If the topic of cloud computing leaves you feeling a little confused, you're not alone. There are countless ad campaigns selling ambiguous cloud solutions and scads of analyst reports telling us which software publishers have a leg up on the competition. It's hard enough for those of us in the technology services industry to keep up with all the buzz, let alone for other business owners. But ready or not, your business inevitably will be impacted by the cloud, and understanding your options is half the battle. Let's cut through the technical terms and clear up some of the confusion.
Understanding the Different Types of Clouds
In "technology years," the cloud has been around for a long time. Flash back to the late 1990s when Marc Benioff launched Salesforce with a mission to "end software" by selling his customer relationship management (CRM) solution over the Internet. His Software as a Service (SaaS) model revolutionized the industry, and nearly 20 years later his message of cost savings and greater agility continues to have wide resonance. That's also the root of some of the confusion though, because the market is now saturated with different types of cloud services. But today we are still using one word to describe the initial concept from two decades ago.
Let's start with the fact that there are business applications in the cloud typically referred to as SaaS. You can also purchase the infrastructure that supports those applications in the cloud, which is typically referred to as IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service). Two examples of IaaS are Microsoft's Windows Azure (soon to be rebranded Microsoft Azure) and Amazon Web Services (AWS). Both SaaS and IaaS can be delivered in a public, private, or hybrid cloud. So how do you know which cloud is best for you?
The Public Cloud: Low Cost
In a public cloud, you share the business application software, hardware, data center, and operating system with all of the other users. As a result, it is a very low-cost option. You take advantage of the provider's infrastructure and best-of-breed processes, which lowers your capital spend and alleviates the pressure on your IT department. Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Salesforce, and others have used the public cloud concept to give smaller companies a competitive advantage with direct, affordable access to leading software and services that might otherwise be unobtainable.
The Private Cloud: Greater Performance, Security, and Flexibility
The public cloud model has many business benefits, but one downside is potential security and performance risks. In a private cloud, the only shared component is the provider's infrastructure. A company's business applications and database are stored on its own virtual layer, essentially creating a protective bubble around your data. The virtual layer is software that allows the application to use shared hardware and still remain protected.
When an application goes down in a public cloud, typically all customers using that cloud experience a service outage too. In a private cloud, if one customer's application goes down it doesn't affect other users. In addition, in a private cloud, each customer can have its own unique security model, allowing stricter access to more sensitive data and applications.
This is why the private cloud market is exploding. Although private clouds cost more, increasing numbers of businesses are selecting them to host and manage their critical workloads and sensitive information such as financials, regulated data, and intellectual property that would wreak havoc if breached. Organizations also like the ability to customize and integrate software, making the private cloud model attractive to companies that need flexibility.
The Hybrid Model: The Best of Both Worlds
There is a lot of debate over public versus private cloud providers, and for every advantage the one offers, there is a counterpoint. My experience is that the application itself ultimately dictates where it should reside depending on an organization's needs, which means public and private clouds need to coexist in a hybrid model. According to Gartner's Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2014, "enterprises should design private cloud services with a hybrid future in mind and make sure future integration/interoperability is possible."
The takeaway? Organizations need to seek out technology vendors and partners to help them develop a hybrid model that leverages the best of both public and private clouds, as well as legacy applications traditionally deployed on their own dedicated hardware (on-premises) that don't translate to the cloud. The decision of which application resides where should depend on a company's existing IT resources, its individual business or industry compliance requirements, and its future plans. We are already seeing large software publishers building tools to integrate applications across multiple clouds and on-premises.
Why Should You Care?
Back to being inundated by slick ad campaigns for the cloud and articles about the future of technology. Why are the big software companies targeting you, the business owner? Simply put, going to the cloud--and determining which type(s) of cloud is right for your organization--is just as much a business decision as it is a function of IT. And chances are, you will be making the decision sooner rather than later. The numbers speak for themselves: IDC predicts a 25 percent surge in cloud spending (software, services, and infrastructure) this year, reaching more than $100 billion.
The cloud is empowering entrepreneurs and executives to take the reins and control how and when they consume data. Rather than buying hardware or full suites of products that will likely go unused, we get to pick and choose the processes that work for us. The number of providers, software publishers, and deployment options out there can be overwhelming. But having a basic understanding of the different types of cloud models available will enable you to ask the right questions and make the right choice for your business.