Undeniably the buzz term in the IT industry at the moment, is 'cloud computing'.

We've all heard of the cloud, and lots of us are using cloud services to manage our personal IT (Hotmail, DropBox, Apple iCloud )… Increasingly however, clients, colleagues and contacts want to talk about what cloud computing can mean for their business.

There's a lot of confusion about what the term 'the cloud' actually means, and so in this short article I'll try to debunk some of the misconceptions around cloud computing as well as illustrating the major benefits of using cloud computing for business.

I have seen many definitions of the cloud, ranging from the preposterously technical, to the beautifully simple (and my preferred choice of) definition - that 'it is just another way of saying the internet'. To elaborate, cloud services are 'technology services (software, hosting, platform and others) which are delivered over the internet, usually paid for on a pay-as-you-go, or 'utility' basis.'

One misconception about the cloud is that cloud computing has something to do with the atmosphere; in fact the name 'cloud' comes from the diagram System Architects use to depict the internet when they map out a system, which looks like…a cloud!

Hand in hand with this, is the idea that using cloud technologies means your computing is somehow 'out there', bouncing around in the sky; this isn't the case. Cloud computing still uses hard drives and processors, but these are no longer on a personal computer, or in your building. In fact they could be anywhere in the world and you might not necessarily know where.

There are 3 main types of cloud - private, public and hybrid, upon which the different types of cloud services run.

Public clouds are available, as the name suggests, to the public, and are delivered via the internet to customers who are billed as though for any other utility, although many public cloud services are free. E.g. Apple's iCloud

Private clouds also sometimes known as corporate clouds, are essentially the same technology as public clouds, but used only by permission of the owners. Private clouds appeal to organsiations that need more control and where data privacy and security are of paramount importance. PDMS' own software as a service solutions are usually provided on a private rather than a public cloud basis.

Hybrid clouds use aspects of both public and private clouds; some services may be provided via the public cloud whilst others are hosted internally or on a private cloud allowing for greater control and security.

This shift from having business systems (and associated data) located physically within a company's premises, to moving them outside via cloud technology raises obvious concerns for managers;

Security

With Software as a Service (SaaS), for example, all of your data is stored on infrastructure within your service provider's data centre. In some instances, the SaaS vendor will outsource the hosting to a specialist data centre. It is of paramount importance that data confidentiality, integrity and availability is maintained where the data is hosted or accessed.

As with all new suppliers, it's essential that proper due diligence is done. There are clear industry-wide standards governing cloud services, so start by checking that suppliers comply with these.

Regulatory issues

It is definitely worth asking a potential cloud supplier where your data will be hosted. If the supplier has servers in another country, your data could fall under the jurisdiction of your home country as well as any other countries your supplier has servers in.

Are you comfortable hosting your company's data in the US? India? The Netherlands? It might be worth familiarising yourself with the legal obligations companies which host in different countries are under. Start off by researching the US Safe Harbor directive's as well as those of the EU and the UK specifically. (The Isle of Man has its own data protection legislation).

Service Level

Along with considering jurisdiction, have a think about other factors which might impact a supplier's service level. What is the country's culture like? What is their infrastructure like? Is it a politically stable region?Are they vulnerable to natural disasters, (Hurricane Sandy knocked out data centres down the eastern seaboard).

Accreditation

Companies that invest in accreditations have lower corporate risks than unaccredited companies. Security and environmental accreditations demonstrate company integrity, longevity and professionalism, as well as the ability to identify weaknesses and self-improve in order to pass the accreditation audit. They give customers greater confidence; and if your business is accredited, why jeopardise that by choosing unaccredited suppliers?

Payment Model

Cloud computing is changing the commercial model for IT services with a move from up front capital investment to an operational expense item. You pay for services e.g. software on a subscription basis which could be monthly, annually, per user etc.

With cloud computing, you only pay for what you use. And because it's flexible you can scale up (or down) in terms of capacity or the number of users within hours, meaning there's no wasted spend.

If you are interested in moving to the cloud, where do you start? There are certainly degrees of cloud adoption and even the big players, started off small when moving over to cloud services. Begin by identifying a project to test the water with as your first foray into cloud services. Remember, it's important to find suppliers you can trust as you will be depending on them for back-up and long term support. There is plenty of information around, but if you'd like to talk to somebody in person, we'd be happy to share some of our experiences of the benefits and potential pitfalls of the cloud.