The Cloud Controversy

Despite the many columns inches of media coverage it comes as no surprise to me that many businesses still don’t understand the concept of Cloud computing. Images of a great mystical server in the sky along with reams of technical jargon make it difficult for the majority of non-technical, IT-averse SME’s to make head or tail of the benefits let alone the drawbacks of this new way of working.

Successful business relationships come hand in hand with managing customers expectations so it’s vitally important for customers to understand exactly what is meant by Cloud computing.

One of the best definitions I’ve come across is that given by the US-based National Institute of Science and Technology or NIST. They describe it as “a model for enabling convenient, on-demand network access to a pool of configurable computing resources (e.g. networks, servers, storage, applications and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction”.

All sounds very worthwhile doesn’t it? Yet I strongly believe that many of our typical 1-50 user SME customers are far from ready for a move in the direction of the white fluffy stuff. There are several significant shortcomings which the bulk of media reporting fails to address.

First and foremost there are without doubt security issues attached to Cloud computing. Essentially all your business data is hosted by a third party and you have to ask yourself do you trust this business? 2011 is reportedly set to be the worst year ever for security breaches, with Sony, NASA, Citigroup, the FBI and British and French treasuries all making headlines due to breaches in data security.

Added to this there’s a risk of data loss due to improper backups or system failures in the virtualised environment and with the physical location of hardware and software unknown, site inspections and audits can be difficult to complete.

Prism’s currently supporting over five thousand end users across in excess of one thousand businesses Nationwide, and what we see is that businesses are looking for efficiencies that can be gained through using certain aspects of Cloud computing; they’re beginning to see Cloud computing as a complimentary service to their business infrastructure, not a replacement for it.

Admittedly, the Cloud may be perfect for start-up businesses that are starting from a blank canvas, but if the business has been established for say, on average ten years and has for example, thirty users over three sites, then the Cloud isn’t quite the magic potion some providers claim it to be.

It’s a tool as part of an IT suite rather than a “one-size-fits-all” magical solution. There are substantial technical, cultural and operational issues to be taken into consideration which can add significantly to the organisations workload, potentially negating any benefits gained.

Thirdly there is a loss of control that is unacceptable to many, associated with the dependency on a Cloud Service Provider (CSP). Movement from one CSP to another is a complicated process over which the customer has little control, so generally the business is tied to the health of the CSP they choose.

Any quality issues that lie with the CSP are outside of the business itself which has little or no influence on maintenance levels of fix frequency.

Businesses might think that when they’ve invested in the Cloud their systems are out of sight and therefore out of mind; if their CSP tells them that they’re supported then they believe this to be true. What they fail to question is the level of support they will receive should things go wrong.

Yes, the Cloud is supported, but what about their local IT environment; things like mail merge, cabling, hardware, handsets, applications? Good consultancy will still be required to support clients in uploading of data, understanding what to put where and which packages to use.

There’s this misconception that the Cloud is all encompassing when actually it’s simply a case of a business’s licensing software being hosted elsewhere on a subscription payment model.

Don’t get me wrong, we’re not averse to the Cloud at Prism but we believe the correct way to go about offering this service is to pick the right elements of Cloud computing for the right businesses…it’s essentially about understanding why the business is moving some IT towards the Cloud and I repeat, it’s about managing customer’s expectations.

No doubt many of the issues discussed will be addressed as Cloud computing matures and develops and for some businesses the benefits of the Cloud still outweigh these disadvantages.

However businesses need a rounded picture before making costly decisions which will affect the accessibility and security of their data and move them a step further away from control of their business operations.

I would agree that Cloud computing can without doubt deliver a significant business advantage to some, but would urge all inquisitive business owners to understand the risks involved and not to enter into this new method of working with their head in the clouds.