Many large technology giants are pushing cloud services as the next big thing. They promote these services to be some sort of panacea for small and medium-sized business owners.

      The promise is that companies can reduce costs and enjoy leading edge software and other virtualization by sharing these services in the cloud. The objective is to greatly reduce the expenditures involved with desk-by-desk purchases for office, CRM and other products. Long-term it provides a savings for on-site server upgrades and maintenance.

     For those not familiar with the cloud, the wiki dictionary defines it as "the use of computing resources (hardware and software) that are delivered as a service over a network (typically the Internet".)

     End users can access cloud-based applications through a web browser or a light-weight desktop or mobile app while the business software and user's data are stored on servers at a remote location.

     Many claim that cloud computing allows enterprises to get their applications up and running faster, with improved manageability and less maintenance. They say it enables IT to adjust resources more rapidly to meet fluctuating and unpredictable business demand.

     How does it work? Cloud computing relies on sharing of resources to achieve coherence and economies of scale similar to a utility (like the electricity grid) over a network. The foundation of cloud computing is the broader concept of converged infrastructure and the sharing of services.

      Four types of cloud computing are available to meet most business needs.

     One is the Public Cloud. Public cloud applications, storage, and other resources are made available to the general public by a service provider. These services are free or offered on a pay-per-use model with access only available through the Internet.

      Another is the Community Cloud. The Community Cloud shares infrastructure between several organizations from a specific community with common concerns. They are managed internally or by a third-party. The costs are spread over fewer users than a public cloud (but more than a private cloud), so only some of the cost savings potential of cloud computing are realized.

      The Hybrid Cloud is a composition of two or more clouds (private, community or public) that remain unique entities but are bound together, offering the benefits of multiple models. By utilizing "hybrid cloud" architecture, companies and individuals are able to obtain local usability without dependency on Internet connectivity. Hybrid cloud architecture requires both on-premises resources and off-site (remote) server-based cloud infrastructure.

     Finally there is the Private Cloud. It is cloud infrastructure operated solely for a single organization, whether managed internally or by a third-party. It is hosted internally or externally. Undertaking a private cloud project requires a significant level and degree of engagement to virtualize the business environment. When it is done right, it can have a positive impact on a business, but every one of the steps in the project raises security issues that must be addressed in order to avoid serious vulnerabilities.

     While the cloud has some benefits for email, marketing campaign tools (such as e-newsletters), Customer Relationship Management Systems (CRM) and office applications, maintaining an entire network in the cloud is still cost-prohibitive.

      Based on today's pricing structures a more efficient option is for a small to medium-sized business to purchase their own hardware and have it co-located at a data center or on the premises of the company.

      The concept of virtualization (one physical computer with many virtual servers running on it), would provide a cost savings if a company were to build out the infrastructure themselves. Purchasing virtual servers from a large corporation like Amazon is still a more expensive offering.

      Regardless of which direction a business chooses they must be managed by skilled engineers.

      For smaller companies establishing or maintaining a relationship with an IT or Managed Network Services firm is appropriate to analyze and recommend which facets of the cloud are appropriate for their needs.

     In addition the IT firm can oversee cloud functions and provide day-to-day technology assistance such as 24 x 7 remote support, unlimited on-site support, a help desk, and even a Virtual CIO.

      Larger organizations can take advantage of the tech firm's team of engineers and utilize their knowledge and skill set to assist with any transition whether it includes complete virtualization or the development of a Hybrid Cloud model.

      While the cloud is well publicized and certainly appealing, it may not be appropriate nor economical for every organization. Business owners should consult with a technology professional to determine if the cloud is a good fit for their business operations.


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