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22 2015

This is another question that seemingly has no clear black and white answer. It is never a simple matter of pulling some mysterious switch and "BAM," you're in the cloud. In fact it's not always clear exactly where "The Cloud" is.

I think Oracle's CEO Larry Ellison summed it up best when he said "The interesting thing about cloud computing is that we've redefined cloud computing to include everything that we already do. I can't think of anything that isn't cloud computing with all of these announcements. The computer industry is the only industry that is more fashion-driven than women's fashion."

Every day I see more and more software and hardware with the cloud logo on their advertising and in many cases these items have very little to do with cloud computing. Add this to all the current hype regarding the cloud and it's no wonder that so much confusion exists about the subject. To avoid this when speaking with clients, I simply talk about "Employing cloud technologies." Because in fact, the cloud is just a number of technologies all used together to offer many types of service and features.

When we talk about how many ways we can use the cloud, we use complicated terms like public, private, hybrid, off site storage, backup, software as a service, infrastructure as a service, and so on. To keep things simple, let's just look at cloud computing as cell phone service. At this point most of us use a cell phone, but how we use it varies tremendously. Many people still use it just to make phone calls, and use e-mail on their computer instead of text, or dare I say it, write letters. They browse the internet on their computer, watch movies on their TV, listen to music on their stereo, and pay their bills by putting a check in the mail. On the other end of the spectrum, some people do all of this on their smart phone as well as running business applications and taking credit card payments on the go. Then there are seemingly endless variations that fall in between. The phone companies have plans that will accommodate all of these people. You can start off with phone service, add limited texting, add a data plan, and then increase the limits of these services as your needs grow. Think of the cloud in a similar fashion. How you use it will depend on the type of business you have, how many users are in your system, and what you already have for existing infrastructure.

Many of you are already using software that is licensed in the cloud. Office 365 is a kind of hybrid solution where you are using the Software As a Service model, but it can be downloaded and ran locally or run in the cloud through a web browser. It also comes with cloud storage for documents so they can be accessed from anywhere. E-mail is another good use of cloud technology for businesses that are too small to run their own mail servers. Small businesses with only a few users that only need to run a few programs can also benefit by running in the cloud, doing away with the need for investing in servers and software, especially when just staring out. On the other hand, if you already have good equipment that is paid for and a large number of users, it usually becomes cost preventative to move that to the cloud. Complicating the issue is many businesses have invested in integrations to allow multiple programs to communicate with each other that may be difficult or impossible to do in the cloud without moving to a full Infrastructure As a Service model. This doesn't mean the cloud doesn't offer any benefits to your business, there are good programs in the cloud that may allow your on the road sales people to better communicate with the home office and with each other while on the move. You may also need temporary storage during peak times of the year to assemble reporting or for projects that don't warrant adding additional local expansion and cloud storage that expands and contracts as you need it can fill this need quite inexpensively.

You can also become your own cloud provider. Just because you have a sizable investment in local infrastructure doesn't mean that can't be improved with cloud technology. If your business was around during the 1990's and 200's you probably remember going through an endless cycle of replacing your desktops and servers as each new version of software grew in size and complexity, requiring more powerful equipment just to run them. With the growth of the web and the advent of cloud computing, most quality software makers have returned to the client/server model, albeit referred to in terms like "thin client" or "small footprint". Better yet, as the proliferation of smart phones, tablets, and internet devices has grown, many software companies have incorporated web based or device independent technologies lately. Web apps and application servers have also made fantastic advances. Putting these cloud technologies to work in your business not only gets you off the cycle of constantly upgrading or replacing workstations, but also gives you the option of a work environment where some or all employees are free to move about the property with a wireless phone head set, carrying a tablet with all the power, communications and resources that used to only be only available on a workstation.

Server technology has also advanced to accommodate the needs of cloud providers, allowing them to increase or decrease resources available to clients as needed. By using these same cloud technologies to virtualize your own datacenter, you can leverage your existing investment in hardware to make far more efficient use of your equipment and space. Instead of replacing servers when you needed a larger one, you can simply assign additional resources such as processors, memory, and drive space. You can also move these virtual servers between host machines as needed. In most environments I visit, the majority of stand alone servers are operating at less than 10% of their processing capacity. Putting these resources to more efficient use should become one of your first priorities. It's like having an employee that only works 45 minutes a day and spends the rest of the time in the break room.

Again, this is only lightly touching on a complex subject. But my answer to the original question is to not think in terms of moving your business to the cloud, but whether you should be employing cloud technologies in your environment. The answer to that is yes and yesterday is a good time to start.