Cloud Computing: What’s in it for you? What’s in it for your business?

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By:  Arnold Toffler, Assistant Professor, Computer Science, Caldwell College

Most information technology professionals believe that cloud computing represents a massive change in direction for the industry. Cloud computing will likely alter the way businesses and individuals manage their information and e-commerce needs. It has the potential to revolutionize the industry. So what is it?

Simply, it is computing on computers that are not on your desk or probably not even at your location, but somewhere on the Internet where geographical location is irrelevant.  The computing is done on machines that may be owned and operated by your organization, but more likely on machines that are “rented” for a decade, a year, a day or even an hour. You can rent a computer or group of computers or 1,000 computers that function in whatever way you choose. You can put whatever you want on these computers. If an organization wants to set up an active Web site but does not want the expense of buying equipment, setting it up and maintaining it, a cloud service is the best way. Using a cloud service would save this organization a significant amount of money in both the initial investment and continuing maintenance, including the need for permanent IT employees.

When you use a cloud service, the content of material is your responsibility, but everything else is the responsibility of the cloud service vendor. This not only includes the cost and maintenance of the equipment and high-speed Internet connections, but also more data protection and backup operations than any firm could afford. Most of the larger vendors offer continual, off-site backups so that even if there is a fire or an earthquake at a site, you would likely lose only a few minutes of recent data.

You can buy several kinds of cloud service, depending on what your organization wants to do. You can rent a totally “blank” computer that has been set up on a high-speed network. All of the software is your responsibility. This is called “Infrastructure as a Service” (IaaS). This service is similar to renting an empty house where you supply all of the furniture and household items (dishes, towels, etc.). You can also rent a computer for which the operating system software (e.g., Windows) is set up. The applications you use and how you store your information (database) are your responsibility. This is called “Platform as a Service” (PaaS). This is similar to renting a furnished house. The last kind of cloud service is “Software as a Service” (SaaS), where you are using a fully configured, operating application on aWeb server on the Internet. The learning management system we use (Moodle by MoodleRooms) isSaaS. So is Google.  This is similar to renting a “ready to move in” house to which you bring nothing.

In addition, you add or reduce your consumption of any of these servers in a matter of minutes. So an e-commerce business expecting a spike in traffic due to new advertising or a promotion can easily expand its cloud service 10 minutes before the deluge of traffic. When the promotion is over, the company can quickly reduce its use and cost. Amazon’s EC2 service (PaaS) charges as low as eight cents an hour for a simple Web server.

As you can imagine, the cost savings to businesses are enormous. Almost every business has a peak load or activity problem. Many businesses have hyper-inflated costs in computing and networking equipment to accommodate peak periods during the year, week or day. Many new businesses or projects are never started because of large, up-front investments in equipment and personnel. Cloud services change the game. Now any technically challenged, cash-starved dreamer can start hisor her own online taco sauce company.

So what’s in this for you? You can get cloud service for free. The easiest one to use is probably Microsoft’s Sky Drive. You can get it by going to live.com. Use your e-mail address as the username and any password you want.  You can set up folders and create access restrictions to individual folders or your whole sky drive, just as you do on your PC. I use mine to exchange files that are too large to send by e-mail with students, other faculty members, committee members or friends. I also have put assignments, reference materials, supplemental readings and presentations on the sky drive. I don’t need to worry that I have all the materials I need for my classes on my flash drive. In some classes, I allow students to submit assignments on my sky drive.

One other feature of the Microsoft service is that you can open any file that uses a Microsoft Office application (e.g., Word, PowerPoint) by using the online version on your sky drive. You don’t need to have that application on your computer, iPad or smartphone. Yes, this is aSaaS cloud service.

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