Future bright for cloud computing

Small and medium businesses stand to benefit from cloud computing investments

The definition of cloud computing can be nebulous. Some call it utility computing, some refer to it as software-as-a-service, still others call it grid computing (which was actually its first name, denoted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Gartner defines cloud computing as "a style of computing where scalable and elastic IT capabilities are provided as a service to multiple customers using Internet technologies." Sound simple enough?

Unfortunately, not many midsize businesses, and even fewer small businesses, profess to know much about cloud computing. According to a recent survey by Rackspace, 67% of small business respondents are not even familiar with the term. Furthermore, the survey found that 59% of small businesses have no intention of adopting cloud computing anytime soon.

That's unfortunate, because cloud computing could be a very wise investment for small and midsize businesses (SMBs). Not only does it avoid the up-front cost of having to purchase extra hardware and software, but it can more effectively match SMBs' computing resources to needs and budgets. Moreover, instead of pressuring a small (or non-existent) IT staff to perform at a level that will keep up with larger competitors, cloud computing makes it possible for SMBs to access enterprise-class capabilities with low initial investment and massive scalability.

Why Should SMBs buy in?

SMBs typically have the opportunity to get involved in cloud computing through application service providers and hosted or managed service organizations. But why should SMBs buy in? Here are some of the benefits SMBs can realize through cloud computing:

* The ability to compute isn't tied to a specific location, device, or piece of hardware: Through cloud computing, the location of the computing resources doesn't matter and you don't need a lot of dedicated machines at your site. The cloud (the Internet) acts as your machine.

* It eliminates the guessing game: Cloud computing is more of a concept than a process -- you know when you send a job out that the computing resources can and will accomplish it. Think of it in terms of the Internet -- to answer almost any question, you are able to access a huge repository of information to find what you need, all with the click of a button. Similarly, through cloud computing, you use computing resources that scale seamlessly to meet your demand -- and never get your hands dirty to acquire them.

* It's just easier: Working in the cloud is like working within a large, open source, always-on computing platform -- you can store and process information over the Internet, which gives your business added freedom because it leaves maintenance, support and expansion to your application vendors. You can use those freed cycles of time for more strategic activities.

Working in the cloud is more efficient, saving time and money for SMBs that don't traditionally have a lot of IT resources. Maybe that's why IDC predicts that cloud computing implementations will double by 2012.

Now that we've identified the key benefits for SMBs, here are some easily avoidable challenges to take into consideration:

* Staying connected: Cloud computing involves fast and complex activity, but efficiency will be hampered if a connection is lost. Connection reliability is critical to business success when using cloud capabilities. Additionally, as SMBs prepare for growth, it is beneficial to buy multiple connections to ensure availability.

* Security risks: If applied properly, cloud computing does not increase security risks compared to traditional computing. Still, proprietary and confidential data in the cloud must be encrypted and operating systems must be designed around a secure core. As a best practice, whenever a business passes information across a publicly available link, a reasonable amount of data security should be implemented.

* Understanding and negotiating hosted and managed services: SMBs may lack the expertise and bandwidth to resourcefully implement cloud clusters internally, but that doesn't have to be a barrier. Hosted and managed services providers are a viable, competitive and scalable alternative for businesses of all sizes, and can be especially attractive to small, resource-constrained organizations. However, working with such providers still requires a sound understanding of the technologies and systems that they provide, so the client organization still requires professional IT expertise on staff

Looking ahead

Cloud computing today is still in the very early stages. The capabilities and benefits continue to evolve. Even though it may be a hazy concept presently, SMBs should also consider the multitude of savings benefits cloud computing will provide in the future -- and begin to move in that direction along with their larger competitors.

Behind its client interface, cloud computing will undoubtedly become much more sophisticated as time goes on, but SMBs won't need to master all of those technologies to be successful. Technology partners will also improve the interface to enable delivery to a broader variety of businesses.

The simple fact that cloud computing reduces spending on hardware and software infrastructure, while increasing computing power and business resilience, is reason enough for it to become more prevalent. If implemented wisely, cloud computing allows SMBs to grow new functionality, expand resources immediately, and prepare for IT advancements they might otherwise forego. While we're not saying cloud computing is your business's "golden egg," the benefits it presents can be leveraged today to prepare for future growth and drive IT efficiency.

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