Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Is Your Head in the Cloud

Lots of articles, ads, surveys and research being published these days about the "Cloud." Apparently, there is this mythical vapor land where we can suddenly and magically fulfill all of our computing dreams for mere pennies. In fact, company employees have discovered they can venture into this wonderland without even involving IT.

So what is the Cloud?  I'm not going to explain the difference between IaaS and SaaS but rather point out that the "Cloud" has been with us for a very long time. It just floated out there under a variety of different names. Yes, there are some differences in the offerings today, but fundamentally the Cloud is nothing more than timesharing reincarnated and scaled up to epic proportions.

Way back in the 80's it was possible to request a "virtual machine" and even change its characteristics on the fly. Service bureaus provided processing capabilities that could be accessed remotely. Software could be accessed while it ran on shared systems housed and operated remotely by third parties.

Even today, though seldom thought of it in these terms, companies use lots of "cloud" services (SaaS) for payroll processing, customer tracking and benefits management. We've all been using e-mail in the cloud for years!  Every hear of AOL, Hotmail, Yahoo or MSN?

So what's so different and why all the hype?  In a word accessibility. Never before has so much power and capability been so easy to obtain. You need a few terabytes of storage for a week? It can be obtained from a variety of sources instantly with a credit card.  You want to process 50 million records of purchase data? You can grab a couple of dozen processors and analyze it in short order, again, using a credit card.

Computing power, memory and storage have continued to increase while their unit costs decline. The major cloud service providers have enormous economies of scale. This has created new opportunities. In some cases, it is economically feasible for companies to displace large portions of their internal technology infrastructure or perhaps some applications with external services.

But this is not a panacea. There are many issues and concerns that do not go away when engage a cloud provider. In fact, all the same security, reliability and performance issues you have with internal systems must be addressed in this brave new world.  But that is a story for another day.

Captain Joe

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