Cloud Services: Primer

I am asked often to about this topic,   having written a number of individual posts in the past, I thought, why not put it all together? So here it is… Let me know if you find it useful or have any comments!  – Cheers.

Cloud computing (or cloud services) is the new buzz in the world of IT services. The term, which is still pretty nebulous for many users, refers to a model in which computing resources are hosted and delivered via the Internet than can dynamically grow and shrink depending on its demand and you pay only for the actual usage of the service. IT departments do not have to worry about hardware, software, software, data center space, network scalability or any other specialized applications in order for it to work properly. Generally speaking, the term would refer to anything that involves delivery of any service via the Internet.

Types of Services provided via cloud computing

Cloud computing can be used to provide services on a much larger scale than any individual service provider would be able to handle. This is primarily because the resources available would theoretically be without any limits.

Three main types of hosted services would work really well on a cloud computing network. These are:

  1. Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS): Cloud based infrastructure services provide an strong alternative for companies that do not want to invest dollars and time in expensive servers, data centers, software, and networking equipment. Instead, they simply rent a space managed by the client, and pay only for what they consume. Thus it becomes easy for them to manage the expenditure on these services. Examples of this type of services are data storage services (SaaS) , Desktop as a services (DaaS) – or VDI and Communications as a Service (CaaS) – virtual PBX.
  2. Platform as a Service (PaaS): This type of service allows clients to build their own applications using a centralized software deployment platform. The positive side of such service is that the clients do not have to worry about dealing with the hassles of setting up hardware and software platforms for development, testing and deploying their applications. The service provider hosts the platform, on which cloud based applications can be launched. The service provider only maintains the platform, and the computers connected to the network provide the resources necessary to run the applications. Some popular examples are Microsoft Azure, Google Apps, and force.com
  3. Software as a Service (SaaS): a service in which software applications are made available over the Internet in a way that a clients can access completely via a web-browser. Some examples of such services would be the ones provided by Salesforce.com, Microsoft Online Service, Microsoft Dynamics, and of course, Google Docs and Gmail.

Key Benefits

Now that we understand a bit more about the definition of cloud services, let us move on to talking a bit deeper about the key advantages offered by cloud services; we can summarize them into five areas: Quick and Easy setup; Significant acquisition and operational cost savings; On-demand scalability; Anytime/Anywhere Access; and Always up-to-date.

IT setup, maintenance and support can be a time-consuming and expensive proposition.  This is especially true for small-to-medium businesses.   Cloud services essentially allows businesses to transfer the responsibility for IT maintenance, software upgrades and any system issues onto the service provider, allowing the business to focus on their core business instead of their IT infrastructure.

  • Quick and Easy to setup — There is no need to install new hardware or software as everything is run by the provider.  Typically you provision and manage the service via a web-based interface.
  • Significant acquisition and operational cost saving — Businesses that move to the cloud can experience an immediate savings on many different levels – IT hardware and software expenditure is cut dramatically, and fewer staff or support resources are needed for IT maintenance. Last September, analyst group IDC estimated that a business can instantly reduce their IT spending by approximately 54%, moving to a cloud based solution.  Ultimately, cloud services helps significantly reduce CAPEX and/or move CAPEX to OPEX.
  • Always up-to-date/available —  Primarily because of the healthy competition, service providers constantly improve upon their offerings, upgrading their systems and adding new features, while insuring compatibility.   In turn you experience less downtime than when managing IT in-house, and any problems can be solved far quicker by being fixed centrally. IDC estimates that businesses operating in the cloud achieve 97% greater IT reliability.
  • On-demand scalability — If your business is growing fast or has seasonal spikes, you can go large quickly because cloud systems are built to cope with sharp increases in workload. Cloud based “pay as you go” style services, allow you to easily increase your use of cloud services as your business grows, or decrease if you need to temporarily scale down.
  • Anytime/Anywhere Access  —  Today’s employees expect to have the same technology and access, be they at work, home or on the go traveling.  They are used to to collaborating online and accessing their data from any mobile device at hand, not expecting to work in one location nor fixed to a 9 to 5 work-time schedule. Cloud services are designed from the ground-up to expect usage anywhere and anytime, and for the most part device independent.
  • Greater level of security — Argued by some, cloud services can be far more secure than traditional in-house IT, especially those used by small and medium business.  It’s all about economies of scale – many cloud suppliers employ security experts, invest vast amounts of money into securing their applications and develop technology beyond the means of any small business.

Given these advantages, it is not surprising that cloud computing is fast becoming the option of choice for many organizations that need to use web based computing environments for cutting down on investments and building a common, centralized environment for their employees to work on.

Big Names on the Field

Thanks to the convergence of multiple technology trends, including virtualization, data center consolidation, web-services, browser and commercialization of hardware advancements, there is simply no way of ignoring or denying the impact that cloud services are having within the industry. Placing files, email and applications on the cloud has its significant advantages over local/custom build infrastructures, ranging from availability, cost, ease of use and, contrary to popular misconception, better security. These advantages have propelled the popularity of cloud services off the charts.

Some of the most popular service providers include:

  • Google – One of the earliest cloud-based service providers, they have made their mark by offering full featured applications (email, document collaboration, and communications) and other related services for free and/or very small fees. Their Platform as a Service (PaaS) platform, Google Apps allows users from around the world to perform almost all office tasks completely online without the need for physical/local resources. Many vendors are now building towards their platform.
  • Amazon – While others cautiously approached the cloud services space, Amazon went all-in and offered one of the most complete service offering around. Marketed under the Amazon web services umbrella, many products and services are now available. Amongst the most well known are: Amazon EC2 is a complete virtual computing environment, which allows users to launch instances of servers with a variety of operating systems as platforms; Amazon S3 offers storage and retrieval of any amount of data, at any time, from anywhere on the web; Amazon SimpleDB and Amazon RDS are their database offerings and a whole lot more.   [ Side note:   I would go on a limb here, and say that Amazon is probably the largest cloud services provider out there… ]
  • Microsoft – Oh yes, the software giant has officially stated that it is now fully on board and is “betting the company” on cloud services. Key offerings are under multiple brands: For businesses, Microsoft Online Services, offering Exchange, SharePoint, Dynamics CRM, Communication Server and LiveMeeting; and Windows Azure™, a platform allows developers to get all the processing power they require to develop their programs, and manage web based applications. For the consumer, Windows Live (including Hotmail and SkyDrive) and Microsoft Office Live.
  • SalesForceAs one of the very first widely successful Software as a Service (SaaS) providers, SalesForce.com has remained a leader in sales and customer relationship management (CRM) – They have expanded their initial model into a complete solution offering ( force.com ) Infrastructure, Development and Collaboration platforms. They work closely with Google in the application space.
  • Rackspace – Being a file hosting service to begin with, it was no surprise that RackspaceCloud was introduced in late 2009. the offerings are around the Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) space and they include Cloud Sites, Cloud Servers and Cloud Files.
  • VMware – VCloud is an initiative from VMware which will allow customers to migrate work on demand from their internal systems of cooperating VMware hypervisors to a remote cloud of VMware hypervisors. This is a new offering, but a very interesting one, which we are watching closely.
  • GoGridA cloud infrastructure service provider that offers hosting Linux and Windows virtual machines managed by a multi-server control panel.
  • DropBoxa storage and file hosting service that allows users to store and share files and folders with others across the Internet. Although the files are stored on the “cloud” (Dropbox servers), it uses file synchronization across devices, as its primary method of sharing data, and therefore the data is replicated across authorized devices / users.
  • Egnyte – Specialty provider of online storage, file sharing, online backup, FTP, and large file transfer capabilities. Key distinction is their shared drive mapping to cloud-based storage.
  • Desktone –    cloud-hosted Desktops as a Service (DaaS), provides the ability to deliver virtual desktops in the cloud –  desktops to users connected on any device, anywhere – without the upfront costs and complexity of traditional desktop virtualization–transforming desktops from a CAPEX to OPEX item.

The above is only a small sampling of the companies offering cloud services. There are many more coming to the market with new and innovative services. Cloud services is one the most significant changes that has happened to the industry in recent times, and in the coming years, its popularity can only be expected to rise even further.

Names you might also know cloud services include: IT-as-a-Service, Cloud Computing, Utility Computing, Grid Computing, shared hosted services.

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