Uncomfortable thinking about the Cloud?

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At this point, most users of internet-oriented technologies have at least heard of the ‘cloud.’ Yet even though millions use tools existing only in the cloud (think gmail, hotmail, and salesforce.com), most lack a comfort level for what it is.

As business leaders, making decisions on the cloud’s use, this can be particularly discomforting. Proponents often use the ‘everyone is doing it’ (even your competitors) approach in promoting its adoption. Major benefits cited can include lower start up costs, minimal IT investment, and broad accessibility from your favorite coffee shops.

The most zealous make statements about the cloud having to be multi-tenancy, not single-tenancy. Others claim the cloud, aka Software as a Service (SaaS), is just the ASP (application service provider) model from the 90s reborn. And this isn’t even scratching the scratch on the surface of the debate.

Its no wonder so many are uncomfortable with their understanding of ‘the cloud.’

For the most part, the ‘cloud’ can simply be viewed as an internet-based service provided by a 3rd party (someone else) for your use. You do not know, care, or think about how it comes to be. Like household electricity, you simply use it.

Google’s gmail is a perfect consumer-oriented cloud example. Gmail is a complete email service (send, receive, store) hosted on Google’s own servers. You use your own computing device to access their service via the internet. Yet in no way does any part of the service reside inside your own home or office.

There is an ever-increasing array of services (aka solutions) becoming available in the cloud. Examples include accounting tools for accountants; tax preparation for individuals; data storage for individuals and major businesses; and so many many more.

As people increasingly make use of these web-based software services, a number of concerns start to be voiced. A sample includes:

  • Services that simply ‘go away,’ leaving users stranded
  • Performance, slow service costs time, costs money
  • Accessibility, how readily can employees or customers connect
  • What happens if ‘your’ service is acquired by another

Having been both consumer and provider of SaaS (cloud) services, I have experience with the concerns from both sides.

As a provider, delivering software as a service has some key benefits. I can update the service whenever necessary. This means I am free from having to wait for the next quarterly–or annual–software release. This also means, while I do have other operational costs, I can get around cost of goods, inventory and channel management, and all the related logistics. It is faster, more fluid, and more readily scalable.

As a business consumer, I benefit from the cloud’s economies of scale, peace of mind, and maintenance benefits. For instance, you have the benefits of scalability, scaling up or down as your business evolves over time. And, with someone else ‘minding the store,’ you may sleep better.

As a personal consumer, I find there are things I’m slowly doing more and more of ‘in the cloud.’ To the extent it makes sense, I prefer to maintain my own infrastructure (e.g. server, software, storage). But there are services for which it would make zero sense to contemplate doing myself.

But let’s look at the concerns noted above, which we can lump together as general service availability and performance. Cloud service providers will always (yes, I’m sure there’s an exception out there…) tell you what level of service they are willing to commit to. This ‘commitment’ is typically referred to as a SLA ,or service level agreement.

For individuals, consumers in particular, we tend to overlook the contents of an SLA–if we even read it. If we can’t access email, or pictures, for a few hours, we simply wait. If the service completely crashes, its up to us as individuals to re-upload our stuff. However, for a business, even a few minutes of downtime can translate into major problems–ultimately measured as $$.

The SLA clearly spells out the service being guaranteed, maintenance windows, how peak (burst) loads may be handled, and the like. If you’re entering into a periodic agreement (monthly, annual, or multi-year), the SLA may also define conditions by which you can terminate the service w/o penalty (e.g. what if it’s offline 10 minutes, 1 day, 2+ days).

This leads to another, unstated, consideration: content portability. This is no different than when you decide to change major software applications you may use. How big a concern this is, depends on the size of your business and the complexity of your data. Ask if the service provider has a process for returning your content to you. Do they charge for it? Is it in a usable form, by your, or your new provider? Walk through the process with them if necessary/appropriate. Do not assume anything.

One of the remaining, considerations for SaaS is broadband ubiquity, accessibility. It is surprising at times how many people still use dial-up to connect to the internet. If you’re a SaaS-based provider, or consumer, how you’re connecting in the ‘last mile’ will directly impact the cloud’s usefulness.

This is a ‘big’ topic. We’re not even talking about data security, recovery, and business continuity. What if your business is gutted by fire? Do you maintain current digital backups off-site, really? Can you be back up and running before the fire’s been put out? This is another area where SaaS ‘can’ be invaluable.

Share your thoughts…

Part 2, in the next few business days…