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You don’t have to spend too much time with technology media and advertising these days to run across the use, and misuse, of the term “cloud”. Yes, cloud is the current “must have” of the industry. To a business leader that depends on information technology systems it is important to be informed and understand what the cloud is and what it means for your business.

First, some history. Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s there was something called an Application Service Provider (ASP). This was essentially an offering of a software application accessible over the internet and shared amongst multiple tenants. Yes, this was happening over 15 years ago. There was some success with certain applications however, internet access and speed were not as robust as they are today making dependency on the internet for a critical application risky.

Next contributing factor on the list is co-location centers. These are computer facilities that house equipment for their customers. They provide space, power, cooling and network connections while the customer provides server hardware, storage, software and software management. In many cases, the customers could lease hardware from the co-location provider as well as certain software management services.

Ok, so let’s have a quick review. The ASP model enables the service customer to access software applications and data over the internet without having to be concerned with software management or infrastructure management. Co-location enables the service customer to access software and application without having to deal with physical infrastructure such as buildings, power, cooling while still maintaing control of software management.

For the better part of a decade, ASP and co-location were what was available to businesses that wanted alternatives to maintaining their own facilities and hardware. So, what changed? What created the environment for Cloud to come on the scene? Let’s explore.

A sufficiently sized computer server is more powerful than a typical desktop computer. Servers run all sorts of software applications like email services, web services, databases, business applications and the like. For most of the history of computing, servers were very expensive and needed professionals to install and maintain.

As computing hardware improved such as faster CPUs, faster RAM, faster hard drives it also became cheaper. Some call this phenomenon “Moore’s Law” specifically discussing CPUs.

In addition to the increase in computing hardware performance, internet access also became more pervasive and markedly faster. Broadband internet made its way throughout much of the industrialized world enabling much better performance for applications that connected over the internet.

The effect of this improvement in hardware capability, network capability and the reductions in cost created an incredible opportunity – virtualization.

Virtualization is a term used in information technology circles that means the ability to run more than one “server” on the same “server”. Now, let’s clarify that. A physical server, a “host”, is a computing machine with CPU, RAM, storage, network interfaces, etc. A “server” is a running copy of an operating system.

Let’s explore this a little deeper to make it clear. Think about your laptop. It’s running a copy of Windows or OSX or maybe even linux. It has a name ‘BOB-PC’ perhaps. It has one or more internet addresses. All an operating system is is a special program. The name of the laptop is just a configuration setting as is the internet address.

So, what if we could run multiple operating system programs at the same time on one computer? Your laptop runs multiple programs: email, web browser, word processing, etc. Now that the computer hardware is so fast and cheap why can we not run multiple operating systems? Now we can.

Using virtualization, a large computer host in a data center can run multiple copies of operating systems “servers” that have different names, different network addresses and so on. This configuration gets much more economical use out of the computing infrastructure.

The use of virtualization began on hosts and servers however it has not remained constrained there. Today almost every major part of information technology infrastructure has a virtualized offering: disks and storage, network adapters, network switches and routers, etc.

Are you seeing where this is heading? I hope so. Let me see if I can stitch this together nicely.

What was ASP and co-location combined with virtualization and some management applications has become what we today call “cloud”. Yes, the cloud is essentially virtualized resources running on host computers that run in large shared data centers around the world. We access the cloud with our computers, our mobile phones and, as each day passes, with all other sorts of devices. The cloud is the internet with virtualized utility computing attached.

Cloud “services” are generally categorized in 3 major groups. Infrastructure as a service (IaaS), Platform as a Service (Paas) and Software as a Service (SaaS). IaaS is much like co-location however the resources are virtualized. PaaS is like an ASP for software developers to create applications on. SaaS is like the ASP model from the 1990s except now it runs on virtualized infrastructure.

You see? Cloud isn’t that terribly complicated after all. Heck, it isn’t even that new of a concept either.

Now, when faced with the smiling cloud sales rep who says “Get to the cloud!” like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the move Predator “Get to the choppa!” you need to understand what this could mean for your business.

Depending on many things including but not limited to: vision, mission, strategy, goals, objectives, business processes, business data, regulatory environment, privacy, existing applications, security, capital and operating expense budgets, toleration for risk, toleration for change, ability to manage change, investments in infrastructure, enterprise architecture, IT strategy, integration with partner systems, capability of staff and partners, non-office computing systems such as shop floor control, geographical dispersion of facilities, disaster recovery needs, etc., etc., etc…

Going to cloud is not just about getting rid of some servers in your data center. In fact, based on how your business operates, you may always need servers in certain facilities. Not everything is “cloudable”. This however is a very knowable condition of every business. One must only engage a partner who will asses your business and guide you as to how to proceed.

Just as with health care, if you are sick, you go to your general practitioner who assesses your condition and recommends either a course of action, a specialist visit or both. It is the same with your critical business systems. They need care from experienced practitioners: generalists first and specialists second.

Going cloud can be beneficial for many businesses but it is not without risk. Now that you know more about what it is perhaps your risk has already been reduced.

Thanks for visiting.


Application Service Providers on Wikipedia

Colocation centre on Wikipedia

“Get to the choppa!” Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie Predator