October 3, 2011 | last updated June 4, 2012 12:32 pm
Q&A

Price, reliability point to cloud computing

Rick Huebner, CEO of Visual Technologies in Hartford.

Q&A talks about cloud computing with Rick Huebner, CEO of Visual Technologies in Hartford.

Q: There are a lot of references in the tech world to cloud computing. What is the simplest way to explain cloud computing for the non-tech person?

A: At its core, the cloud delivers computing as a service rather than a product. This is analogous to many utilities we've been using for many years. For example, typically electricity is a service provided by a power company. The power company owns generation plants and distributes the electricity to consumers. Consumers pay for the service based on electricity used, by the kilowatt. However, instead of using the power company, consumers could purchase products, like gas powered generators or solar panels, to generate their own power. With cloud computing, products are the servers and software purchased to support corporate email or file storage. Instead of those purchases, companies can realize significant benefits by subscribing to email or file storage services and paying based on utilization. While this has created a major buzz, individuals have been using hosted or cloud-based email services, like Hotmail.com, for years, and for corporations, cloud computing is parallel to the time-sharing of mainframe computers in 1970's.

Q: As a follow-up, what are the "significant benefits" you mentioned?

A: The most obvious is reduction of capital expenditures. Specifically, cloud computing replaces large, up-front costs that fund hardware and software purchases and installation costs, with on-going service fees. Cloud computing also reduces operating costs by eliminating the hardware and software cost-of-ownership. Cloud computing also eliminates certain regional issues. Let's say a tropical storm hits Connecticut, resulting in power outages. If a business leverages cloud computing, their website, email, files, etc. will be up and running even if the office is without power.

Q: To continue this "Idiot's Guide to The Cloud," where does the cloud actually reside? Is it spread among redundant servers?

A: I guess the cloud is anywhere. Clearly a hosted email solution, for example, will be supported by a definitive number of servers in a definitive number of data centers at a definitive number of physical locations, but at any given time the service provider may add data centers or servers or may alter their data replication, which could then change where your data is saved. To take a step back, most enterprise cloud computing service providers have more than one data center. These are typically in different physical locations, or geo-redundant. Inside the data centers are servers that work together to support specific functions. With the email example, this means there are groups of servers that simultaneously store the email and support email processing. If one server or even one data center goes off-line, another is available and ready to continue, seamlessly providing service.

Q: Your company sent out a promotional piece touting the cloud as a means for not being shut down because of regional weather events. Has the cloud become the newest way to remotely protect your data against disaster? Has it made onsite servers obsolete?

A: Cloud computing creates an opportunity to build a geo-redundant operation where your business critical services are insulated from regional weather events. It gets a bit complicated, but geographic independence can be attained even for vertical market or homegrown applications by leveraging server virtualization. Onsite servers may still be valuable in certain circumstances. Custom-built and legacy applications may be expensive to host in the cloud, and certain components of the cloud may actually continue to be located onsite.

Q: How safe is it from hacking?

A: Nothing is safe from hacking attempts since most computers, servers, and networks are connected to the Internet. As a result, risks are fairly consistent whether it's a small company's network in Connecticut or an enterprise cloud service provider in many countries.

Q: And, finally, how are costs computed when it comes to using the cloud? How does it compare to a typical internal infrastructure?

A: Cloud costs are charged based on some unit cost on a periodic basis. Email hosting will probably be per user per month. Cloud data backup solutions could be per gigabyte per month. Companies need to complete a benefit analysis that factors costs to build, maintain, update, and possibly finance internal infrastructure versus the periodic, cloud service costs. To date, my experience with the cost benefit analysis suggest cloud computing implementations take at least five years, but in most cases much higher than that, to cost more than the internal builds. Remember, after five years there'll be at least software upgrades required and probably hardware replacements with your internal infrastructure. Obviously every situation is unique but if you objectively factor cost, flexibility, mobility, and getting rid of the day-to-day operational headaches, cloud computing is a compelling option.

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