With cost-cutting high on firms' agendas, Laura O'Brien talks to industry insiders about devising cloud strategies that can save businesses money and overhaul IT as we know it
Cloud computing is one of the biggest IT topics right now and Ireland and Northern Ireland have an opportunity to play a major role in its growth. But what is cloud computing?
In essence, cloud computing is an umbrella term referring to the technology that allows IT services such as computation, software or storage to be handled by data centres offsite. These resources can be accessed by an individual or organisation through the internet.
William Fellows, co-founder of technology analyst firm The 451 Group, believes cloud computing offers a very attractive model for enterprises today.
"The main advantage is that instead of buying new computers and having to shell out capital expenditure, you can rent space on a cloud provider's computer and you can recognise the money you spend on it as operational expenditure," he says.
"The economic benefit is that it allows people to avoid having to provision all the IT to meet their peak demand - they can offload many of the tasks to a third-party client provider."
In a time where companies are looking at any means to cut costs, it's not difficult to see why cloud computing has become such a hot topic.
Mr Fellows says many businesses are beginning to take notice of their competitors' cloud strategies and are taking steps to try and implement their own.
He believes that, along with economic conditions and the service delivery model, the consumerisation of IT is another reason why cloud computing's growth is inevitable.
"The trouble at the moment is that consumers enjoy better IT at home than they do at work," he continues.
"People at home are able to use our IT services in a much more efficient way than we currently do at work and we think that has to change.
"It would make sense for employees to access applications and services in much the same way as they do at home or elsewhere to increase productivity, avoid training and make it easier to use," said Mr Fellows.
Security is a huge concern for businesses looking to move into the cloud and while security of software, hardware and data is highly important, companies should consider security measures around the availability of the cloud service. This was highlighted when Amazon's EC2 cloud outage occurred on April 21, causing downtime to a few major consumer websites.
A number of data centres in Dublin, including Amazon's and Microsoft's, also suffered outages recently. The cause was originally thought to be a lightning strike, but the ESB confirmed it was actually due to a transformer failure.
In some cases, customers suffered disruptions for up to 48 hours.
"A lot of the companies I work with basically decided that it's entirely likely and indeed to be expected that the cloud is going to go down and fail at some point," says Mr Fellows.
"Companies need to think of having multi-cloud strategies - in other words, putting data, workloads and applications not just in one cloud, but planning for using different clouds for different purposes."
If there's one area that needs to plan carefully when moving to the cloud, it's the public sector.
David Wilde was CIO for Westminster City Council, where he led a cloud adoption strategy.
He is currently working on bringing Essex County Council to the cloud. Mr Wilde says that moving to a private cloud model, rather than a public one, was essential for the council.
The private cloud is where data is not stored on systems shared among multiple organisations, offering a more personalised service where the organisation retains greater control and security of the information.
"The important thing for us is that we went for the private cloud model rather than public, because we needed to be sure where our data was being stored and whether it was stored in an appropriate fashion," explains Mr Wilde.
The cloud's advantages have benefited the council greatly, he believes. "The cost per user per annum on moving to a private cloud service was 20 to 25% lower than a traditional hardware/software- driven service," he says, noting that while their previous IT service was outsourced, it was not cloud-based.
"The other advantage for us was that we got more resilience and because the cloud service was based in different locations, there was effective disaster recovery in place because we didn't have to pay for a dedicated provision," said Mr Wilde.
The biggest risk for Westminster City Council was on information governance.
Mr Wilde stresses that public sector organisations need to be very clear as to what their obligations are regarding the law on where sensitive data can be hosted. "You have to absolutely know and understand that so that when you make decisions on where your cloud-based services are going to be delivered from, you feel confident that you still remain legally compliant. That's particularly important when you start getting into cloud-based systems development where, quite often, IT companies are using development companies in countries where you would have concerns over where the data is likely to be located because you haven't got the necessary legal cover and, therefore, you wouldn't want them to use it.
"It's about understanding where your data is going in a cloud-managed service and making sure that you've got contractual controls in place that prevent your data going where you don't want it to go. Often, people don't think through all of those steps.
"They think in terms of 'If it's hosted in Scotland or the Republic of Ireland, then that's great', without thinking 'Is that service provider doing design and build work in other countries?'"
The priority in considering a good cloud strategy is safeguarding the data, and knowing where it is handled is very important, especially for the public sector.
"We have a duty to the public because we're guardians of resident information so we need to know where it is and how it's being looked after," adds Mr Wilde.
Get your head in the clouds and you'll see your bottom line reap the benefits
After lots of column inches about the virtues of emerging cloud computing, there is now reality to the hype, explains Jim Foster.
- Desktop application hosting and storage, real-time unified communications and multimedia conferencing and contact centres can now be delivered to businesses without having all the hardware and in-house technical expertise associated with traditional on-premise solutions.
- More flexible pricing means that cloud-based services can be delivered at a fraction of the costs of traditional self-built systems - and that's a big help for the bottom line!
- Most cloud or software as a service (SaaS) based products are priced as op-ex rather than cap-ex so that you pay only for what you use. There's no in-house technical support required, so you can focus on your business.
- Cloud-based services also offer enhanced resilience as they are typically built with high availability/disaster recovery and multi-tenancy in mind from the ground up. Some cloud-based services - such as multimedia conferencing, for example - offer increased flexibility to business, with a mixture of different conferencing vendor equipment. They can still use the cloud service to schedule and bridge video conference calls worldwide, regardless of the breed of conferencing endpoint. BT operates a vendor agnostic global multimedia conferencing solution and is one of the largest in the world.
- Another great example of cloud-based services is contact centre technology - multimedia ready, with fully featured CRM (customer relationship management) and call recording capability as standard - and all delivered via WAN/Internet connectivity. The Next Generation Contact Centre (NGCC) is BT's cloud-based contact centre product and is used globally by many leading firms.
- Cloud-based services increase the reliance on fit for purpose, absolutely reliable WAN services. However, WAN charges are becoming more competitive. BT is a world leader in the provision of MPLS and other IP-based WAN services. This gives the potential for a one-stop shop for our customers for an end-to-end cloud-based solution.
Cloud computing in practice - storing files in cloud gives access to folders anywhere on any machine
Geoff McGimpsey, founder of McGimpsey Communications: "Cloud computing is a great business resource for me. I use both dropbox and box.net for storage, and both offer a large free allocation. Storing files in the cloud means I get to access work folders anywhere and from any machine. And I'm regularly sharing large files, typically JPEGS, EPS and PPTs, and cloud platforms let me invite people to share folders online as opposed to clogging up their inboxes. Also, with all that free storage I'm carrying around less information on my hard drive. So when I splashed out on an iPad, I didn't need anything more than the basic 16GB version. Which leaves me with plenty of space for music files."