Right type of cloud for clear thinking

It’s worth spending some time to work out what, if any, type of cloud will work for your business, writes Stephen Armstrong who offers a guide to savvy virtual business

Silicon Valley is good at many things, but names aren’t one. Cloud computing, for instance, is a name that summons up images of ethereal droplets of dispersed computing power floating high above the business world – ephemeral but with enough force to destroy a city if focused.

This may be accurate, but it’s not the reason for the name. It’s because diagrams of off-site servers acting to concentrate data storage and processing were usually drawn with a woolly line connecting each point which looked a bit like a cloud.

“The reality of cloud computing is that it’s the next logical step in outsourcing,” explains Alex Bligh, chief technology officer and chief operating officer at Flexiant, Europe’s leading cloud software provider.

“The role of the IT department needs to change from provider of technology to delivering solutions. It’s like banking; no one has a local bank manager any more. That’s been outsourced to contact and data centres, which has cut costs enough for us all to enjoy free banks 24/7.”

All cloud solutions will ultimately be public as it makes the most economic sense

While there’s a rich irony for out-of-work bank tellers watching the IT departments that spearheaded their demise now wilt and fade, tellers didn’t have any say in those decisions. IT departments, however, tend to inform IT decisions and turkeys don’t vote for Christmas. So, any company considering cloud computing should probably consult a little.

“There’s a lot of cloud-washing going on – the pointless adding of the word ‘cloud’ to technologies or ideas that have been around for ages, but need a little romance to get sold,” Mr Bligh warns. Because the cloud isn’t just about cost-cutting.

“The first question we ask clients is do they actually need a cloud computing solution at all?” explains James Carnie, head of solution architecture for cloud infrastructure provider Adapt. “The answer isn’t always yes. If you’ve got static data power and space requirements, and you don’t need centralised control, then maybe stick with what you currently have.”

If not – if data needs are growing, if the IT department needs to act as a business centre, if a company needs to grow IT without capital cost – Mr Carnie says, there are four main options: public cloud; community cloud; private cloud; and hybrid cloud.

Public cloud is, arguably, part of the problem as much as the solution. It is everywhere; a recent graduate, who spent college years with a tablet computer and schooldays with a smartphone, may now be so far ahead of their workplace IT, thanks to cloud computing from Google or Apple, that they feel a little let down every time they log on in the office.

Private cloud is the equivalent offering – multiple access points, multiple off-site servers and so on – but operated for or by a single organisation.

Community cloud is an extended private cloud for several organisations, typically with common concerns.

And hybrid cloud is roughly a collection of clouds that talk to each other, possibly including a public cloud.

Across each one there’s a tug of war between security and multiple access, and perhaps inevitably advice is conflicting. Mr Bligh believes all cloud solutions will ultimately be public as it makes the most economic sense.

Jay Cuthrell at VCE, which provides private clouds, warns of obstacles to that vision. “Employees want to access their work clouds from their own devices these days, which has security implications,” he says. “The problem for employers is that public clouds are the default expectation.

“Hybrid might well be the best first step. Ironically, you can centralise security controls a lot easier with cloud as everything comes effectively from the same hub. My main advice is, as in all business decisions, don’t be afraid to steal really good ideas from other companies and competitors. If they’re doing something, see how you can make it work for you.”

Which just goes to show: even in Silicon Valley, some things never go out of fashion.

Cloud Expo Europe can help business and public-sector organisations, big or small, wanting to unlock the potential of cloud computing. Free of charge, it takes place at the National Hall Olympia, London, January 29 and 30, 2013: www.cloudexpoeurope.com