Head in the clouds – a beginner’s guide to cloud computing

This shift, away from computing that depends on information hosted on
individual PCs or company networks towards storing that data in the
Internet itself has the potential to transform business. Internet
giants, Google and Amazon, have already invested heavily in cloud-based
services. The former has made its ‘Google Docs’ suite of office
applications a central part of its offering to businesses, while Amazon
has quietly turned itself into a leading provider of online storage and
hosting space for business, counting the likes of Twitter among its
customers. With Microsoft, Sun Microsystems and other technology
heavyweights following the early leaders into this territory the rise
of cloud computing looks unstoppable, but what does it actually mean
for businesses?

There are several inherent advantages to moving from traditional to
cloud-enabled services. Their ‘pay monthly’ model makes them very
cost-effective for companies that want to avoid the expense of hefty
licence fees, while delivery via a web browser makes them easy to
deploy and use. In theory, any organisation able to access sufficient
bandwidth can use cloud services with a basic PC set-up, thereby
reducing the need for them to invest in ever more powerful hardware.

Another benefit is that people can access their business services and
applications through almost any device with an Internet browser. Cloud
computing applications are also being tailored to work on mobile
devices. The launch of the 3G iPhone, for example, was accompanied by
many vendors developing browser-enabled applications for the device.

These qualities also mean that cloud services are very scalable, able
to grow or (as is especially important in the face of an economic
downturn) contract according to a company’s needs. This factor has
contributed significantly to the growth of cloud storage, which an
increasing number of businesses are now choosing in preference to
owning and managing their own data centres.

However attractive the above makes cloud computing to businesses, its
benefits depend on one immovable factor: having a resilient connection
to the Internet. Surprisingly this is one area where many businesses in
the UK struggle, as they still depend on Britain’s ageing legacy
communications infrastructure for their data services. Browser-enabled
applications may be user-friendly and inexpensive but they are hungry
for bandwidth in both the upstream and the downstream. Each change made
to a cloud-hosted document or database entry, for example, must be
uploaded to the Internet to be saved for future retrieval. This
requires constant and uninterrupted access to the Internet.

All this will present no problem to companies that have already
invested in Next Generation infrastructure, as fibre optic broadband
provides sufficient bandwidth and service resiliency for them to deploy
cloud computing effectively. Those companies that have not yet
upgraded, however, would be strongly advised to do so before they
initiated piloting cloud services. Not only could attempting to run a
Customer Relationship Management package such as Salesforce.com using
legacy infrastructure be unsatisfactory for users, but it could even
hinder a business’s performance.

In today’s challenging economic climate, innovation in IT is
increasingly being seen as a way to make businesses operate more nimbly
and cost-effectively. Cloud computing is one such innovation that
allows organisations to spread the cost of owning and maintaining
software while allowing their network to take some of the strain for
running it. 2009 could very well be the year in which businesses head
into the cloud, but without access to sufficient bandwidth their
progress could slow down to a crawl. This is why the move towards the
next generation of computing needs to be underpinned by Next Generation

By Julien St. John-Dennis
Head of business products at ntl:Telewest Business