Cloud computing for all

Cloud computing for all

The beauty of the cloud is that every company, big or small, can use it. However, what cloud-based tools you implement will depend on your company’s size

Behind every cloud is another cloud,” Judy Garland once said – and just looking at the burgeoning world of cloud computing, it’s hard to disagree.

Whereas only two years ago many businesses were still asking, “What is the cloud?” today, organizations as small as three employees and as large as 300,000 are taking part or all of their business processes online. According to Cisco, 78 per cent of workloads will be processed by cloud data centres by 2018, while only 22 per cent will be processed by traditional data centres.

While cloud computing is, essentially, a catch-all phrase for working virtually, small, medium and large-sized businesses all use the cloud in different ways. Some applications can be used across all sizes, while others will only make sense for certain operations.

How can you set up a cloud-based business for your company? We explain.

Why go to the cloud?

First, let’s look at the benefits of going to the cloud, which, in most basic terms, means sharing computing resources over a network. In a nutshell, cloud computing allows for greater agility in providing a product or service from multiple locations and doing so at a lower cost. Rather than investing in all the infrastructure or software upfront, you pay for what you use as you use it.

Prime targets for cloud computing include fast-growing companies, which don’t know how much infrastructure they’re going to need three months down the road; cyclical businesses, which don’t need fixed infrastructure for large swaths of the year; consolidating companies, which need to integrate systems quickly, often over a large geographic territory; and companies concerned about security, for which standardized configuration management is critical.

Cloud computing can be broken down into three key segments: Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), Software as a Service (SaaS) and Platform as a Service (PaaS). Depending on your business needs, you may require some or all of the above; although, the size of your business also plays a critical part in what you’re going to use.

When you determine what you need, there are many companies that can help get you up and running in the cloud, including traditional telecoms such as Bell, Rogers and Telus; software and hardware providers like IBM, HP and Dell; and other operations such as CenturyLink, CGI, Cogeco and SunGard.

Set-up for small businesses

Small businesses have been making use of the cloud for a lot longer than larger companies. Many didn’t know it at the time, but Hotmail – the way many entrepreneurs used to communicate with clients – is a cloud-computing service.

Now, there are myriad cloud-based programs targeted specifically to small businesses, such as FreshBooks for invoicing, Dropbox for file storage, Quicken for accounting and more. Not only are these programs easy to use, but they can also save smaller companies a lot of time and money.

In a 2013 study conducted by Rackspace and the Manchester Business School, 88 per cent of companies surveyed said that the cloud has reduced costs, while 56 per cent said that cloud services have helped them boost profits. Most small businesses, though, use cloud software to improve employee productivity and communications, says Pam Casale, senior vice-president of marketing for full-service cloud provider Dimension Data.

Popular SaaS programs include Google Apps – it offers an integrated suite of business e-mail, online storage, video meetings and more – and Microsoft Office 365, which is essentially the Microsoft Office suite in cloud form. When it comes to cloud infrastructure (the actual servers where data and files are stored), most rely on the third-party companies they use, like Google and Microsoft, to keep their information safe.

Microsoft, to keep their information safe. “These businesses have a handful of important applications that run their operation, and they’re really looking to take as many of their available dollars and invest them in their business,” says Casale. “They want a cloud provider to pick up responsibility for managing their infrastructure.”

For file storage and backup services, most small businesses use popular off-the-shelf service providers such as Dropbox, Box.com and Microsoft’s OneDrive. Large telcos like Telus and Bell also have their own cloud-based services – Telus AgilIT and Bell Cloud Compute, respectively – geared toward the storage/backup market.

Cloud for medium-size businesses

As a business grows, its cloud needs to grow as well. The portfolio of applications it needs to put on the cloud becomes more complex and starts to include customer relationship management (CRM) programs like those offered by Salesforce.com, HR and financial management programs like Workday, and accounting programs like Simply. Medium-sized businesses also have different storage requirements, sometimes driven by a need to meet industry standards or certain government regulations. For instance, some companies may be required to keep their data within a particular jurisdiction or to hold it for a five-year period.

At some point, a company starts generating a high enough volume of data –and a complexity of business processes – that it needs help managing that data. That’s where managed cloud service providers like Dimension Data or Telus Business Solutions come into play.

Solutions come into play. “Mid-sized businesses are thinking, ‘Oh my god, my business is so complex – I have so many servers, I have so many applications, I have a very limited budget and number of people to manage it,’” says Julija Noskova, director of cloud marketing for Telus Business Solutions. “This is the point at which they might want to go outside and ask someone like us to help them host their data in the cloud, which allows them to easily access the data and get additional computing space as required.”

For those who don’t want or need to outsource their IT management to a third-party provider, there are public IaaS providers, like Amazon Web Services (AWS), that offer a variety of compute, storage, database, analytics, application and deployment services for companies over the cloud. But with public IaaS providers, it’s incumbent on the company’s internal IT organization to set up the services and manage them. AWS publishes a standard that states what you can expect from an availability and capacity perspective – but that’s the extent of their support.

Cloud for large businesses

Once you get to larger clients, you’re talking companies with quite a large portfolio of applications and usually a legacy physical infrastructure that also has to be replaced or integrated into the cloud.

Innovation in certain sectors, such as mobile banking in the financial industry, has necessitated big changes in infrastructure in recent years. “You want to make your client-facing application available on mobile devices, but when you make that change it has to be reflected in your ERP [enterprise resource planning] system,” says Casale.

ERP applications – from companies like SAP and Oracle – cover critical business systems, from accounts payable and receivables to inventory control. They’re notoriously difficult and expensive to manage. Moving those to the cloud can make management simpler and more cost-effective.

Especially with larger companies, some business processes need a greater level of security and technical support, and that’s where the idea of the private cloud comes into play. In a public cloud environment, you are ultimately sharing resources and competing with other companies at peak periods. If you have workloads that you need to always have on and always performing at a predefined level, then a private cloud, with its dedicated and secure space, is the way to go. This can range from computing and storage space within a private cloud provider’s data centre to cloud-based servers that are housed on your own premises.

That said, a private cloud is substantially more expensive, so you have to be selective about what goes private and what goes public. Increasingly, large companies are adopting a so-called “hybrid cloud” model, where they keep their low-risk consumer-facing data in a public cloud (say, information for their website), but put high-risk data (customer or client information) in a back-end system that’s on a private cloud. Companies like Dimension also offer a variation on the full-service private model, whereby you pay a nominal amount to get a private cloud installed and are guaranteed a minimum usage, usually about 10 per cent of that space, but otherwise pay for what you use.

Cloud computing: The future

As more businesses move onto the cloud, the question of how you manage those multiple clouds – across applications, and from public to private – becomes critical.

Today, companies that are invested in cloud technology are dealing with “cloud sprawl,” which makes it difficult to figure out where the problem resides when something goes wrong with an application. What cloud is it on? Or is it using traditional infrastructure, plus the cloud? “There’s always that desire to have a single pane of glass, where someone can see where everything is, instead of having to have special relationships with multiple suppliers,” says Casale.

Cloud Control by Dimension Data and ServiceMesh by CSC are two pieces of software that allow companies that single point of control. “These kinds of solutions are going to become more and more sophisticated over time,” says Casale. “In addition to just providing a view, they’ll enable IT to move applications between clouds.”

Whatever their future needs, the new cloud world means more choice and more flexibility for businesses of all sizes – something that didn’t exist until recently.

“If you think back 20 years ago, people built mainframes and put them in their building,” says Tom Jolly, VP of managed IT and cloud services for Telus. “Then companies like IBM said, ‘Why don’t you outsource that to us and pay us a monthly fee?’” Now, with so many more options for companies of all sizes, “those days are more or less over.”

- Matt O’Grady