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Are You Ready for Computing in the Cloud?

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Michael Miller examines the pros and cons of cloud computing and analyzes what types of users benefit most from what cloud computing offers.

IN THIS CHAPTER

  • The Pros and Cons of Cloud Computing
  • Who Benefits from Cloud Computing?
  • Who Shouldn’t Be Using Cloud Computing?

Cloud computing might be the next big thing, but that doesn’t make it the best thing for everyone. Knowing what we know about cloud computing and how it works, how do you know whether cloud computing is right for you?

To answer that question, we must first examine the pros and cons of cloud computing, as well as analyze what types of users benefit most from what cloud computing offers. Then, and only then, can you determine whether you want to jump onto the cloud computing bandwagon.

The Pros and Cons of Cloud Computing

Any serious analysis of cloud computing must address the advantages and disadvantages offered by this burgeoning technology. What’s good—and what’s bad—about cloud computing? Let’s take a look.

Cloud Computing: Advantages

We’ll start with the advantages offered by cloud computing—and there are many.

Lower-Cost Computers for Users

Here’s a quantitative financial advantage: You don’t need a high-powered (and accordingly high-priced) computer to run cloud computing’s web-based applications. Because the application runs in the cloud, not on the desktop PC, that desktop PC doesn’t need the processing power or hard disk space demanded by traditional desktop software. Hence the client computers in cloud computing can be lower priced, with smaller hard disks, less memory, more efficient processors, and the like. In fact, a client computer in this scenario wouldn’t even need a CD or DVD drive, because no software programs have to be loaded and no document files need to be saved.

Improved Performance

Let’s look further at what results when a desktop PC doesn’t have to store and run a ton of software-based applications. (The apps are run from the cloud, instead.) With fewer bloated programs hogging the computer’s memory, users will see better performance from their PCs. Put simply, computers in a cloud computing system will boot up faster and run faster, because they’ll have fewer programs and processes loaded into memory.

Lower IT Infrastructure Costs

In a larger organization, the IT department could also see lower costs from the adoption of the cloud computing paradigm. Instead of investing in larger numbers of more powerful servers, the IT staff can use the computing power of the cloud to supplement or replace internal computing resources. Those companies that have peak needs no longer have to purchase equipment to handle the peaks (and then lay fallow the rest of the time); peak computing needs are easily handled by computers and servers in the cloud.

Fewer Maintenance Issues

Speaking of maintenance costs, cloud computing greatly reduces both hardware and software maintenance for organizations of all sizes.

First, the hardware. With less hardware (fewer servers) necessary in the organization, maintenance costs are immediately lowered. As to software maintenance, remember that all cloud apps are based elsewhere, so there’s no software on the organization’s computers for the IT staff to maintain. It’s that simple.

Lower Software Costs

Then there’s the issue of software cost. Instead of purchasing separate software packages for each computer in the organization, only those employees actually using an application need access to that application in the cloud. Even if it costs the same to use web-based applications as it does similar desktop software (which it probably won’t), IT staffs are saved the cost of installing and maintaining those programs on every desktop in the organization.

As to the cost of that software, it’s possible that some cloud computing companies will charge as much to “rent” their apps as traditional software companies charge for software purchases. However, early indications are that cloud services will be priced substantially lower than similar desktop software. In fact, many companies (such as Google) are offering their web-based applications for free—which to both individuals and large organizations is much more attractive than the high costs charged by Microsoft and similar desktop software suppliers.

Instant Software Updates

Another software-related advantage to cloud computing is that users are no longer faced with the choice between obsolete software and high upgrade costs. When the app is web-based, updates happen automatically and are available the next time the user logs in to the cloud. Whenever you access a web-based application, you’re getting the latest version—without needing to pay for or download an upgrade.

Increased Computing Power

This is an obvious one. When you’re tied into a cloud computing system, you have the power of the entire cloud at your disposal. You’re no longer limited to what a single desktop PC can do, but can now perform supercomputing-like tasks utilizing the power of thousands of computers and servers. In other words, you can attempt greater tasks in the cloud than you can on your desktop.

Unlimited Storage Capacity

Similarly, the cloud offers virtually limitless storage capacity. Consider that when your desktop or laptop PC is running out of storage space. Your computer’s 200GB hard drive is peanuts compared to the hundreds of petabytes (a million gigabytes) available in the cloud. Whatever you need to store, you can.

Increased Data Safety

And all that data you store in the cloud? It stays in the cloud—somewhere. Unlike desktop computing, where a hard disk crash can destroy all your valuable data, a computer crashing in the cloud doesn’t affect the storage of your data. That’s because data in the cloud is automatically duplicated, so nothing is ever lost. That also means if your personal computer crashes, all your data is still out there in the cloud, still accessible. In a world where few individual desktop PC users back up their data on a regular basis, cloud computing can keep data safe.

Improved Compatibility Between Operating Systems

Ever try to get a Windows-based computer to talk to a Mac? Or a Linux machine to share data with a Windows PC? It can be frustrating.

Not so with cloud computing. In the cloud, operating systems simply don’t matter. You can connect your Windows computer to the cloud and share documents with computers running Apple’s Mac OS, Linux, or UNIX. In the cloud, the data matters, not the operating system.

Improved Document Format Compatibility

You also don’t have to worry about the documents you create on your machine being compatible with other users’ applications or operating systems. In a world where Word 2007 documents can’t be opened on a computer running Word 2003, all documents created by web-based applications can be read by any other user accessing that application. There are no format incompatibilities when everyone is sharing docs and apps in the cloud.

Easier Group Collaboration

Sharing documents leads directly to collaborating on documents. To many users, this is one of the most important advantages of cloud computing—the ability for multiple users to easily collaborate on documents and projects.

Imagine that you, a colleague in your West Coast office, and a consultant in Europe all need to work together on an important project. Before cloud computing, you had to email or snail mail the relevant documents from one user to another, and work on them sequentially. Not so with cloud computing. Now each of you can access the project’s documents simultaneously; the edits one user makes are automatically reflected in what the other users see onscreen. It’s all possible, of course, because the documents are hosted in the cloud, not on any of your individual computers. All you need is a computer with an Internet connection, and you’re collaborating.

Of course, easier group collaboration means faster completion of most group projects, with full participation from all involved. It also enables group projects across different geographic locations. No longer does the group have to reside in a single office for best effect. With cloud computing, anyone anywhere can collaborate in real time. It’s an enabling technology.

Universal Access to Documents

Ever get home from work and realize you left an important document at the office? Or forget to take a file with you on the road? Or get to a conference and discover you forgot to bring along your presentation?

Not a problem—not anymore, anyway. With cloud computing, you don’t take your documents with you. Instead, they stay in the cloud, where you can access them from anywhere you have a computer and an Internet connection. All your documents are instantly available from wherever you are. There’s simply no need to take your documents with you—as long as you have an Internet connection, that is.

Latest Version Availability

And here’s another document-related advantage of cloud computing. When you edit a document at home, that edited version is what you see when you access the document at work. The cloud always hosts the latest version of your documents; you’re never in danger of having an outdated version on the computer you’re working on.

Removes the Tether to Specific Devices

Finally, here’s the ultimate cloud computing advantage—you’re no longer tethered to a single computer or network. Change computers, and your existing applications and documents follow you through the cloud. Move to a portable device, and your apps and docs are still available. There’s no need to buy a special version of a program for a particular device, or save your document in a device-specific format. Your documents and the programs that created them are the same no matter what computer you’re using.

Cloud Computing: Disadvantages

That’s not to say, of course, that cloud computing is without its disadvantages. There are a number of reasons why you might not want to adopt cloud computing for your particular needs. Let’s examine a few of the risks related to cloud computing.

Requires a Constant Internet Connection

Cloud computing is, quite simply, impossible if you can’t connect to the Internet. Because you use the Internet to connect to both your applications and documents, if you don’t have an Internet connection, you can’t access anything, even your own documents. A dead Internet connection means no work, period—and in areas where Internet connections are few or inherently unreliable, this could be a deal breaker. When you’re offline, cloud computing just doesn’t work.

This might be a more significant disadvantage than you might think. Sure, you’re used to a relatively consistent Internet connection both at home and at work, but where else do you like to use your computer? If you’re used to working on documents on your deck, or while you’re at a restaurant for lunch, or in your car, you won’t be able to access your cloud-based documents and applications—unless you have a strong Internet connection at all those locations, of course. A lot of what’s nice about portable computing becomes problematic when you’re depending on web-based applications.

Doesn’t Work Well with Low-Speed Connections

Similarly, a low-speed Internet connection, such as that found with dial-up services, makes cloud computing painful at best and often impossible. Web-based apps often require a lot of bandwidth to download, as do large documents. If you’re laboring with a low-speed dial-up connection, it might take seemingly forever just to change from page to page in a document, let alone launch a feature-rich cloud service.

In other words, cloud computing isn’t for the slow or broadband-impaired.

Can Be Slow

Even on a fast connection, web-based applications can sometimes be slower than accessing a similar software program on your desktop PC. That’s because everything about the program, from the interface to the document you’re working on, has to be sent back and forth from your computer to the computers in the cloud. If the cloud servers happen to be backed up at that moment, or if the Internet is having a slow day, you won’t get the instantaneous access you’re used to with desktop apps.

Features Might Be Limited

This particular disadvantage is bound to change, but today many web-based applications simply aren’t as full-featured as their desktop-based brethren. Compare, for example, the feature set of Google Presentations with that of Microsoft PowerPoint; there’s just a lot more you can do with PowerPoint than you can with Google’s web-based offering. The basics are similar, but the cloud application lacks many of PowerPoint’s advanced features.

So if you’re an advanced user, you might not want to leap into the cloud computing waters just yet. That said, many web-based apps add more advanced features over time. This has certainly been the case with Google Docs and Spreadsheets, both of which started out somewhat crippled but later added many of the more niche functions found on Microsoft Word and Excel. Still, you need to look at the features before you make the move. Make sure that the cloud-based application can do everything you need it to do before you give up on your traditional software.

Stored Data Might Not Be Secure

With cloud computing, all your data is stored on the cloud. That’s all well and good, but how secure is the cloud? Can other, unauthorized users gain access to your confidential data?

These are all important questions, and well worth further examination. To that end, read ahead to the “The Security Conscious” section later in this chapter, where we examine just how safe your data is in the cloud.

If the Cloud Loses Your Data, You’re Screwed

I can’t put it any more delicately. Theoretically, data stored in the cloud is unusually safe, replicated across multiple machines. But on the off chance that your data does go missing, you have no physical or local backup. (Unless you methodically download all your cloud documents to your own desktop, of course—which few users do.) Put simply, relying the cloud puts you at risk if the cloud lets you down.

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