The wisdom of clouds

The "cloud" has been very much in vogue for some years now. But while the basic concept has a relatively uniform meaning across the services that label themselves thus, the range of cloud-based products is bewildering - and mostly not cross-compatible. So although the cloud has clear potential to save money and increase productivity, adoption is not as straightforward as it should be. In this feature, we look at the different types of cloud storage product now available, and weigh up some of the pros and cons of each.

Cloud theory

The core principal of cloud computing is accessing multiple computers over a network as if they were a single entity. So one resource will actually be served by a farm of machines, which means (in theory) that the resource will be extremely fault tolerant. If one piece of hardware goes down, there are plenty more to take its place, seamlessly and dynamically. This also means the service can be accessed in the same form from any computer with an Internet connection, because the service isn't located in just one place, but resides on the Internet.

Such is the dependability of this system that many companies are choosing to store their data and obtain core services from the cloud. In a similar fashion to the network computing resurgence of 10-15 years ago, the emphasis is shifting to running applications and storing data remotely, with local devices primarily used as means of access rather than standalone, self-contained computing systems. In an era of near-ubiquitous broadband, and with 4G promising similar ubiquitous mobile data speeds in the very near future, moving to the cloud makes a lot of sense. You never have to worry about not having your own computing devices handy, and that's just the beginning.

From email to office apps

The most popular example of this is the outsourcing of corporate email from internal systems to Gmail, which Comscore calculated as having 287.9 million users worldwide in October 2012, making it the leading mail service. Starting off as a consumer-oriented Web mail platform, Gmail has been available for corporate usage for a number of years, with your domain name attached so there is no indication that your mail system is Google powered. In a report published at the beginning of 2009, Forrester Research estimated that it costs a company $25.18 per user per month for an in-house email system, compared to $8.47 per month for Gmail and $20.32 per month for Microsoft Exchange Online. This was based on a survey of 53 enterprise-sized companies, while savings for smaller companies were even more pronounced. A Google Apps for Business account now costs just $5 a month per user, in return for which you get 24/7 customer support, a Service Level Agreement guaranteeing 99.9 per cent uptime, and 25GB of storage per Gmail inbox. So there are clear cost savings to be had from outsourcing your mail to Google's cloud.

Google's Gmail provides cloud-based email outsourcing to an increasing number of corporations.

But Google has been offering much more than just mail for some time, too. Google Docs, now morphing into Google Drive, provides the core word processing, spreadsheet and presentation tools most companies use every day, and these are all included in the same $5 monthly fee. At this rate, you can enjoy quite a few years of usage before the accumulated subscription cost equals the full price of a conventional Microsoft Office licence. Despite publicly dismissing the competition from Google, Microsoft offered the sincerest form of flattery by wheeling out its own direct competitor in mid 2011 in the shape of Office 365. But although Office 365 can be rented for £3.90 plus VAT per month for companies up to 50 seats, the price rises to £5.20 plus VAT per user above this, so Google still has a price advantage for larger organisations.

Google's cloud has other advantages, too. The Google Drive system has found considerable popularity with those wishing to collaborate, as you don't need a subscription to view and edit Google documents; you just need a Google account. So sharing your work with external clients is potentially seamless. Google has so much confidence in its cloud-based services that it also launched the Chromebook, which is now in its second generation and available from a number of manufacturers including Acer and Samsung. This is essentially a notebook designed to function primarily as a terminal for accessing Google Drive applications and the Web. It's not so useful without an Internet connection, but surprisingly functional when Net access is available.

Storage central

On a more general level, online cloud storage services are proliferating faster than vacant lots in the high street. In fact, market analyst iHS iSuppli claims that there were 375 million users of cloud storage in October 2012, and predicted there would be over 500 million by the end of the year. Dropbox is the poster child of this explosion, with over 100 million users, but there are many others. Sugarsync, described by TechCrunch as “the world's other cloud storage solution”, also now has many millions of users. But every company is adding cloud storage to its offerings. Windows Live SkyDrive used to provide an amazing 25GB for free. This has been reduced to 7GB, but this is still more than Dropbox's 2GB and Sugarsync's 5GB base level of free storage. An Office 365 subscription comes with 20GB of SkyDrive space, and Apple's iCloud provides 5GB of storage for free, as does Amazon Cloud Drive. Then there's Google's User Managed Storage, Box, iDriveSync, Mozy, Carbonite, YouSendIt, and even Asus WebStorage and Ubuntu One. Most of these services will give you some free storage, and most offer professional plans for teams so that a group can share a cloud storage provision between them.

SugarSync is one of the huge range of cloud storage services now available.

Collaborative working is where cloud services really come into their own. We have already discussed the value of Google Drive as an Office replacement, as well as how its cloud-based nature makes working together on a shared document seamless. Another popular cloud application is Evernote, a clipping and note-taking tool. With clients for pretty much every platform out there, Evernote epitomises the benefits of cloud-based systems. You can create text documents, handwritten notes, audio recordings, or webcam videos on your PC or Mac, then access and edit them on your iOS or Android phone or tablet, and share them via a public link. With a Web-based interface as well, Evernote can make your notes readily available even when you don't have any of your own devices handy. This is precisely the kind of data ubiquity that makes the cloud such a powerful concept, because your data is almost always worth more than the devices you use to access and work on it.

Enterprise and public services

However, large enterprises may still tend to favour their your own industrial-strength cloud storage, for example using IBM's SmartCloud Virtual Storage Center. This essentially pools multiple storage arrays into one resource. The arrays can span across vendors and even across sites, so you won't have one location underutilised while another is bursting. Instead, users will experience a unified storage service, even if you change storage vendors. CTERA's Cloud Storage Gateway provides a portal to manage the exchange between client systems and storage infrastructure providers, again so that disparate systems and locations can be experienced as one. Or you can outsource cloud storage from a third party, such as Memstore from Memset or Google's enterprise-level provision.

Large enterprises can implement their own cloud storage plan with IBM's SmartCloud Virtual Storage Center.

You can always tell that a concept has reached maturity (or maybe even gone well past it) when the government gets on the bandwagon. In fact, the government has been developing a cloud strategy for a few years now, and you can read about the services as well as purchase some of them at the dedicated website. One of the first ISPs to provide G-Cloud services, which was also involved with developing the strategy, is Memset. Memset already has Impact Level 2 (IL2) accreditation, and is well on the way to IL3. This is the certification system G-Cloud uses to provide assurances that services provided can maintain confidentiality, integrity, and availability. In December 2012, there were already 462 suppliers offering 2,814 services and products, although as with all government strategies the G-Cloud initiative has had its fair share of controversy.

Cloudy visions

From the examples we have discussed in this feature, it would appear that cloud-based services have a lot to offer in terms of cost savings, flexibility, and ubiquitous accessibility. But it's not all positive up in the cloud. The problem of how to cope when your Internet connection to your cloud service goes down is just the start. What if your cloud provider itself encounters technical - or even financial - difficulties? And what if you want to move from one cloud system to another, or share data between systems? In a recent interview at the World Economic Forum, Web founder Tim Berners-Lee pinpointed this breaking of our data into proprietary commercial “silos” as the key challenge for the future of computing on the Web. In our next feature in this series, we look at some of the potential solutions to the problem of cloud proliferation.

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