Taking to the cloud, part 1: what is it?

In the first of a two-part introduction to cloud computing, Stephen Blyth looks at basic cloud concepts. Part two covers the key things your organisation needs to look into when selecting cloud services.

There is a lot of hype surrounding what cloud computing can offer organisations. Clearing away the hyperbole is crucial if you want to understand what the cloud can and can’t do for your organisation.

What is different about cloud computing?

The biggest differences between most organisations’ existing IT system and cloud computing is where the technology is located, who looks after it and how you pay for it.

People sometimes liken using cloud services to renting a motel room. You rent a studio, one or two room unit for as many days as you need. If you need an extra room for an unexpected guest you simply book another unit. The motelier owns the building and looks after the facilities.

Rather than your organisation owning major items of computer hardware, space is rented on someone else’s computer hardware. Payment is typically per month, per person. This hardware is accessed over the Internet, and comes bundled with software. No Internet connection = no cloud.

The companies which provide cloud computing services own the hardware. They are also responsible for maintenance. This applies equally to Microsoft or Google with there massive datacentres, as it does to a small company around the corner offering to back-up your data and host an online database.

What often stays the same is the software you use on the cloud. For instance, if you currently use Microsoft Outlook or Thunderbird for email, then can you still use this when using the cloud. You desktop computers, an office network, a fast broadband connection and someone to look after all this don’t change either.

Of course, there are many, many different cloud services available. You can transform your entire computer system and the way you work. Or you could move the current set-up as it is into the cloud. Maybe using a cloud service for one project or task is what suits your organisation. In the cloud, almost anything is possible.

Features of the cloud

On the face of it cloud computing offers many benefits to not for profit organisations.

Built into many cloud services are:

  • Ease of access from desktop PCs, mobile phone and other devices
  • Painless administration which makes it easy to add/ remove users, and change what people can do
  • Back-up versions stored in more than one place.

The options for ready-made services online multiply every week. These types of cloud services can be used in a pick ‘n mix way. Services available include:

  • Back-up services, eg Mozy, JungleDisk
  • File storage, eg DropBox, SkyDrive, GoogleDrive
  • Communications, eg Gmail, Microsoft Exchange Online
  • Productivity, eg Google Docs, Office365, Zoho
  • CRMs and fundraising software, eg SalesForce, eTapestry.

For those that want more than pre-packaged software and services this is available too. Take a blank slate then add the software you want to. This is essentially what people selling virtual servers or virtualisation services are offering. The term Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) has been coined to describe this approach. Under this model, every aspect of set-up is customised to your unique needs.

Virtual servers are normally paid for on a pay as you go monthly basis, and accessed over the Internet. Companies such as Amazon web services and Rackspace sell virtual space. You will need experienced IT support if you’re going to use these types of services.

What is the cloud good for?

As shifting to the cloud can involve some significant changes to your IT system, it’s not something that should be done lightly.

Writing for the ICT Knowledgebase, Morgan Killick says the cloud is better suited to some situations, rather than others. He says the most common challenges the cloud can address are:

  • Access to genuinely free or low cost functions
  • If you want IT costs to be an entirely predictable monthly fee
  • A need to respond rapidly to fluctuating numbers of staff
  • If the users of a given IT system are spread thinly over a number of different bases
  • If you cannot afford to invest in maintaining, upgrading or replacing existing hardware.

As all this technology sits on the Internet somewhere, having a reliable, fast broadband connection is essential. Upload speeds are just as important as downloads, as files are saved remotely using your Internet connection. Quality broadband is not available in all parts of rural Australia and New Zealand.

If the cloud seems a good match for some or all of your organisation’s IT requirements, then you will want to dig deeper into what it takes to shift. 

A second introductory article on cloud computing will help you decide on a cloud computing provider. 

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Charl du Plessis, of Hamilton IT Services, and Martin Bester if SmartBest Technologies for answering my many questions.

About Stephen Blyth

Stephen is a freelance project manager, writer and advisor from New Zealand. His specialty is working on web-based projects for organisations striving for environmental or social change and other good causes. Stephen understands how community groups work so he knows how to stay within tight budgets within organisations where people are the focus (not the tools). Prior to becoming self-employed he worked for government agencies for over a decade in community engagement, funding and capability building roles. In his spare time he tills the soil, climb trees with his two young children and squeeze in some volunteering with Wellington ICT. He writes about all this stuff at: www.commonknowledge.net.nz.