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Enter the cloud

By David Robbins, special to Network World
May 14, 2009 03:43 PM ET
This vendor-written tech primer has been edited by Network World to eliminate product promotion, but readers should note it will likely favor the submitter's approach.

Network World - Cloud computing is a reality, and it's a force that IT professionals need to quickly come to terms with. The economic and social motivation for the cloud is high, the business need for speed and agility is greater than ever before, and the technology has reached a level in which prudent investments in cloud services are fast and easy. The number of cloud success stories is growing every week.

The cloud is here, but what exactly is it? Where is it headed? What are the risks? And how can IT organizations prepare?
Cloud computing is the use of Internet-based services to support a business process. Cloud services typically have the following characteristics:

* They can be rapidly deployed, so they are quick to value.

* There is little or no start-up cost and no capital investment.

* Costs for services are usage based with no fixed commitment.

* Services can be quickly and easily scaled up or down with no penalty.

* Services are multi-tenant (many customers leverage the platform).

The ability to customize a service is limited.

The cloud lets users contract for services at three levels:

• Infrastructure as a Service : Grids of virtualized servers, storage & networks. Examples include Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud and Simple Storage Service.

* Platform-as-a-service: The abstraction of applications from traditional limits of hardware allowing developers to focus on application development and not worry about operating systems, infrastructure scaling, load balancing and so on. Examples include Force.com and Microsoft's Azure investments.

* Software-as-a-service: Applications with a Web-based interface accessed via Web Services and Web 2.0. Examples include Google Apps, SalesForce.com and social network applications such as FaceBook

A slew of investors are exploring cloud options while Amazon and Google already have important cloud offerings and companies such as Microsoft and IBM are investing billions of dollars.

Looking further into the future, standards will emerge that reduce some of the uncertainties of contracting for cloud services.
What Are the Risks?

As with any service, with the cloud you should always make sure that you know what you are paying for and what measurements exist to show you are actually receiving the service. You should pay careful attention to:

* Service levels — Cloud providers may be hesitant to commit to consistency of performance for an application or transaction. Understand the service levels you can expect for transaction response times, data protection and speed of data recovery.

* Privacy — Someone else hosting and serving your data could be approached by the U.S. government to access and search that data without your knowledge or approval. Current indications are that they would be obligated to comply.

* Compliance — You are probably already aware of the regulations that apply to your business. In theory, cloud service providers can meet the same level of compliance for data stored in the cloud but, because most of these services are young, you'll need to take extra care.

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