For the past few years, a new trend in computing has been quickly gaining traction not only in the tech world but increasingly amongst businesses. What is it? Cloud Computing. Cloud Computing has proved since its inception its great personal and business benefits. It is then not surprising that many businesses, both small and large, have caught on to its possibilities and have integrated it in many ways in their business activities.
This trend has also affected personal computing as well. Services such as Google Apps, Google Docs, Ubuntu One and iCloud have allowed consumers to create, store and share all manner of files both online and with various other products.
So what exactly is cloud computing? There are pages of technical language on the web that provide explanations and definitions of what Cloud Computing is; however, for this piece and for the benefit of the layman, cloud computing simply refers to the provision of computing (or some aspect of it) as a service rather than as a product. To expand, cloud computing allows one or many people to enjoy a computing service without being directly in contact with the computer unit producing the service and without ‘hosting’ that service locally.
One oft-cited analogy of a cloud service is electric power. By tapping into power lines any person in Ghana can enjoy access to electricity services even though they are miles away from the place where the power is actually produced. In the same way, via use of networks, cloud computing allows consumers to enjoy a service which is not necessarily being produced or run from their own computer.
Cloud computing also allows a user to store information ‘in the cloud’. That is, on an accessible server. This will allow that user, or any other, to access the same information at any time or place. This is the basic concept behind Apple’s iCloud service which will allow, for example, a music file downloaded on a Mac to be immediately accessible by the user’s iPhone and iPad.
Cloud computing itself can be split into three main functions. Cloud computing in terms of applications or software, platforms and infrastructure. Cloud computing applications, frequently described as SaaS or ‘Software as a Service’, are the most recognizable cloud services. They include services such asGoogle Docs and DropBox. Cloud applications allow software to be run remotely without being installed locally on a computer. Hence with Google Docsyou can essentially run a word processor online without having it installed on your own PC.
Cloud computing as a platform is also known by PaaS or ‘Platform as a Service’. Mike Gray, COO of SPS Commerce defines this as providing ‘infrastructure on which software developers can build new applications or extend existing applications without requiring the need to purchase development, QA, or production server infrastructure.’ Examples of this include Google’s App Engine and Microsoft’s Azure.
IaaS, ‘Infrastructure as a Service’ is another fairly visible form of cloud computing. Services such as Amazon Web Services and IBM’s SmartCloud, allow users (mainly businesses) to access computing infrastructure such as storage, server space and networking as a service. Businesses can then pay for these services according to their level of consumption.
To make the concept a little more familiar, you probably already use a form of cloud service. For example, syncing your phonebook with MTN or Vodafone will allow you to restore all your contacts to a new phone if your current one is lost, stolen or changed. As well, your ability to check your e-mail from different computers or even your phone is an example of your mail being stored ‘in the cloud’.
Banks use a form of cloud service where customer data is usually stored centrally in secure servers and is made accessible by networks to the various branches and ATMs. The ATM or bank branch doesn’t store your data itself, but it can access that data from headquarters even if the ATM is in Wa and the server with your information is at Osu.
So why should businesses bother with cloud computing? It has its advantages and disadvantages and here we will list out a few of each.
Advantage 1: Cost
The major advantage cloud computing brings to businesses is a rare opportunity to lower I.T. infrastructure cost. By outsourcing computing, a business can concentrate more on its chief competencies (assuming these exclude technical know-how and equipment).
Computing equipment such as servers and enterprise software can be quite expensive and cloud computing can cut out this expense by outsourcing such services to businesses such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) or SalesForce.com, which already host a number of businesses of varying size. In addition, cost advantages can be enjoyed as a large IT staff would not be needed to run IT services. This is especially useful to startups which can set up business in a much shorter time by immediately outsourcing their IT requirements.
Apart from monetary cost, cloud computing can also reduce cost in terms of time as workers in a business can work on the same project remotely. This is possible through business tools such as Google Docs or DropBox which allow files to be created and/or stored in the cloud and, in the case of the former, worked on simultaneously by different parties.
In the near future, cloud computing will allow businesses to significantly reduce hardware and software costs. New hardware being produced will store items and deliver software over the cloud. Thus, hardware could be less costly, and software will be much cheaper to access as it will not need to be purchased individually, but will be delivered over the cloud.
Advantage 2: Scalability
Cloud computing in many cases offers a much more scalable alternative to regular computing. That is, businesses need only purchase the exact amount of computing service that is needed at a time, allowing for finer financial control. As well, as the business grows larger it can increase its use of computing service with little hassle. Compare this to the cost and trouble of having to purchase larger servers when the business grows and having to transfer material to the new servers. Following this old method could cause a business considerable downtime, a loss many businesses would loathe to consider.
Advantage 3: Availability and Reliability
Another major advantage cloud platforms give a business is the ability to ensure your web services, such as the hosting of your company website on a server, can be made always available and reliable via redundancy. Most cloud services such as Google Apps and PaaS services like Amazon Web Services are fairly reliable and have had few service failures since launch.
In a country like Ghana, where electricity and Internet supply are still not reliable, hosting web services in the cloud, for example by employing remote servers, is priceless. This will allow businesses like banks and media companies especially those in news services to ensure that their Internet-based services are always available to their customers.
As well, most cloud systems have redundancies or backups built in. This allows a business to safely and securely backup its data so that in the unlikely event of the failure of a cloud service, the data is secure and can easily and quickly be restored.
However, despite these solid advantages to cloud computing there are some definite drawbacks businesses should consider before moving to the cloud.
Disadvantage 1: Service Risk
Cloud computing, as explained before, is built on networks, and though many business have built their own cloud services over local, private networks many public cloud services are accessible only over the Internet. This also raises the possibility that, if the Internet Service fails, the cloud applications the business relies on would be inaccessible. This can be especially problematic for us here in Ghana where Internet service is still not as reliable, speedy or widespread as is enjoyed in much of the western world.
On the bright side, the introduction of Glo One and MTN’s WACS cables (both of which have already launched), should ensure that Internet capacity in Ghana will grow speedier and more reliable for both businesses and homes.
In another case, Amazon Web Services, the cloud computing platform, went down in April of this year. This service failure took down businesses such as Foursquare and Reddit, as well as hundreds of other websites. Though the service was eventually restored, many businesses had been unintentionally shut down and had to make embarrassing apologies to their customers though it was no fault of theirs.
This is one of the risks of cloud computing. The more a business relies on cloud services the higher the risk that, if the cloud service were to collapse, the business could effectively be crippled. It must be mentioned here, however, that many technology experts have advised building multiple redundancies as well as using different cloud services to minimize this risk.
Disadvantage 2: Security
As cloud computing has steadily grown more popular it has also attracted concern from many groups and people who are worried about the security risks implicit in storing data in the cloud. When taking advantage of a cloud service, especially a storage one, the business or person is also indirectly outsourcing its data security needs to the business offering the cloud service. This can prove very risky for businesses, especially financial ones, which may keep important company related and confidential customer information in the cloud. This information could be compromised if the cloud service is hacked and could result in irreparable damage to the company’s business functions, image, and its relationship with its customers.
Are we ready?
To answer this question, it is important to note that many Ghanaian businesses use one sort of cloud service or another. For example, many banks in the country have networked branches which offer the same services through some kind of web access to their banking host. This can be referred to as a private cloud. The opposite is a public cloud where the service is offered over the Internet.
A private cloud service is great and sometimes more secure but less advantageous compared to a public cloud service. Most of the advantages outlined in this article, in fact, refer to public cloud services. Thus the notion of cloud computing is generally in reference to public cloud services.
Every month, more and more public cloud services are launched all over the world. A quick scan of Techcrunch.com articles will testify to this truth. This has one main indication – demand. Are Ghanaian businesses included in this demand dynamic? Maybe not. Should they? Definitely! The advantages of cloud services far outweigh its drawbacks.
However, many businesses in the country may not be ready for a wholly public cloud model. The main reasons for this are Internet connectivity and electricity. These are the very basis of a public cloud model. The unreliability of these utilities in Ghana makes a public cloud model the worse option considering the status quo.
This however should not be a deterrent for businesses in the country. Moving to the cloud (and the public cloud for that matter) is not a one day activity. It takes a deliberate business vision and effort to get there. The first step is making the decision to go to the cloud. Afterward, it would be a good idea to start by migrating less critical services until your business has a good local backup system in place for business continuity. Backup in this case includes Internet connectivity.
Many software companies in the country are starting to move their services to the Cloud. An example is the www.myTXTbuddy.com, an SMS service byDreamOval which eases a businesses’ bulk SMS messaging need by outsourcing it to this cloud service. Other companies like RackAfrica are offering state-of-the-art server hosting capabilities right here in Ghana.
Imagine a Ghana where an entrepreneur can start a business with servers and all necessary software in less than a week if not a day. Imagine a business where the workers can effectively commute and work in tandem with their co-workers from home and office. This may be little more than a dream to us here in Ghana now, but its the reality elsewhere.
Finally, in case this has all seemed a bit too abstract for you, this article was written using Google Docs and simultaneously edited by four team members of DreamOval, using separate machines, who could have been scattered all across Ghana but came together electronically to work on a business matter. This is the power of cloud computing.
Cloud computing is here, and it’s only going to grow bigger and more integrated into our personal and business activities. Even if businesses in Ghana are not ready to move fully into the cloud, they should at least begin making strides to prepare for the big leap into the future.
By the DreamTeam
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Twitter: @DreamOval_Ltd & @TerenceAdjei