Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet
A Cloud on the Horizon
By Mike Gould
I used to run a recording studio called Cloud 10. This name evolved from a large fluffy mass of sound-soak material that floated over the drummer's position, keeping errant high frequencies out of the other microphones in the room. There is a new kind of cloud metaphor floating about these days: Cloud Computing, and this is the tale of a new way of looking at how businesses will be interacting with the Internet.
The cloud in question is another word for the Internet: the enormous, amorphous land of cyber that floats above us all, accessed by the cables plugged into our computers or the attendant wireless WiFi connections we tap into. In reality, the Internet is comprised of Big Honking Servers (BHSs) located in secure locations in caves or cavernous buildings somewhere, but it is easy to think of the 'net as floating above us in some sort of nebulous heaven where good data goes to live.
In regular, day-to-day business computing, you are in a location with a network, talking to a corporate system run by a BHS that is protected from the outside world by a firewall run by the elves in your IT department. If you are your own IT department, as is the case in many small businesses, you really, really need a firewall (security hardware/software) between you and the evils that prowl the 'net - if you don't have such, get some immediately and hire someone competent to install and configure. Your applications (primarily Microsoft Office, Adobe Creative Suite, etc.) live on your hard drive and you may be running custom apps directly from your BHS to maintain your customer database, for instance. All nice and tidy, self-contained, under your control.
Cloud computing means you are talking to a BHS outside the firewall, run by elves in the pay of a third party, with their own regimens of security and connectivity. The BHS in the cloud allows you to store and manage databases, run custom applications, and even do mundane tasks like word processing and spreadsheets. But why would any sane business trust an agency outside the firewall with their data, processes, and ultimately, customers?
To save money, mainly. Consider the money you pay for Microsoft Office and how much it cost to update everybody the last time around. What if all your employees could be using Google Apps for email, calendaring, word processing, spreadsheets and the like? The current cost is $50 per user per year for the professional version, and free for the ad-supported version. The professional version turns off the Gmail ads and gets you more storage, as well as email and phone support.
Google is just one company supplying these sorts of services, but we'll use them as an example because they are so well known (and local!). So why not cut loose the surly bonds of Microsoft and soar to the cloud on the wings of Google? Issues of security, connectivity, and control come to mind.
Security: you are trusting Google with your email, calendar, and general office computing; what could possibly go wrong? Well, any of the Bad Things associated with the Web can happen: hacking, crashing, identity theft, whatever. Now in Google's case, I don't think this is that big an issue. The Goog has been around for a long time and has a pretty good record of keeping its services up and running. But how secure is your current environment? Google has a lot more resources for their elves to keep things locked down than you do for your elves. And you may already be trusting Microsoft with your stuff if you are tied into an Exchange server for email and calendaring. Microsoft is not exactly a paragon of security. If you are maintaining customer financial or medical records, you probably already have mondo security and would probably be better off trusting your own firewalls.
Connectivity: When the network goes down at work, you can usually continue to work on that important letter to the client, or that spreadsheet for the monthly budget meeting. If the wires aren't working and you need to talk to the cloud, you are SOL; your applications and files live there but you can't get to them. Again, with Google, not that big a deal; they have a pretty good record of up-time. But what if the problem is on your end or with your ISP? Not so good.
Control: With the usual scenario, you decide when and what to upgrade. Vista a pain? Then don't go there until you have new computers pre-equipped with it (and maybe not even then, but that's another article). But with the Cloud, updates happen and you have no say in the matter.
This was brought home to me recently with Apple's recent fiasco with the MobileMe upgrade. Apple changed things severely with their cloud application suite, including changing the name from .Mac to .Me right at the same time they unveiled the iPhone 3G. Things went very badly ("casters up mode" in geekspeak) and a lot of people couldn't get to their files, websites, or mail for quite some time. I have a client using this service, and we are still trying to get things straightened out.
So is Cloud Computing right for you, Mr/Ms small businessperson? Depends. This is still a very young technology, fraught with issues. Put your core business apps on the Cloud? I wouldn't advise it. I would start by getting a free account to Google or some other service and experiment with it. Set up a calendar, do some Google Docs, get a Gmail account. See how it works in your situation.
One thing for sure: the Cloud is here to stay and it will impact your business increasingly in the years to come.Google Apps:
Mike Gould, is a part-time mouse wrangler for the U of M, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Consulting/Digital Photography mega-mall, is a member of Factotem.com, and welcomes comments addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org.