How Silver is the Lining in the Cloud?

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To many, the cloud is still a bit foggy. The idea of giving up all of your stored photos, documents, applications, software, data storage space and network equipment to that great server farm in the sky is tantamount to emptying all the bookshelves and walls of your home or office of every personal effect, and then calling them up - George Jetson-style - only when you need them.

silver lining cloud On the face of it, cloud computing seems to take the "personal" out of the personal computer. Our desktops have become part of the family at home and at work, and the file-loaded laptops we take with us to the coffee shop and the conference room give us a feeling of being almost as ubiquitous as the Web. But the deeper we go into the cloud, the more silver its lining becomes.

What's In There

Cloud computing is nothing new, but its pace into the mainstream for small businesses and homes has increased dramatically recently. Email services, backup services, and services like Google Apps, QuickBooks Online, Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) and Vendor Managed Inventory applications are examples of the cloud providing businesses and consumers alike with low-cost solutions for everyday file storage and software use.

There are three types of offerings associated with the cloud, the most common of which is Software as a Service (SaaS). Typically with SaaS, a software vendor offers software as a service on demand, hosting the application and allowing you to store your files on their secure servers.

Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and Platform as a Service (PaaS) are models in which workspace environments are created allowing enhanced web hosting and the ability to create and deploy applications without having to bother with all the underlying hardware and software.

Flying Through It Safely

There is no evidence to support the notion that the cloud is less safe than on-site computing. Trojan Horses and viruses have sent thousands of personal computer users scrambling for security fixes and backup drives. That's not to say the cloud is a completely safe place. Here are a few guidelines to safer cloud computing:

Backups

Understand your service provider's backup routines and policies, and if possible back up periodically to your own servers on site. Disaster Recovery

Disasters happen. Make sure your vendor's disaster recovery procedures will get you back on your feet quickly.

Encryption

Not all vendors offer encryption. Do your research to make sure your vendor offers secure document and data handling. Password Policy

Create a password policy for your organization. Password protection is the weakest point of entry in the cloud, so strong passwords that are changed frequently are the best way to protect your goods online.

Technical Support

Before turning your organization's data over to a cloud computing vendor, make sure you have phone numbers for customer service and tech support, phone numbers that reach people.

The Good, The Bad, The Thunderstorms

The adoption of cloud computing is being driven by higher bandwidth, better security and the availability to smaller businesses and consumers of the types of software functionality that was formerly only available to larger enterprises. Many of the most commonly used types of applications have become standardized, and so learning curves are not steep. Also, applications do not have to be installed on each computer, and software updates are implemented without downloads or interruption of service.

For companies that have more flexibility in their operating budgets but less in their capital budgets, cloud solutions are more cost-effective because they require less overhead.

The caveats of cloud computing have to do with interoperability and portability. A personal Gmail account is one thing, but the development of applications and tools for an entire organization is something else altogether. There are still very few standards for interoperability in the cloud. Depending on the types and levels of services you use, the applications and data you create with one vendor may not be portable to another should you decide to switch platforms. The silver lining here is the work of the Distributed Management Task Force and the Open Cloud Consortium to develop standards and benchmarks for cloud computing.