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Cloud Computing: Trendy or Transformational

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In the world of information technology, it seems Frett Board that a new concept emerges every few years as the next great leap in technology. One current idea that fits that description in the IT world is called cloud computing. However, before a company embraces cloud computing, it needs to ensure that it understands all the implications of this new offering. As with most technologies, many benefits can be gained, but the business risks must also be evaluated, and understanding the benefits.

When making this evaluation, it is important to keep in mind the organization’s short-term needs and long-term objectives and goals. In recent years, the Obama administration has pushed all federal agencies to investigate cloud computing to see if it will benefit each agency. “The Federal CIO Council, under the guidance of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Federal Chief Information Officer (CIO), Vivek Kundra, established the Cloud Computing Initiative to fulfill the President’s objectives for cloud computing.”5 With the recent push from the current administration, cloud computing is expected to grow by leaps and bounds over the next few years. In some studies, there are predictions that “cloud services will reach $44.2 billion in 2013, up from $17.4 billion of today, according to research firm IDC.”4 This paper will lay out the considerations that an organization should consider at before deciding to use or dismiss cloud computing at present.

Cloud Computing

Overview of Cloud Computing:

“Cloud Computing is a model for enabling convenient, on-demand network-based access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications, and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interactions.”2 This definition is one of many that have been introduced within the IT industry, but what does this mean? The concept of a cloud can be looked at as a “leasing-versus-owning concept – an operational expense versus a capital one.”4

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To better understand the cloud computing concept, let us compare it to a more familiar image: paying for an electric utility. Each month, a household or business utilizes a certain amount of electricity, which a company monitors, and the consumer is billed based on their usage. If each family had its power source, that would be congruent with non-cloud computing; there is no central power source that families take advantage of. If, as is the standard case, families buy their power from a consolidated power source (e.g., a power plant), that would be like taking advantage of a cloud; many users share a resource to fulfill their independent needs. Using this simple example, the cloud would be similar to the power plant, providing infrastructure or Software to customers on a pay-per-use basis.

Some experts may disagree, but in many regards, cloud computing is similar to how computers were used when they first entered the market. At the advent of computers, computers (and associated facilities) were extraordinarily expensive and only owned by a few select organizations such as universities or the government. Few had the expertise to support a separate computing facility in-house. Therefore, companies would lease time on computing resources provided by a few providers, only purchasing what they needed for what they were working on. In a similar model, cloud computing introduces the concept of buying resources as required, and identical to the past, the resources can be accessed from a remote location. Key differences include quality of service and a variety of services offered by cloud computing vendors. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) serves to help government agencies achieve cloud. NIST’s cloud model “promotes the availability and is composed of five essential characteristics, three service models, and four deployment models.”2 As this paper continues, each component will be addressed.

Development Models:

Before evaluating if cloud computing is a good fit for a given organization, cloud computing’s general concepts must be understood. There are several different deployment models as well as applications of clouds that make up a cloud environment. The cloud deployment models include public, community, private, and hybrid clouds. Each deployment model has strengths and weaknesses related to the specific case where a shadow is being considered. The following provides a summary understanding of each deployment model to be chosen to move forward with consideration of cloud implementation.

Public Cloud

“Made available to the general public or a large industry group and is owned by an organization selling cloud services”2 A public cloud is owned by a third-party vendor that sells or offers free of service, a shadow that the general public can use. A public cloud is the quickest to set up within an organization, but it also has limited transparency and limits customization.

Community Cloud

“Shared by several organizations and supports a specific community with shared concerns” 2 A community cloud is an architecture established when a group of organizations comes together to share resources. A community cloud is a mini public cloud, but only a select group of organizations will be authorized to use the cloud. In contrast to the public cloud, it will generally be more expensive since it will only be used within a smaller group of organizations. All of the infrastructures must be established. A community cloud is a great choice for organizations, such as federal agencies, that desire to share resources but want more control over security and insight into the cloud.

Private Cloud

“Operated solely for an organization” 2 A private cloud is established to support a small singular organization. There is much debate if a private cloud should be considered a cloud, as the infrastructure and management of the cloud remain within the organization.

Hybrid Cloud

“Composition of two or more clouds (private, community or public) that remain unique entities but are bound together by standardized or proprietary technology that enables technology that enables data and application portability.”2 A hybrid cloud allows for some of the resources to be managed by a public cloud environment. In contrast, others are handled internally by a private cloud. This will normally be used by an organization that wants to allow itself to have the scalability features that a public cloud offers but will want to keep mission-critical or private data internal to the organization.

Service Models:

In addition to the Platform on which a cloud will be deployed, there are various cloud applications. There are three major types of cloud services, Software as a Service (SaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS), and Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS). Described below are the concepts between the varying types of cloud models.

Software as a Service (SaaS):

“Delivers software over the internet without need to install and run applications on the customer’s computers” 2 SaaS allows applications to be used by customers over the internet to complete business processes. SaaS is not net; for example, “Salesforce.com has been providing on-demand software for customers since 1999.”6 The advantage of SaaS is that the Software is run from one centralized location, which means it can be accessed from any site over the internet. The other benefit of having the Software managed in one place is that the patches and updates only need to be done once, eliminating the time-consuming need to conduct software updates on every machine. Lastly, SaaS is generally “on-demand,” meaning an organization does not have to commit to enterprise licenses.

Platform as a Service (PaaS):

“Delivers a computing platform and solution stack as a service, often consuming cloud infrastructure and sustaining cloud applications” 2 The PaaS is a platform that helps to deliver an environment where a user can use the cloud to develop new applications without the need to have the Software or infrastructure purchased in-house. The consumer will have control of the applications running on the cloud but will not have control of the infrastructure that it is running on. PaaS essentially provides “anything needed to support how a company builds and delivers Web applications and services in the cloud.”3

Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS):

“Delivers computer infrastructure, typically platform virtualization environment as a service. It’s an evolution of virtual private server offerings.” 2 IaaS uses the cloud to supply the infrastructure that would normally have to be procured by a singular organization to run its IT infrastructure. The infrastructure includes servers, memory, and storage that allow a customer to scale up or down as necessary. Customers can then use the infrastructure to run their Software with only the needed resources at a given moment. In the past, companies often had to purchase a huge infrastructure to support a periodic spike in need for help, leaving the servers and networks idle for much of the remaining time. With IaaS, resources will not be wasted because only what is needed at a given moment is utilized. The cloud service customers have control over the operating systems and applications but don’t manage the cloud infrastructure.

Pros and Cons of Cloud Computing:

Now that the basic concepts of cloud computing are understood, an organization must consider all the cloud’s impacts. As one might expect, several considerations must be weighed to decide if implementing cloud computing is the best approach for a given organization.

Advantages:

Many advantages can be gained from the use of cloud computing. Cloud computing is built upon the idea of economies of scale. The great thing about the cloud concept is the potential cost-saving benefits that can be gained for a small startup, large company, or even an entire federal agency. Cloud computing eliminates the usual high up-front cost that companies often cannot afford, allows for “infinite” resources on demand, and provides the ability to pay for help as needed. It also removes the need for special facilities and highly trained personnel dedicated to IT and the need to continually upgrade hardware and Software as technology moves on and company requirements change.

In general, using cloud computing should reduce costs by companies paying for only the needed resources. Many companies do not know the demand for their IT infrastructure, which previously meant that companies either over-bought servers or were overwhelmed by demand that could not be handled, leading to a loss of customers or service degradation to their customers. Either scenario has a detrimental impact because money was inefficiently expended on unnecessary hardware, and potential sales were lost.

Software maintenance can be just as significant an organizational expense as the initial purchase. With cloud computing, software updates and backups are made without the organization spending time and money on these activities. This helps alleviate many of the technical burdens often put on companies and allow them to concentrate on their core competencies while still gaining the advantage of having the most up-to-date version of the Software.

Cloud computing allows a company to operate elastically. Resources can be scaled up or down as needed by a project, consumer demand, or driving needs. The elasticity gained by cloud computing allows projects to proceed appropriately without the time-consuming and costly delays that the purchase of hardware and Software has through the procurement process. Resources can be quickly provisioned/de-provisioned, resulting in a lower investment cost. The use of the cloud is looked at as an environmentally friendly approach. Currently, there are a huge number of server farms that operate to serve individual, organizational needs. With cloud computing, a single server farm can support many entities, potentially reducing power requirements, emissions, and disposal of old electronics.

Disadvantages:

A company may think that cloud computing is unquestionably the way to go. Still, several concerns must be considered before a company elects to implement cloud computing. The main problems inherent in cloud computing include security, privacy, reliability, and cost.

Security is an organization’s most common reason for not moving forward with the cloud. Many organizations ask: “Who would trust their essential data out there somewhere?” The amount of security control an organization will have depends on the type of adopted cloud structure; private, public, or community. The amount of security control is highest in a private cloud and lowest in a public one. While a cloud environment might be just as secure as a non-cloud, there is limited transparency into the cloud, which escalates security worries. Along the same lines, many organizations are concerned about the amount of privacy a cloud environment could lack. The third-party vendor supplying the cloud could access a company’s sensitive information, increasing the risk of a privacy breach.

Reliability is a huge concern for many organizations; having a service down for a few minutes a year could be costly or cause a safety concern. Cloud takes control of reliability out of the organization’s hands and puts it into the hands of the cloud vendor. Service level agreements must be established with the cloud vendor to ensure the reliability requirements are agreed upon by both parties upfront. In some organizations, especially within the government, reporting laws make it so a cloud option might “not be an acceptable solution due to government regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley and Health and Human Services Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA).”1 Also, many regulations prevent sensitive data from being transmitted beyond a nation’s borders. Cloud computing farms are generally built in locations offering the lowest possible cost, often outside the customer’s nation’s borders. Currently, clouds are being established that alleviate this concern, but as a result, the cost of using the cloud vendor increases.

While the “advantage” section mentioned how cloud computing was a way to lower costs, this is not always the case. The initial price of utilizing a cloud will be lower, but the lifetime costs could be much higher due to the continual expense of paying for service. Lastly, there is always the concern that the business selling cloud services will go out of business. Cloud applications from one provider will generally not be compatible with other providers’ clouds, limiting an organization’s options if they need to change providers for some reason.

Cloud Implementation:

Before implementing a cloud within an organization, the first step that needs to be taken is deciding if it is the right fit. The proper analysis needs to be conducted to include: cost, time, risk, benefits, and interoperability. The cloud environment could be a great revolution for a given organization, but it is not a one-size-fits-all solution. If flexibility and scalability are an organization’s paramount needs, the cloud is likely an optimal solution. The cloud might be a viable IT solution for organizations with excellent security and privacy concerns, but an in-depth analysis of the tradeoffs needs to be conducted. The time that an application or infrastructure will be commissioned should be a factor in deciding if the cloud is an appropriate model. The cloud is likely an excellent candidate for a short-duration project because the infrastructure does not need to be procured. In the case of a long-term implementation, the cloud might still be a viable option because demand often fluctuates. This being the case, if the order is steady, a procurement of the hardware might be a better option, considering the cloud normally has a higher cost per transaction.

After it has been decided that a cloud environment is a correct fit, the cloud layer that will be implemented must be selected: SaaS, PaaS, or IaaS. Each of the different layers brings with it entirely different questions; following the layer’s selection, the type of Platform that the cloud will be deployed on must be chosen: public, community, private, or hybrid. Considering the entire life cycle cost of implementing the cloud is important. Without much question, the initial cost of implementing a cloud will be lower, but since prices are paid for on a per-use basis, the cost over the entire lifetime could potentially be higher with a cloud. When developing the cost estimate to establish an IT infrastructure without the shadow, costs beyond the hardware and Software’s initial purchase must be considered. With a cloud, especially in the public cloud, there is a considerable reduction in the costs for updates/patches, maintenance, and staff reductions, all factors that need to be considered when making a fair comparison. Opportunity cost must be determined for moving to a cloud, and a decision should be made based on the organization’s needs.

Summary:

In summary, cloud computing can change how organizations view and deal with IT needs. As the private and government sectors continually look for ways to reduce costs, the cloud is an approach that needs to be evaluated. In general, the price of this type of infrastructure will be lower, but to some degree, at the expense of customization and control over security in the organization’s IT structure. By thoroughly investigating the considerations and options presented in this paper, an organization will be well-positioned to make a smart decision on cloud computing for its current and future needs.

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