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Cloud Computing 101

By Nadine Zubair

This article provides a basic introduction to cloud computing. It presents the different forms of cloud computing (Software as a Service – SaaS, Infrastructure as a Service – IaaS, and Platforms as a Service – PaaS), and discusses their applicability to third sector organisations.

What is Cloud Computing?

Cloud computing refers to technology that enables you to access computer software and hardware resources over the Internet without the need to have any detailed or specific knowledge of the infrastructure used to deliver the resources.

The cloud refers to the internet, which is often diagrammatically represented as a cloud. Cloud computing allows individual consumers and businesses to use applications without installing the software on their own computers and to access their personal files at any computer with internet access.

This technology provides an efficient means of computing because it centralizes storage, memory, processing and bandwidth. Small and medium-sized organisations should consider cloud computing because it can save money, time and help spare the environment.

Computers in the cloud

View larger image of cloud computing overview

Image 1:Overview of Cloud Computing (Courtesy: http://blog.nskinc.com/IT-Services-Boston/bid/23955/Cloud-Computing-What-is-it-Do-I-need-it-Where-do-I-get-it

The Three Main Types of Cloud Computing

Cloud computing can be divided into three main categories:

  • Applications (Software as a Service or Saas)
  • Infrastructure (Infrastructure as a Service or IaaS)
  • Platform (Platform as a Service or PaaS)

The main a categories most third sector organisations are likely to want to utilise are software as service (SaaS) and infrastructure as service (IaaS). Those organisations wanting to develop their own software in the cloud will also be interested in platform as service (PaaS).

With relation to one another, the lowest segment in this group is Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), where only the pre-configured hardware is provided. All the infrastructure software, such as an operating system, must be provided by you along with your own virtual applications. The primary constituents for IaaS are network architects. This can include more “traditional” IT support providers more of whom are starting to offer cloud based services.

Applications

Many organisations will have already come across application cloud computing. Some simple examples include  Yahoo email, Gmail, Google Docs and Microsoft Office Live Workspace. These types of applications are sometimes called Software as a Service (SaaS).

You don’t require any specialised software or servers to use them. A company provides access to their software applications over the Internet, either free or for a fee, and you can access it through a standard web-browser like Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox.

The server and email management software is all in the cloud and is totally managed by the SaaS provider. You or your staff do not need to deal with the email and file servers, you just sign up for your accounts and all the back-end technology is managed for you (and you won’t need to worry about upgrading the software yourself for example).

Within the SaaS arena you will also find applications for document management, sharing and collaboration, webinars and meetings, accounts, billing and invoicing, human resource management, content management, and service desk management.

SaaS offers fully functional applications on-demand to provide specific services such as email management, accounting, document management, web conferencing etc. SaaS caters to end users seeking to fulfill a business or general process need.

Infrastructure

Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) is where your equipment, such as storage, hardware, servers and networking components are set up, hosted and maintained for you, but the software installation, configuration and maintenance is managed by your team or a SaaS provider – for example, your IT (information technology) support provider may offer this service.

IaaS is also known as Hardware as a Service. AWS (Amazon Web Services), Joyent, GoGrid, FlexiScale, Rackspace Cloud, and Cloud.comare the leading IaaS providers.

Platform

Platform as a Service (PaaS) goes a stage further than IaaS and includes the operating environment. It sets up the development environment for your applications. This service primarily intended for software developers.

Platform as a Service (PaaS) is a hosted application development environment for those who are building or customising their own software. Some popular platforms in cloud computing include Google App Engine, Microsoft® Windows® Azure, Force.com, Morph, and Bungee Connect.

Benefits and risks of the cloud

Benefits

  • Lower set up costs. Cloud computing, specifically SaaS, has little to no upfront costs for hardware and software infrastructure installation, licensing and maintenance. Consumption is usually billed on a utility or subscription basis, and you only pay for the resources you use. Recurring operational costs would be affected by this model.
    Note however, that organisations will also need to consider transition costs. These could  include potential consultancy work, re-training and the time and money involved in re-engineering current systems.
  • Fewer IT personnel required. Since the hosting provider takes care of installs, upgrades, backups and standard maintenance for you, many applications available in the cloud require much less in-house IT support.
  • Rapid deployment: Depending on the application, very often accounts can be set up in minutes. More complicated pieces of software, however, still require training and configuration effort.
  • Scalability. The major benefit of cloud computing lies in the flexibility to scale up or down the IT infrastructure depending on your organisational needs.
  • Convenience: Members of your organisation can securely access your applications from almost any Internet connection by providing their login information.
  • Greener computing?: Cloud computing shares hardware resources, which means that not only are fewer servers built and running, but also that older computers can be used longer, since the processors don’t need to be extremely powerful. This reduces the energy, toxic materials and water that are required to build and run the machines and cuts down on the number of units needing disposal.
    There are conflicting opinions about how green cloud computing really is. For example, organisations like Greenpeace argue that servers in the data centres of cloud service providers consume a lot of power which may not be sourced in a "green" way. For more on this debate see Microsoft's Saving Energy and Carbon in the Cloud, Environmental Leaders claims that Cloud Computing Can Cut Carbon Emissions by 30% to 90% , and in contrast the Greenpeace report Make IT Green: Cloud computing and its contribution to climate change.

Risks

  • Dependence on internet connectivity. A loss of connectivity results in failure to access your software, infrastructure, and data. A slow or unreliable connection will also affect productivity.
  • Quality of service. There is a plethora of providers providing cloud computing services. You need to make sure that the provider is reputable and provides an acceptable level of uptime and security and rapidly responds to issues.
  • Regulatory compliance. If your work deals with sensitive issues that have specific privacy or compliance requirements, your service provider would need to be certified to the same levels.
  • Backups. You are responsible for ensuring that you have copies of and access to your data, especially if your service should fail.
  • Data security. Sensitive financial or personal information about your supporters and clients may be vulnerable to internet vandalism such as phishing, spamming, and hacking. You need to be very careful about the information that you put out in the cloud.

About the author

Nadine Zubair

Glossary

Browser, Cloud Computing, Hardware, Hosting, Internet, Network, Operating System, Phishing, SaaS, Software, Storage

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Published: 29th November 2010

Copyright © 2010 Nadine Zubair

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slordsoares
18th January 2011More on the cloud and non profits
http://community.npowerseattle.org/npowering/the-cloud-is-it-for-my-nonprofit/
this chap is the lead on capacity building for npower seattle