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Part Four: Moving to the Cloud

Issues still hold cloud's future back Add to ...

In this four-part series, we'll explore cloud computing and whether it's right for your small business

Part Four: Moving to the cloud

Even though some of the biggest names in the technology world are pushing cloud services as the next big step in information technology, there are still a number of issues holding cloud computing back.

A recent report by the Leadership Council for Information Advantage, an advisory group convened by cloud provider EMC Corp., highlights issues such as “information silos” and a lack of universal standards for how clouds should operate. In effect, when it comes to cloud computing, there is still no set way of doing things.

“Although solutions providers are making progress on the technology front, CIOs still see a gap between where cloud services are and where they need to be, particularly when they involve outside service providers,” the report states.

“While they look forward to a time when standards have evolved and cloud platforms are fully enterprise ready, they don’t want to sit on the sidelines waiting for cloud maturity and lose the competitive and cost advantages of moving IT services to the cloud today.”

The dilemma – whether to jump into a new, still-evolving technology, or risk missing the boat – has given rise to a new way of thinking about the cloud. Increasingly, some firms are considering the notion of a hybrid cloud: a combination of private and public cloud services.

Although the terminology is fluid, private clouds generally refer to IT infrastructure that, in large part, is tailored to one specific enterprise. At one extreme, this can mean a traditional IT department in which the resources, applications and servers are owned and managed by, and only accessible to, the individual company.

However, private clouds can also include outsourced servers or other resources that may be run by third parties, but are still effectively controlled by the business whose data resides on the cloud. Public clouds, on the other hand, are completely outsourced – the cloud services provided by a firm such as Amazon.com Inc., for example, are considered public clouds because they are not tailored to the needs of or confined to a single customer.

The private-public cloud dynamic has turned out to be fairly controversial among the various cloud providers. Whereas companies such as EMC specialize in helping larger companies design their own internal clouds, firms such as Amazon argue that businesses simply can't recreate the cost savings and efficiencies of massive public clouds internally, and that a private cloud is little more than a traditional IT strategy under a new name. Indeed, Werner Vogels, Amazon's chief technology officer, recently described the concept of a private cloud as a “false cloud.”

Nonetheless, while small businesses may have the most to gain by outsourcing their IT tasks to a public cloud company, as they grow, some firms may feel the need to recreate at least some of the cloud infrastructure internally, for data that is too sensitive to put on a public cloud. The public-private cloud debate has had the side benefit of crystallizing the question that many small and medium-sized businesses are asking: Exactly what kind of data should a company migrate to the cloud first, or ever?

The Leadership Council for Information Advantage report offers a number of tips for taking the first steps to the cloud, be it private or public. The report suggests picking a test case, such as a pilot project, to try out the cloud. If analyst predictions that individuals and companies will leave the desktop for the cloud in the next decade are true, businesses of all sizes are likely well-served by making their data cloud-ready in advance. This involves tasks such as encrypting data and making sure it is readily accessible on a variety of platforms.

Ultimately, if cloud computing is the future of the traditional IT department and businesses are destined to replace the desktop software for Internet-based applications, the industry is likely to develop universal standards that should make interoperability between various clouds easier and thus reduce the problem of “information silos.”

As such, data may become not only a business’s most important IT asset but its sole IT asset. As the council report advises: “Own the information, even if you own nothing else.”

For more series, go to the Web Strategy section of Your Business.

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