It’s hard to watch television, read a magazine, or visit a website these days without coming across ads for services “in the cloud.” Great for storing documents and for accessing your music, photos, and videos from anywhere on any device, cloud computing services are becoming increasingly popular.
Recognizing that, the IEEE New Initiatives Committee has given US $500 000 this year to the IEEE Cloud Computing Initiative. Launched in April 2011, the initiative involves work in standards, publications, continuing education, conferences, and other areas. [Read about the products and services under development in “Coming Soon: New Cloud Computing Services.“]
Should your company be using cloud services? What’s been holding your executives back? And what can you expect in the future? To answer such questions, The Institute interviewed two IEEE senior members who are experts in the field: Alexander Pasik, IEEE chief information officer, and Thomas Coughlin, president of the data storage consulting group Coughlin Associates, of Atascadero, Calif., and vice president of operations and planning for the IEEE Consumer Electronics Society.
Coughlin thinks of cloud computing as “sort of an outsourcing of technology assets.”
“An Internet-connected machine and remote digital storage are used to provide a variety of capabilities for business and personal applications,” he says.
There are three types of cloud computing: infrastructure as a service (IaaS), platform as a service (PaaS), and software as a service (SaaS).
With IaaS, clients have access to virtual servers in the service provider’s data center. “You can use those servers any way you want,” Pasik says. Users install their own software, and they’re responsible for maintaining it. “The benefit here is that you get flexibility and scalability,” Pasik says. “For example, if I typically need 3 or 4 servers to run my systems but need 50 during the holiday season, I don’t have to buy more servers. I just rent those additional servers on the cloud system.”
Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud, better known as EC2, is an IaaS—users can rent virtual servers on which they run their own applications.
PaaS includes all the features of IaaS, but clients use the provider’s computing platform, which typically includes an operating system, developer tools, database, and Web server. Users can develop and run their software in the cloud without the cost and complexity of buying and managing the underlying hardware.
“With PaaS you get better economies of scale,” Pasik says. “The trade-off is that platform providers lock down the service so that you can’t use your own tools.” An example of a PaaS is the Google App Engine, with which users develop and host Web applications using Google’s development tools.
With SaaS, cloud providers install and operate application software such as Salesforce, an online sales management tool that users can access.
“You have the least flexibility with SaaS, because you are just using the provider’s software, but you get dramatically better economies of scale,” Pasik says. Users don’t have to worry about managing the infrastructure or platform on which the application runs—the cloud provider handles that.
Although cloud computing generates lots of excitement these days, it’s not a new idea, Pasik notes.
“People have been able to use someone else’s software on their systems for a long time,” he says, citing the decades-old payroll and human resources systems provided by ADP.
What has made cloud computing so popular now is a combination of technological advances and a change in mindset.
“The adoption of Web browsers as a standard user interface and increased Internet bandwidth have really made the dramatic rise possible,” Pasik says. “You don’t need to install anything on anyone’s computer to work with the cloud, because a Web browser is already in place.”
Several other advances have fueled cloud computing’s widespread adoption. “These include object storage, which refers to metadata for stored content; deduplication, in which multiple copies of a piece of data can be aggregated as one copy; and the evolution of enterprise storage tiering [a process where data that is most often accessed or that requires fast response is kept on the storage system with the fastest throughput], such as flash memory as well as hard-disk drives and magnetic tape,” Coughlin says.
FEAR NO MORE
Businesses have also become more open to the technology. “Until recently, there’s been a hesitancy to adopt cloud computing,” Pasik says.
What has been holding executives back? For starters, fear.
“It wasn’t really a matter of anyone doing an analysis and finding that your data is safer in your own data center than in a cloud data center,” he says. “It was more of a gut fear—a feeling that ‘if it’s in my building, I have control.’”
Would-be users have come to realize that cloud leaders such as Google invest a lot more in the security of their data centers than do small- or medium-size companies. When it comes to security, the giants simply have more money to spend.
If businesses are still concerned with data protection, Coughlin points out, they can always choose a private cloud: an infrastructure operated solely for a single organization. “That way,” he says, “access can be restricted to whatever level is required by the business, and encryption helps create even greater security.”
A perceived lack of privacy is another reason some companies have been reluctant to put their data in the cloud. They don’t want anyone—including the cloud provider—to have access to their data.
“Those fears have been systematically dealt with through improved security technology and contracts that give clients more privacy protection,” Pasik explains.
Another hurdle is what Pasik calls “empire protection.” Many CIOs felt that by going to the cloud they would relinquish control of their domain. “They didn’t want to let go,” he explains. “Maybe they didn’t want to reduce the size of their operations—which, of course, goes against their fiduciary responsibility. But with time, CIOs have realized cloud computing is in the best interest of their company.”
But for businesses with a lot of money invested in their own infrastructure, the biggest obstacle to cloud adoption is fear of change. “The thinking is, ‘If you have a fabulous data center that works well, why change?’” Pasik says. “It’s important for such businesses to look carefully to see where they can leverage their existing data solutions with ones in the cloud.”
Other concerns remain, including reliability and performance.
“A road warrior may not be able to access cloud-based content and applications when needed or at the performance level required,” Coughlin notes. “Local backup of important content on a regular basis can help reduce this problem. Also, some may want to keep valuable content on their devices to make sure they can access it anytime.”
What can we expect of cloud computing in the next few years? Coughlin envisions widespread use of applications for e-wallets, which allow people to make purchases by swiping their smartphone across a reader. He also says to look for devices that automatically aggregate, generate, and store the location, time, and other metadata from user-generated content such as photos, audio, and video.
“The device will capture precisely where and when the photo or video was taken and the format it was taken in, for quick and easy access,” he says. Coughlin notes that such automated metadata will be more prevalent as still larger storage capabilities become available in the cloud.
For Pasik, an important trend to watch for is cloud insurance. “Right now, if an organization wants to buy an insurance policy to protect it against the financial implications of a data attack, it can only do so for its own data center,” he explains. “There aren’t really any options for insuring cloud data. Availability of such insurance would further fuel adoption of cloud computing.”
Pasik predicts we’ll see more services that offer a consistent user experience across all of a company’s cloud offerings. For example, Google recently revamped its core apps, like e-mail, calendar, and contacts, to have a similar design. “A consistent look makes the user feel more comfortable with the systems,” he says.
Whatever the future brings, one thing’s for sure, Pasik and Coughlin believe: All businesses should be thinking about the cloud. “If you don’t become educated about cloud computing and the potential it has for expanding your business and lowering operating costs, you will be at a significant competitive disadvantage,” says Coughlin.
Pasik puts it more bluntly: “If a business isn’t looking into the cloud, it is spending way more on IT than it has to.”
Read more in this issue to learn what IEEE is doing in cloud computing, including products and services, standards, and conferences.