Many of our existing customers and potentially new customers ask us the same question? What is the cloud and should we make use of it?
These post’s explain what the cloud is and some pointers to help you decide if it is suitable for your IT environment or not. Note that you should always consult your IT provider to ascertain whether adopting cloud services is correct for your business and if you don’t have a current IT provider or would like to consult a third party please do not hesitate to give us a call.
What is the cloud?
Some will tell you that the cloud spells the end for your IT environment and that you can move all your IT services to an online environment. Others will tell you that the cloud is just the latest IT buzz and means nothing. In reality both of these answers are partially correct.
The Wikipedia article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cloud_computing) gives a good description of what the cloud is:
“Cloud computing is the delivery of computing as a service rather than a product, whereby shared resources, software, and information are provided to computers and other devices as a utility (like the electricity grid) over a network (typically the Internet)”
In other words you can externalise certain IT services to a third party so that you no longer need to manage and maintain them instead you simply rent access to a service which is managed and maintained by a third party.
What does this mean?
- You can move your email services to the cloud
- You can move your file storage services to the cloud
- You can move your web services to the cloud (Sharepoint\Companyweb)
- You are no longer reliant on your office Internet connection as you can move to another location (home) if there is a problem at your main office
- You don’t need to manage and maintain the service yourself
- You can gain access to your systems and services from anywhere on the Internet
- Saving files to the cloud requires a good upload speed to the Internet to avoid performance problems
- You are forced to comply with the third party configurations and policies
- You rely on that third party to ensure services are available when you need them
- If your Internet connection is not available you will lose access to your services, however you can simply to another Internet connected location (home) to resume access. With an in house setup you would lose the ability to send\receive emails from the office but everything else would continue to work
- You rely on the third party to provide backups
- Generally there are no point in time archive facilities available
That sounds great, no more IT headaches and no more need to worry about changing backup tapes or managing servers?
Whilst in some cases this is true if you only have 1 or 2 computers then apart from a local broadband connection you don’t need anything else. If however you have a bigger environment then you still need to be able to control the computers themselves, maintain login accounts for all personnel and manage local services.
What about the network?
This is the question asked most often and is one of the biggest limiting factors to what you can currently move to a cloud environment. It is very much driven by the upload speed of your network connection as when you are saving files to the cloud you are uploading them rather than the usual downloads. A standand business broadband connection will likely give you up to 8Mbps of download speed whilst the upload speed can be as little as 0.25Mbps or 0.5Mbps and if this was your download speed you would have complaints from your employees.
If you have more than 2 computers and are creating or updating files on a regular basis then it is likely that your network connection will NOT provide good performance when uploading files and is one of the main reasons that companies are keeping file services stored on local servers.
What about security?
You are very much reliant on the security provided by the hosting provider and you should take the following into account.
- Verify where your data is stored and note that it may NOT be in the UK so you need to verify that this doesn’t violate any data protection laws you need to comply with
- Whilst the third party will segregate your services away from others they will be stored on the same servers as others. If a hacker gains access to the system they will have access to multiple peoples data
- Depending on the service you choose controlling who can access those files in your organisation can be more complicated than it is now. e.g Sharepoint can be used to store files but Sharepoint security has a number of restrictions on how you set this up
- If you or one of your employees deletes files from the cloud service do you know how to get them back
What about availability and reliability?
Once again your are dependant on the hosting provider and you should always ensure that you select a provider who provides guarantees on uptime as well as redundant data centres and backup links. Verify that if your files are moved automatically to another data centre if the local one has a problem that this doesn’t put you in breach of any data protection laws.
What about backups and archiving?
This very much depends on what the hosting provider provides. Generally they will cover all backups as part of the service as they will need this to ensure their availability and reliability. However just because they are doing backups doesn’t answer how you gain access to them to perform restores so please check this with the provider before taking on their services.
Archiving tends to be something that hosting providers don’t provide so whilst they will be able to restore your files and systems back a few days there is no guarantee that they can bring back something that was deleted a few weeks or months ago.
If you need archiving then you should ensure that you put processes in place to achieve this. i.e. download the files yourself to a local system which you can then backup to tape or disk etc.
What do you recommend?
We will always recommend that you work closely with your IT provider to develop the best strategy that suits not only your IT needs but also your budget. Generally we don’t recommend that you move any time sensitive services to the cloud as the availabile network bandwidth is outwith your control unless you have leased lines in place. Time sensitive services are anything that you or one of your employees has to wait for it to complete before moving onto something else. Such as saving or opening a file where any performance issues are immediately noticed, generating frustration and wasting time.
Most of the time email is not a time sensitive service as you don’t know normally an email is coming until it has arrived and when you send one you know it is on its way but don’t necessarily expect the recipient to get it straight away. Security is less of an issue, all of the great things about accessibility in the cloud suit email perfectly and this makes email an ideal candidate IF that suits your IT environment. Remember that ALL of the accessibilty functions are available from your Microsoft Small Business server you may already have and if you need to keep it around to process employees logins and share files is there any point in spending money to externalise the email component when you already have everything in place. If you have a working in house setup but the management of those services is a problem and your main driver to the cloud then speak to us about managing your service as it is likely that we can not only take away your IT headaches but also be more cost effective than moving.
As ever there are two sides to the story and what can seem like a simple decision to make has a knock on impact on the other IT services. Always seek advice before going ahead.
What do we do?
As noted above every organisation is slightly different so you need to tailor your IT environment accordingly. We make use of cloud based email services as this makes it easier for engineers when they are out at client premises to keep up to date with email without impacting our office Internet connection, however we keep all our other systems in house. Whilst this hasn’t changed the requirements of our internal servers it has removed a bottleneck on our network connection, however had all of our engineers been based in the office then, as we haven’t reduced the number of servers or systems we have by externalising email, we would have kept it in house.
There are two main providers of cloud services aimed at the SME level (Google and Microsoft) and in the next post we will look at the services they provide and how they perform.