In this beginner’s guide to cloud computing, Christophe Boudet explains how the cloud could benefit your business…

 Tablet PC with cloud of application icons flying arround

Most people today will have at least heard of the term ‘cloud computing’. You may even be the owner of a business which already uses cloud services. Yet for those of you that don’t yet know the benefits of using the cloud, this article is an introductory guide to explaining what the cloud is, how it works and what it means for your business.

What is cloud computing?

There’s an almost endless supply of images out there of fluffy white clouds representing ‘virtual’ servers and the concept of cloud computing. What these images are actually trying to show is the idea that, as far as users are concerned, the service or experience they receive from the technology they use is now considered more important than the location, ownership, or number of the servers that provide it.

As far as the average user is concerned, a service is requested (whether it be a voice call, accessing email or opening a file) and it just happens. In essence, the traditional server infrastructure has been turned on its head, with services no longer tied to one specific location.

Therefore you could consider the cloud as the place where you put all your data and even software that can then be accessed from any computer or device, anywhere, any time.

How does the cloud work?

Instead of a specific server being used to deliver a service, a number of ‘virtual’ machines are used. These share resources such as processing power from their host to make sure that the right resources are assigned to each virtual machines as required.

To explain in more detail, let’s take the example of a hosted collaboration suite such as SharePoint. SharePoint users will access the software through virtual machines held in a secure datacentre. These machines will consist of a number of physical servers located in a rack, with a shared storage-attached network (SAN) device. The physical data sits on the SAN and the virtual servers balance the demands of the SharePoint users, ensuring that additional resources can be allocated to each if usage is particularly high.

How safe is your data in the cloud?

Your business data is far safer and more secure in the cloud than on an individual device. If your data is held on a PC this can be corrupted, or the machine lost or stolen. Data in the cloud is always available and benefits from enterprise-level security and backup systems.

What happens to the cloud if the internet goes down?

With our increasing reliance on the internet, internet outages are increasingly rare and generally only temporary. Of course, a backup internet connection can be put in place from a separate Internet Service Provider (ISP), or for those requiring more peace of mind, leased lines and Ethernet first mile (Efm) connections can provide guaranteed connectivity.

If you have an onsite exchange server, an internet failure will render this useless as far as external mail is concerned. In addition to this, emails sent to your accounts will be lost unless email filtering or backup MX records are in place.

With a cloud solution, email and files can still be accessed using a different device connected to the 3G/4G networks, or by working remotely. Regardless of an internet failure, your data is safe in the cloud.

Will I lose control of my data if I move to the cloud?

Although data is not physically tied to your devices, you have more control over it as it can be accessed anywhere, on any device and shared with anyone you choose. And if required, access can be removed from a specific user or device instantaneously.

Is it complicated to use the cloud?

An added benefit of the cloud is its simplicity. From an end-user’s perspective, services are pre-configured and access is straightforward, while sharing files is made far simpler.

Is cloud more expensive?

There are a number of hidden costs in traditional computing which are rarely taken into consideration (electricity, increased security, backup, air conditioning, the cost of server room space and so on).

When all things are considered, cloud computing compares favourably to traditional computing, particularly when you consider that you only pay for the services you use.

Cloud computing is entirely flexible – if your business grows or user numbers decrease, you only pay accordingly. This means that you are not paying unnecessarily for expensive software licenses or hardware redundancy that you don’t need.

Is cloud here to stay?

Considering that almost 80% of UK businesses now use some form of cloud service, it’s a safe bet to say that cloud computing will continue to grow.

Christoph Boudet is managing director of Akita Systems, a provider of IT support and computing services to companies in London and the South East.