Blowing the clouds away

You’re probably already using cloud computing, writes Nick Gordon. But could you be using it even more effectively?

Pundits have been predicting the “paperless office” for nearly 40 years, yet most of us are still surrounded by piles of printed matter. But that seductively elusive image of the office of the future is moving a little closer, with the increasing use of cloud computing.

A reduction in paper is not the only change to the 21st-century office that could be brought about by the revolution that is cloud, which is essentially a flexible and cost-effective way of sharing resources, whether data or services.

Though the term cloud computing strikes fear into the non-technical, many of us have been using it for years; if you have used Yahoo! Mail, music download service Spotify or the ubiquitous Facebook, you are already “working in the cloud”.

For a business, the advantages are numerous. Once the contents of your company’s server has been transferred to a cloud service provider (such as Amazon Web Services, Salesforce.com, Rackspace or Virgin Media Business), employees with web access, irrespective of their location, are a mere password away from accessing data and apps remotely.

Andy Perrin, senior product manager, Cloud Services, Virgin Media Business, explains: “Connecting to the cloud via a fast, private network means you can transfer your data as easily and securely as you do today around your business.”

It’s not only data use that can change. Cloud computing allows a business to access services, ranging from HR to credit card processing, choosing as much or as little as is needed. And because cloud is pay-as-yougo, with pre-agreed credit limits, “a virtual server can cost less than £70 a month,” explains Mr Perrin. Cloud turns IT into an operating rather than a capital expense.

With employees based around the globe, different skills are needed to ensure security

Cloud can also save companies money by reducing energy consumption and cutting capital spend on IT; a recent study by the Carbon Disclosure Project found that UK blue-chip companies could achieve annual energy savings of £1.2 billion if, as projected, cloud computing grows from 10 to almost 70 per cent of their IT spend by 2020.

However, recent research for industry body Cloud Industry Forum (CIF) revealed that the prime motivator for companies is not cost. Andy Burton, CIF chairman, says: “The marketing of the industry has been primarily focusing on the cost savings, but research proves that initial adoption is usually driven by non financial activity. The organisation values the flexible attributes of a cloud service over on-premise solutions.”

However, two issues demand scrutiny: security and outages. In September, Microsoft’s online systems were affected by a two-and-a-half hour service failure, while Google’s Google Docs also had an involuntary timeout. Amazon’s EC2 had failures in April and August.

In November, the Ponemon Institute, which researches data security, surveyed 1,000 IT security practitioners and enterprise compliance officers. One third of the former group believes cloud is as secure as on-premise solutions, while the latter group is split 50:50.

So there is still work to be done by cloud proponents, though recent CIF research found that 96 per cent of those using cloud services were happy with the result. Much depends on a cultural willingness to manage staff differently – with employees no longer based in an office but potentially around the globe, different skills are needed to ensure the security of corporate data.

Says Mr Burton: “Cloud services are a reality today, they are proven, and they will continue to improve in both capability and adoption. All organisations need to be aware of, and consider how to best make use of this agile and efficient IT supply model to improve their performance and agility.”