The cloud takes over the world

Technology is changing rapidly as more pieces of software are becoming active network services (as opposed to static products that are purchased and then installed and maintained locally on individual computer systems). In this essay, a closer look at current trends in cloud computing and web services.

In cloud computing, typically the Internet is used as a connecting link between computers to provide an infrastructure for services and a platform on which to run applications, in which each individual computer is connected to the “cloud” in the way that a house or building would be connected to an electrical grid, to receive services on a regular basis, and as such, be deemed somewhat useless without an always-on connection (Knorr).

This essay will outline the definitions of those cloud computing functions and explore some of the technical details of “the cloud” and how it works, provide examples of cloud computing in business information systems today, take note of some current cloud computing trends in mainstream environments, discuss several of the current advantages and disadvantages of cloud computing as compared to other competing approaches to information system related issues, and finally summarize the research that was done throughout the essay.

Definitions

It is important first to understand some of the concepts behind the broader idea of cloud computing and provide a basic level of understanding as to the technologies involved.

To bring together a functioning “cloud” environment, a number of various layers must come together into a coherent solution. The base layer is the server – powerful computer hardware and software hosted at a central location, such as a data center, or perhaps mirrored across multiple locations. These servers are connected to the Internet and ideally supplied with generous network bandwidth for incoming and outgoing traffic. The next layer consists of the infrastructure, which might consist of virtualized platforms or other services that companies can purchase instead of being responsible for setting up their own infrastructure on servers they own. Platforms, the next layer, run on top of the infrastructure and enable developers to target specific types of applications in a cloud environment.

Those applications themselves are then able to deliver software as a service (often represented by the popular acronym, SaaS), which can enable companies and/or their customers to run that software over the Internet instead of relying on individual applications installed on each computer. The top layer, so to speak, consists of clients that rely on “the cloud” to operate, which might be web browsers, operating systems, or even the hardware device itself, such as a mobile phone or a computer. The recent advent of cloud computing clients can be viewed as sort of a modern-day computer terminal, which at the time when terminals were popular decades ago of course connected only to a local network (Savov).

Once the technical pieces are in place to support a cloud computing environment, the services can be deployed through one of several differing models. The private model operates within just one company or organization, and might utilize access to the Internet to connect to off-site servers but transmits data through secured or encrypted connections that are made available only to authorized members of that organization. The hybrid model allows access to an internal cloud while also supporting access to at least one external environment. The community model may allow access from multiple organizations for collaboration but still exhibits some level of management over the users who can access the cloud. Finally, the public model, which is sometimes considered a standard model of cloud computing, consists of a provider-based service such as storage or applications that anyone can access via the Internet (Armbrust).

Examples

There are many examples of cloud computing services in use at all levels of the layer cake explored in the “Definitions” section of this essay. In theory, the base layer – the server – could be any server, anywhere, set up to support cloud functionality. The added layers are where things start to get more interesting in terms of examples.

At the infrastructure layer, there are some widely available services that allow companies to tap into the resources of a much larger organization to support their infrastructure so that they do not need to be responsible on their own for this maintenance. Cloud infrastructure services include solutions from companies such as IBM with their SmartCloud infrastructure, Rackspace with their Rackspace Cloud infrastructure, as well as Sun Microsystems with their Sun Cloud infrastructure. Solutions like these are powerful base options for organizations interested in setting up a cloud computing environment because the servers, network connections to and from, and maintenance thereof are all managed by the company offering the service. For a certain price per CPU hour, organizations can take advantage of the supported infrastructure (Buyya).

At the platform layer, companies with the resources to set up cloud platforms may offer these services to other organizations that wish to run applications on top of those platforms. One popular cloud platform is Windows Azure, offered by Microsoft Corporation. Windows Azure enables Microsoft’s data centers to host applications and run them in a cloud environment on behalf of other organizations that would like to utilize that environment (Chan). The specialized platform, based on Windows Server but optimized for cloud computing setups, works to enable organizations to deploy applications using Microsoft’s .NET Framework on top of that platform (Nemade). One major competing service is Amazon Web Services, offered by Amazon.com, Inc., which offers organizations and developers access to platforms on which to run applications from the cloud environment (Varia). Google App Engine, offered by Google Inc., provides the infrastructure and overlying platform for scaled web applications. Major services like these are targeted at other organizations of significant size with large teams of developers that can roll out applications on top of these available platforms to, in turn, offer their own cloud computing services (Buyya).

That brings us to the application layer – this is where the concept of cloud computing finally starts to connect with the end user. Services such as Dropbox offer end users, whether that might be individuals or members of organizations, access to files on a virtual hard disk from anywhere in the world. Google applications such as Google Docs and Microsoft applications such as Office Web Apps allow users of organizations as well as private individuals to not just store but also create and edit documents over the Internet through web browser applications, without relying at all on local storage and further enabling access to those documents from any computer with an Internet connection and proper login credentials (Kim). Apple Inc. began offering a service in 2011 called iCloud, which allows users of its Mac OS X and iOS products to store their documents and data from applications, as well as personal data such as email, calendars and contacts, in Apple’s cloud environment and access them from any devices (T. Chen). Apple’s own iCloud application layer actually relies on infrastructure and platform technology from Microsoft and Amazon discussed earlier in this essay (Clarke). At the time of this writing, countless other similar cloud application services are offered from established and startup organizations alike.

When connected to cloud experiences, individual devices as well as pieces of software on computers can function as cloud clients, the top layer of the cloud experience. Web browsers such as Google Chrome can be viewed as clients to cloud computing applications and platforms when used to connect to Google’s various online applications, for example. Hardware devices such as Google’s Chromebook laptop computers are also examples of clients that connect on a primary basis to cloud computing services with little to no local storage or locally available applications that can function without a persistent connection to the Internet. In terms of mobile devices, most popular mobile smartphones can be considered cloud devices, including Apple’s iPhone, Microsoft’s Windows Phone, and phones that run on Google’s Android software, due to the fact they are used primarily with Internet connections (whether via cellular data such as 3G subscriptions, or local wi-fi) to access information on cloud applications and services, with only a minimal amount of device storage in some cases.

These examples may help the reader understand some of the practical products and offerings in use today by organizations of all sizes, as well as individuals, to enjoy cloud-based computing experiences. In addition to the various layers of the cloud computing foundation, it is also simple to understand practical examples of the various models used for deployment of these services. For example, a private organization could utilize the private cloud model to offer one single location of data storage for its employees and then provide those employees with devices set up to access those services from any location through access to a VPN.

At the hybrid and community cloud model level, it is easy to imagine for example a network of participating educational organizations or government organizations to allow certain levels of access to all members of the participating communities while keeping some other levels of information private. Finally, at the public cloud model level, we are already seeing numerous services offered by large organizations directly to members of the general public who might pay subscription fees, buy devices that subsidize the price of the services, or agree to view targeted advertising in exchange for using the product (McKendrick).

Advantages

Cloud computing services offer many advantages over traditional setups that rely on information stored, for example, on a hard drive at one physical location.

Applications deployed locally must be installed, maintained, updated, and so forth on every individual computer within an organization. Deployment might take significant effort and anomalies of users’ installations could bring about unusual results. In a cloud computing environment, however, the application itself only has to be maintained in one place, and only the clients to those applications need to be maintained on individual devices.

Performance considerations might also come into play when thinking about the advantages of cloud computing environments. If applications and platforms can run off of a centralized server infrastructure, the powerful server hardware can take care of most of the processing work, leaving the clients and individual devices with not much left to do except display the information. Such experiences can take typically underpowered devices, such as mobile devices, and create the impression of a powerful, fast setup (Knorr).

If an organization utilizes cloud computing effectively by having more than one redundant storage facility updating in real time, reliability could be greatly improved over a traditional non-cloud deployment. Crucial business applications that could fail on an individual computer basis or at the local level would be supported from perhaps multiple locations, and recovery from possible data-related disasters would be made much easier.

Organizations also stand to benefit from the relative cost of a cloud computing environment, especially when upfront costs are considered. Rather than setting up an entire local server infrastructure from scratch, the organization could simply purchase one of the available services outlined earlier in the essay and save significant cost in the implementation process.

Security of data also stands to improve in selected cloud computing environments as long as the provider of the cloud servers, infrastructure, platforms and related resources is equipped to provide security measures that exceed the otherwise limited resources of the organization rolling out that experience. Encryption of incoming and outgoing data at all levels also helps to ensure that sensitive data is not compromised (Y. Chen).

From an end user perspective, convenience and control both become major advantages to a cloud computing environment. The individual user now has access to a multitude of data, applications and services from virtually any device and/or location supported by the deployment of the cloud computing experience. The user might also feel like he or she is in greater control of his or her data, as well, due to the ease of access to it.

Disadvantages

There are a number of concerns that an organization must face and decide upon when considering whether to explore cloud computing for their business.

Perhaps the most pressing concern revolves around the privacy of data within cloud computing environments. Organizations might be hesitant to host sensitive data off-site where representatives for that organization cannot directly control it. Third parties, such as those operating the infrastructure and platforms, and any service providers operating bandwidth or access to the Internet, become potential players in the transmission of that sensitive data.

Some organizations with particularly private data or that must comply with certain legal regulations might be forced or feel compelled to keep certain data within a local network and not allow access to it in any regard from a wide area network, much less allow a third party to host that data on their servers at an off-site location. Organizations of all sizes are currently struggling with these privacy implications in new deployments (Pearson).

While the security of cloud computing environments stands to be an advantage to some organizations that would not have the proper security resources on their own, it can be a great point of concern for a more sophisticated organization that might not want to relinquish total control over its data. Security threats over wide area networks and off-site storage locations have made some organizations hesitant to evaluate cloud computing solutions (Y. Chen).

Continued availability of services is also a major point of concern. Although the large corporations that provide much of the cloud computing infrastructure guarantee certain uptime for their services, it is unpredictable as to when there might be an outage of services. Pioneers of the industry such as Google have even faced extended outages of applications and platforms on rare occasions, and without a local infrastructure to fall back on, organizations could feel as if they are helpless during time periods of server outages (Knorr).

To a certain extent, end users could feel a lack of control over their own data as well when something unpredictable happens on the server side. Where their own individual computers and devices might be functioning properly, if there is an outage among the cloud resources then they could become frustrated at the temporary lack of access to their own data. Companies providing direct cloud solutions to the general public such as Apple have struggled over the years to provide reliable services that keep their users satisfied, though recent efforts have improved stability (T. Chen).

Cloud-based solutions also present challenges to users who want to disconnect from time to time from work and other obligations but find it increasingly harder to do so. The “always-on” nature of cloud computing environments have shown to continue to increase the workload and demand on some employees who must take on additional responsibilities that they might not be able to handle. Though not purely a technical concern, the health and wellness of the people involved is an important consideration of any information system (Hardy).

Summary

The advent of cloud computing technologies and services has revolutionized the way we think about business information systems in the few short years they have been widely available. Once thought to be a relic of a bygone era, replaced forever with PCs and local storage, the broad concept of a computer terminal has seen a new modern-day incarnation in the cloud device, now operating over wide area networks and using wireless technologies that were not even a dream in the days of the original computer terminals that connected to a mainframe in the adjacent room. Cloud applications and services allow a greater degree of access to data and information from any place in the world, breaking long-held restrictions and barriers that stood in the way of advances in productivity.

Although there are several legitimate concerns and implications that go along with any cloud computing environment, the numerous advantages have set the trend in a clear direction. Businesses, organizations, IT departments, IS professionals, and individual end users have begun to embrace cloud computing services for their quickly improving convenience, accessibility, performance and reliability over more traditional solutions. Many challenges lie ahead, but continued expansion of broadband Internet access, users’ evolving expectations, as well as organizations’ evolving attitudes and willingness to adapt to new solutions, will all help drive further adoption of cloud computing services in the future.

References

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