We can take somebody’s data center and run it for them on the cloud.
– Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates
With this new architecture you’re always online and the applications are stored in the cloud.
– Google CEO Eric Schmidt
I really don’t know clouds at all.
– Songwriter Joni Mitchell
Everybody’s talking about cloud computing yet few people seem to know precisely what it is. So let me change this.
In short, cloud computing allows you to access computing services without needing a large IT infrastructure in your office. Instead, you rent this service online and access it over the Internet. Applications run on servers that are maintained by someone else and you pay to use them, often priced as so much per user per month.
The term itself originates in early diagrams of the “information superhighway”, where a cloud depicted the Internet or a telecommunications network of some sort.
Common uses for cloud computing include data storage, document management, email services, payment gateways, office software, and all types of applications delivered in a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model, like Salesforce.com for example.
What’s attractive about cloud computing is that it is “on demand”, and it is scalable. There is no initial outlay of money; you just pay as you go, with theoretically no limit to the amount of computing power you have at your disposal. It allows organizations to offload data centre tasks and technical support, with many suppliers providing uptime guarantees.
But cloud computing also comes with concerns, including lack of standards, privacy worries, fear of security threats, and loss of control over data and systems. Also, regulatory compliance often comes up, with the U.S. Patriot Act and Canadian privacy laws imposing limits on where certain data can be stored and who is allowed to access it.
Every vendor in this space seems to have their own contribution to cloud computing and their own view on what’s relevant and important. Two high profile leaders that have emerged are Microsoft and Google.
My company Nicom recently signed up to become a reseller for Microsoft’s cloud contribution: Business Productivity Online Service (BPOS). BPOS is a hosted solution for Exchange (email/shared calendaring), SharePoint (collaboration tools), Live Meeting (web conferencing), and Office Communications (real-time text, voice and video communication). We’re also looking at Microsoft’s hosted CRM option for customer relationship management.
Microsoft stresses that it is Software plus Services, not Software-as-a-Service, that’s the trend. The difference is that Software plus Services offers a combination of desktop and online services so you stay productive whether or not you are connected (think travelling with a laptop) and you synchronize when you do connect. You also typically have a richer user interface on a desktop application and you can choose to keep sensitive data away from the cloud.
For software developers, Microsoft offers a platform for building applications in the cloud or accessing Internet services to enhance existing applications, something that is of a lot of interest to me since that’s the business I’m in.
Google does basically everything online. Go to the Google web site and click on About Google and it’s all there. Where they specifically refer to “the cloud” is on the Google Apps page, where they call this product “Software-as-a-service for business email, information sharing and security”. I devoted an entire column to Google Apps last year (check my blog), so I won’t go into details here.
Now I’ve told you the contribution to cloud computing from both Google and Microsoft. I guess you could say I’ve looked at the cloud from both sides now.
[For the Google Apps article, see: http://nicominteractive.com/wp_blog.nicomit.com/index.php/2008/04/google-apps-offers-free-business-collaboration-software.]