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What is “The Cloud” and do you really want to use it?


Heather Cooper on March 23, 2011 in Advice for Business Owners

A couple of years ago I received a phone call asking me to participate in a brief survey. As the questions began, I quickly realized I didn’t have a clue what they were asking me about. At that time, I had never even heard the term “The Cloud”, so it became a very short conversation, especially when the surveyor also proved to not really know what they were asking about.

Searching online brought me no clarity so I went looking elsewhere. I called one of my main, “big company” IT vendors and asked him if he knew what The Cloud was. He was stumped too, but a couple of days later he called me back along with an “expert” who attempted to explain it – and yet we were still left in a fog of confusion.

Slowly, it has become more apparent what The Cloud is. Basically, any data or software that is not “on-site” in your house or company is part of “The Cloud”. It’s out there…..floating around somewhere in the electronic wonderland. The internet is the structure and access point to The Cloud.

The easiest example is webmail such as Hotmail, Gmail, or Yahoo Mail. These are “hosted” on servers somewhere out there. Do we know where? Well, hopefully someone does, but not we “average Joes”. And really, they’re not just in one place. Any major provider of anything in the cloud has redundancy and replication for failure prevention, meaning they have at least two sets of servers duplicated in different geographical locations, like maybe Toronto and Calgary.

It used to be that I knew that my Bell-hosted “Sympatico” email was probably on a server in a Bell building I drove by occasionally until I downloaded it to my home computer, but back then I couldn’t log on through a web interface (such as Internet Explorer, Safari, or Chrome) to access it. It also used to be that all my pictures were on my computer only. I could email or “file transfer” them to others, but they went from point A to point B. Now we upload or post our pictures to Facebook, Flickr, Picasa, Windows Live, Shutterfly, or any other number of hosts. If you asked me exactly where they are, I would have no answer for you. Instead of going from point A to point B, they could be hanging out anywhere in the ethereal alphabet.

What a great thing, right? I can access my pictures from any machine, any place that I have internet access. I can even get to them from my Blackberry. My mom, my mother-in-law, my brother and every family member or friend I have can check them out easily. The best part is that if my computer’s hard drive crashes, then I truly haven’t lost my pictures. By posting them, they were sort of “backed-up” somewhere in The Cloud.

Wait a second…. “backed-up” to The Cloud? Well if it works for pictures, why can’t it work for regular data…..like text documents, spreadsheets, and presentations? It turns out it can and soon we had services like “Google Docs”. Taking things a step farther now, we don’t even need programs installed on our computers – we can also run these from The Cloud, such as with “Windows SkyDrive”.

But is The Cloud a white and fluffy “Cloud 9” for us to float on, or is it a dark and ominous storm cloud getting ready to spit lightning bolts at us?

In my opinion it’s a bit of both. There are pros and cons to using The Cloud and every situation is different. Here at SB Partners, we have had a system for years called Citrix which I tend to think of as one of the seeds of The Cloud.

Citrix allows our staff to log on from any computer and location with internet to our office servers via a secure connection. It’s very convenient for someone to work from home if they are not feeling well, or their kids are not feeling well, or if they have a deadline to meet but weren’t able to complete their work during regular hours. It’s easy to use – a staff member logs on, opens any program(s) they need and then can open files as if they were in the office. The programs actually run on our special servers that we host, not on the computer they are sitting at. Encrypted video is fed to the staff member over the internet and encrypted mouse clicks and keyboard input are received by the Citrix servers. Technically, data never leaves the office. For us, this is a highly useful, very convenient system.

So, convenience is the big “pro” to The Cloud – it can take much of the management of data and programs out of the equation for the average person or business, and allows access and collaboration from multiple locations, which is great for someone working on the road or from a remote office.

But from my standpoint, I’m still a bit more impressed by the “cons” when it comes to The Cloud for business use.

It can be expensive to have off-site hosting. It also means much slower access to your data (think about how long it sometimes takes webmail to load on your screen). Although internet speeds have increased greatly, your fastest speed will always be equal to the slowest segment your signal passes through, and it will never be as fast as accessing an internal server or workgroup computer (average internet speed in Canada is 6 to 8 Mbps vs up to 1000 Mbps on our internal SB Partners network).

A con for SB is that several of our software applications interact/link, which doesn’t work so well in the general cloud.

Finally, my biggest concern with The Cloud in general will always be: Where is my data and when I delete it, is it actually gone? “Where” is of particular concerns to Canadians who don’t want our data being hosted in the U.S. due to the Patriot Act that allows the U.S. government full access to any electronic data. Some companies, even though they are based in Canada, replicate to U.S. based servers. At SB Partners, we are greatly conscious of keeping our clients’ data secure and we take every precaution to ensure confidentiality.

I’m not trying to talk anybody out of using The Cloud, and I certainly do not claim to be any kind of expert on it, but with all the hype and advertising for it, I just hope I’ve provided an understanding of the basics to help you consider your own pros versus cons. May all your clouds be white, fluffy ones.