere and access your data even when you are not on your own computer. Your data and software applications are available to you regardless of where you are, as long as you can log on to the Internet.
Besides, with your data living in cloud, you become machine-independent—whether you have a PC or a Mac at your disposal, you can access your data just by opening a browser.
So if your computer crashes you needn’t worry about your data—just move to the next terminal and continue working. A few months ago, Vishal Bali, the CEO of the Wockhardt Hospitals group, lost his laptop. It wasn’t the hardware that he was worried about—he needed urgent access to data to continue with his meetings. Perhaps, if the data were maintained in cloud, there would have been a silver lining.
The dark cloud?
But there is probably good reason he didn’t put it there. Because cloud computing usage is also going through a serious reality check on the security front.
No one wants sensitive company data to sit on a computing grid that is shared by others—including the competition—unless it is secure. So the question is, what happens if your cloud computing provider’s systems are hacked or compromised? A June 2008 Gartner study, Assessing the Security Risks of Cloud Computing, said cloud computing had associated risks in the areas of data integrity, recovery, privacy and even legal issues such as regulatory compliances (for example, you may not be comfortable with local privacy laws where your data is being stored if it differs from your own country’s) and auditing. These issues are being addressed as standards are being developed by Cloud Security Alliance (www.cloudsecurityalliance.org) and other organizations.
Meanwhile, SMEs and individuals don’t need to get overly apprehensive. What large enterprises—and governments—are debating is somewhat similar to what we were wondering about a decade ago when we walked around with floppy disks: What if I lose the disk? We lived through that, right?
DRIVING A DIFFERENCE
Honestly, what’s so great about cloud computing? Here’s an off-the-beaten-path (but on the road) example to set you thinking.
You own a car. And you plan to keep it for the next 10 years. Aren’t you lucky the car does not have an onboard computer? Because if it did, the computer would be outdated in a couple of years. Which is why auto manufacturers are reluctant to install powerful computers on the dash, preferring to have simple things such as GPS devices there. But if you could install a device that accesses the computing power in a cloud, it would make for a killer app. The thrust here is on keeping it relevant through the life of your investment, since a car’s life spans 10-15 years on average. So, while the actual computing device would remain the same, the cloud computing power behind it could keep improving, providing the car with a value-for-money feature that you don’t have to pay to upgrade.
NINE WAYS TO LIVE AMONG THE CLOUDS
Cloud-based services beyond email and social media that you may want to explore
Meant for project management on a reasonably large scale. Assign tasks, create and share Wiki-style information, track projects, store project artefacts, maintain to-do lists, even create Gantt charts, workflows and milestones. Pay-as-you-go pricing.
Basecamp is a project management and collaboration product of 37Signals (a Web-based software firm). Adidas, Hard Rock Café and DHL are just some Basecamp users. Works with a variety of mobile phone apps for third-party planning, reporting, time tracking, billing and invoicing applications. From $24 (around Rs1,200) per month onwards.
A lighter competitor to Basecamp, with document and project management capabilities, such as Office-on-the-go. Has a free version.
Content management and sharing tool for business, education and personal use. PBworks is great to use when you have a community sharing information, such as a birdwatchers’ club or a cooperative housing society. It’s also ideal when you are collaborating with customers or collating data, such as an NGO that wants to capture knowledge from a variety of different sources, or from organizations to individuals. Pricing will depend on the services you want to use.
Flexible, industrial-strength, open-source Wiki tool for collaboration, document management, and creating and using a knowledge base. In use by global enterprises such as consultants, mobile service providers, IT support companies, publishing firms, travel agencies, career matching services and so on. Pricing will depend on the services you want to use.
From $5 a month upwards, this suite of applications hosted in the cloud helps manage sales contacts and capture leads from your website. It lets you use lead management, reporting and analytics as well as delivering scalable CRM (customer relationship management) tools. Used by Su-Kam and Bajaj Finance, among others, in India. Pricing will depend on the services you want to use.
This is a Chennai-based company with outstanding credentials and an approach that lets it stick its neck out: Novatium provides Desktop as a Service, Software as a Service, and a complete virus-free computing environment. Novatium markets thin clients: low-maintenance machines that connect to a central server, from where software and data is accessible for computing. Novatium turns all computing into a service, like a utility: You pay for it when you switch it on, much like electricity. Makes a great option for educational institutes that want to offer computing power to all their students, but don’t want to make a large upfront investment in hardware and an IT maintenance team. Pricing will depend on the services you want to use.
Lets you host your applications without having to own the hardware. This is a really low-cost and reliable solution for start-ups that need to build and test applications before moving on to their own infrastructure (if at all!). Each app costs $8 per user per month. No payment required while the app is in development.
Data files (video, photo, music, docs) spread across your laptops, desktops and mobile phones can be replicated across all the devices by just updating them in one place that is hosted in a cloud. Makes data loss impossible and makes sharing a breeze—just share the appropriate folder you want with anyone. 2GB storage free. Dropbox, in turn, uses Amazon’s S3 cloud storage service as a back-end. Pricing will depend on the services you want to use.
Arun Katiyar is a content and communication consultant with a focus on technology companies. He is a published author with HarperCollins and has extensive media experience spanning music, print, radio, Internet and mobiles.
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