Cloud computing is one of the largest growing areas in the IT industry. The concept of “Cloud Computing” refers to the hosting of a server or an application by a third party in an offsite location accessed via the Internet. The premise is that the vendor will not only provide the client with a reliable experience, but one that will be resistant to downtime and data loss.
Personally, I know that the Insurance industry has been enjoying the benefits of cloud computing for many years. But what are the caveats and recent concerns garnered by those enrolled in these online services?
Internet Connection. The most critical aspect of Cloud Computing is the client’s ability to access the server over the Internet. Some vendors provide a small program that is loaded on each computer which is designated to run the application, others may simply require a browser. If you cannot access the Internet, simply put, you do not have access to the server, therefore the application is considered “down” as far as you are concerned. What measures might be taken to reduce this inconvenience? Redundancy is a key. Some businesses will pay for two broadband lines to be run to their offices. Typically, these businesses also employ a higher-end router that is capable of performing High Availability switching in a Failover / Failback scenario. The overhead that comes with this preparedness is a small price to pay for a reliable network connection, particularly when your business is totally dependent upon it for income.
Portability. Being free of location dependence allows the user of the cloud-based application to enjoy the benefits of the program without being tethered down at a desk in an office. If you have wireless broadband service for your laptop, you now have the ability to run your business anywhere an Internet connection can be accessed. For the lawyer, this may be the courtroom to locate or display exhibits, for the doctor this may be a quiet place where one’s focus is higher and there are fewer distractions, thus symptoms may be more readily identified upon screening test results or lab images. For the Property Manager, this may be the ability to review a tenant’s payment history or lack thereof. In all instances, the freedom to work where and when you want to bestows great power.
Backup, Backup, Backup. We all want to know that our data is safe and backed up on a regular basis. No business should go too long without performing a backup and running the mandatory tests to verify that the backup is viable. In many cases, the Application Service Provider (ASP) or the cloud computing provider not only hosts your application, but the data that it depends upon. Because your data is housed offsite, you immediately gain a benefit, but if you add in the fact that they may test your data or replicate the data to other locations or store virtual images of your server in alternate locations, the benefits become quite clear in favor of the cloud.
Maintenance & Accountability. Inasmuch as the vendor is providing the application to you via the Internet, it is understood that they will also deliver updates and maintenance patches to the application on a regular basis. Afterall, if they do not give you administrative access to the server, how can they expect YOU to do the upgrades? Just as the premise-based applications require updates and fixes, so goes it for the clould-based app. It is understood that the provider will perform the work on the server to keep up-to-date and current. That is just one less item for you to worry about. Okay, now you have focus on your business and can work without further hassle. But can you?
Occasional hiccups. As fail proof as the plan may appear, the paradigm of cloud computing is not perfect. Other parts of the country may have power outages, breaches in security or oversites in infrastructure may exist, thus, occasionally, the offsite servers become unavailable. Such an instance hit Intuit and their popular Quickbooks Online and Online Billpay. Clients of the service were unable to perform many of their daily functions and were effectively shutdown with no recourse to remedy the issue by themselves. Remember, your are offloading the responsibility to another company to handle. If they fail, your ability to recover may be temporarily impaired.
As in all business decisions, you must weigh the ramifications of your actions and envision both the pros and cons of each situation. Although cloud computing offers tremendous benefits, please keep in mind that not all clouds have silver linings. If you have found the “killer app” for your business that is hosted, ask questions to the provider to determine how reliable their product is. How many outages in the past x months, for example. And always compare the hosted to the on-premise options, some may surprise you as to which is superior in terms of cost and performance.