Business Computing and the Cloud
“The Cloud” seems to be the hottest thing in business computing right now. Everyone is doing it! No more servers, no more upgrades, and lower upfront costs. It’s scalable and secure. No more IT closets and having to worry about cooling and backup power. In short, the cloud is simpler, cheaper, and safer! And if you buy two of them right now, they’ll even throw in a free microwave!
What is the cloud? (What is it really?) Chances are you are already using some form of the cloud. Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, Netflix, Pandora, and Twitter are all cloud applications. At work, your network service provider may be using a service like SpamSoap or MxLogic to filter the spam from your mail before it reaches your mailbox. They may also be using a remote backup solution to backup your company’s critical files and data over the Internet. These are considered cloud services. So for our purposes, we will define “the cloud” as “applications and services that are delivered over the Internet.” It is as simple as that (in concept anyway).
Migrating to the Cloud
What do people mean when they talk about moving everything to the cloud? (And what is “everything?”) When we talk about moving “everything” to the cloud, obviously you can’t move your wiring and switches. You still have to be able to connect to the Internet in some way. Your desktops, laptops, and printers have to stay too, as do the handsets to the company phone system. However, pretty much everything else--your servers, your shared applications and data, and even your phone system—potentially can be moved to the cloud. With this in mind, let’s look at your network as it exists now, and organize the basic components into groups that we can relate to their equivalents in the cloud:
- Network Infrastructure – All of the wires and cables, the switches that connect them together, and the firewall that links your network to the Internet.
- Server Infrastructure – The server hardware (cpu, memory, and storage, etc.). This hardware can be traditional physical server hardware or virtual hardware provided via Vmware or Hyper-V.
- Operating system – The network operating system (e.g., Windows Server) and any platform applications (e.g., Microsoft SQL or Sharepoint) that are required by some of those network applications.
- Applications – The shared network applications. (e.g., your company’s accounting application)
- Data – The company’s shared data.
In our diagram, the network infrastructure (1) stays behind. The rest (2-5) are potential cloud material. It is important to note that it isn’t absolutely necessary to move “everything” to the cloud at once and, in fact, it may not even be possible! Moving to the cloud isn’t an “all or nothing” proposition. You don’t have to jump into the deep end of the pool, then learn how to swim. And even if you wanted to move everything possible to the cloud, not all applications—as they exist now—are cloud-friendly. The reasons may be technical (e.g., an application requires too much bandwidth), or they may be administrative (e.g., an application’s license doesn’t permit it).
Service Delivery Models
Those applications and services on your network that can be delivered via the cloud generally follow three distinct service delivery models:
- Infrastructure as a Service (IAAS)
- Platform as a Service (PAAS)
- Software as a Service (SAAS)
When we talk about “infrastructure” in the context of your company network as it exists now, we generally refer to the wiring, switches and firewalls. Well, in the context of a service delivery model, “infrastructure” also includes servers and storage. However, “Infrastructure as a Service” or “IAAS” almost always refers to virtual hardware. It includes virtual servers and storage, but it also includes virtual switches and virtual firewalls too. The cloud service provider (CSP) provides a virtual “infrastructure” upon which you can install your own operating systems and applications in whatever way you want.
In a “Platform as a Service” or “PAAS” service delivery model, the CSP also provides the network operating system and other server-side software components like Microsoft SQL that may be required by your network applications. In other words, you provide the applications and data, and the CSP provides you with everything else. The servers still have to be monitored and managed, but the CSP will generally offer those services for an extra fee.
“Software as a Service” (SAAS) takes a completely different approach than IAAS or PAAS. In the SAAS model the vendor provides you with access to their application over the Internet, generally for a monthly or annual fee. There are no servers or infrastructure to manage. The vendor takes care of all that for you. All you have to worry about is configuring your application and controlling who within your company has access to it.
Public and Private Cloud
Until now we’ve assumed that a Cloud Service Provider (CSP) was providing the services. When delivered by a third-party in this way, the cloud is sometimes referred to as the “Public Cloud.” (Actually, if someone refers to “the cloud” generically, you can assume that they are referring to the “the public cloud.”) But “public cloud” services aren’t for everyone. You might have some privacy concerns that would preclude you from outsourcing your infrastructure to a CSP. Perhaps regulatory restrictions prevent it. Luckily, there are alternatives.
There are ways to take advantage of some of the cloud’s best features—like scalable infrastructure and easy remote access—by building your own “private cloud”. You can buy (or lease) your own hardware and use the software the big guys do to create your own virtual infrastructure. You can set it up in your own server room on-premise, or you can rent a cabinet at a hosting facility and put it there. This is a great option for most businesses that want to take advantage of the cloud but are worried about losing control over their data.
With so many options to choose from, knowing the right questions to ask is almost as important as having all the answers!