Cloud strategy, integration, and support is an important part of our business here at Ascend. We help clients determine their cloud needs, assess their options, and find the right solution for their budget and situation.
But many clients don’t yet understand cloud computing – what it is, what it does, or how they can use it to improve their business and their bottom line. That’s quite understandable, since the topic can be somewhat confusing and the term has been appropriated by some businesses for unrelated purposes in order to take advantage of cloud computing’s popularity.
So today, we’re clearing the air, clearing away the obscurity of the cloud to see what’s really going on at ground level.
Cloud Computing: The Basics
Cloud computing sounds ethereal and impossibly complex, but at the end of the day, it is simply access to computers. Just, not your computers. Cloud services are shared resources that provide applications, tools, and data on demand to businesses and individuals, freeing them from the necessity of ownership. It acts like a utility, providing as much or as little power as your business needs – and billing you accordingly.
Cloud computing provides numerous benefits to customers, offering flexibility, reliability, and scaling capabilities that are difficult for most businesses to match with on-site alternatives. And it does all this while saving you money. Because you’re sharing resources, you don’t have to purchase or maintain that infrastructure, and instead can leave it to the experts. Your provider maintains the hardware and handles security, removing the need for a 24/7 IT technician on your site.
That’s a rather high-level overview, but what can cloud computing do exactly? How can you utilize this resource? Let’s go over the three major cloud computing applications: Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS), and Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) to see how companies use these services to improve their business processes.
You've probably heard of this one. SaaS is the largest market of cloud services, and the most accessible to the average person.
In a nutshell, SaaS is simply a term for applications or databases that are accessed over the Internet, instead of being housed on-site. It’s a pay-as-you-go service that eliminates the need to purchase such software outright. Though the action behind the curtain is quite complex, on its surface SaaS is just a way for you to access programs you would otherwise download or install on your computer.
The SaaS market includes applications like CRM software, enterprise resource planning systems (ERPs), CMS software (like the kind supplying this blog post), supply chain management, and various other applications such as file sharing, online backups and data management. Want names? Salesforce, Microsoft Office, and Adobe products are all available in SaaS form.
Why go for SaaS over a full purchase? Well, besides the software that is exclusively SaaS, this model benefits companies by allowing flexibility, scalability, risk-avoidance, and a lower cost of entry:
- Because SaaS is accessed over the Internet, it goes where you are. Don’t have your work computer with you? Doesn’t matter: just sign in at your new location and you not only have your software, but your data and work history ready to go.
- Going through a rapid expansion? With SaaS, you don’t have to purchase and install dozens or hundreds of copies (along with new servers) - just purchase access for new users.
- Software is not perfect. Ever. Even the space shuttle had errors. What matters is being able to correct those problems when they come up, as well as implement improvements. With traditional software models, you would have to purchase new editions, or wait for big yearly updates to come through in order to get that functionality. But with SaaS, upgrades are continuous, improving the software regularly.
- SaaS lets you dip a toe in. You can try out the software, and decide later whether or not you want to continue use. Applications can cost businesses tens of thousands of dollars; it is prudent to take the option that gives you the chance to determine if the purchase is worth it.
- SaaS can handle spikes in traffic. When you run your applications on your own servers, you are limited by that capacity, and if there is an unexpected demand then they will crash. But cloud computing centers are built to handle that overload, and can scale to handle the traffic.
So why don’t people use SaaS for everything? Well, it seems to be moving in that direction. SaaS was a $50 billion industry in 2015, and is expected to more than triple by 2022. It is growing nearly five times faster than the traditional software market, and is only accelerating as the infrastructure and platforms behind it develop as well. And that leads us to…
Software development is not only difficult in itself, but involves an incredibly complicated and convoluted process to get the product to the consumer. Companies have to do more than write code – they have to manage runtime, middleware, operating systems, virtualization, servers, storage, networking, and more. That’s a lot to handle, particularly for companies who are just starting out, who don’t have the budget, the infrastructure, or even just the time to deal with all of these elements.
Enter cloud computing, in the form of Platform-as-a-Service. PaaS helps developers create, ship, and manage their applications by assuming all of the responsibilities that normally accompany this process. Users just pay to access the PaaS through a web browser and can hit the ground running with development, without first having to get everything set up. Its integrated development environment (IDE) includes functionality to manage all of these aspects to facilitate deployment, and connects with other systems for easy integration of files or data.
But PaaS goes even further than that, providing web-based tools to aid in development, team collaboration, version control, database integration, security, and monitoring. PaaS also provides many of the benefits of SaaS, such as the pay-as-you-go pricing model, scalability, rolling upgrades, and the ability for users to access their desired applications from anywhere.
Odds are, you already know about the biggest players in the PaaS market. Amazon Web Services leads the field, but it faces competition from companies such as Salesforce, Microsoft Azure, RedHat’s OpenShift, Heroku, and of course, Google App Engine.
PaaS is poised as the fastest growing segment of cloud computing, projected to attain a 41% compound annual growth rate through 2016.
While the average person typically encounters SaaS more than PaaS or IaaS, it’s Infrastructure-as-a-Service that probably springs to mind when you think about cloud computing. IaaS is, as the name suggests, a way of providing infrastructure to users as an on-demand service. It’s the hardware – physical servers, data storage, network equipment – and related backend software that companies can utilize for a fee, without having to purchase these items themselves.
Shared resources are referred to as “public cloud,” and are deployed over the Internet. This is the typical form IaaS takes, but some companies prefer to employ cloud computing principles on a “private cloud,” for security reasons and to ensure complete control. Due to the popularity of the latter, some providers have begun offering hybrid cloud solutions, consisting of a mix of the two. Providers include the usual suspects such as Amazon Web Services and Google, along with competitors like Rackspace and regional providers.
It probably will not come as a huge surprise to hear that the benefits of IaaS are - as with SaaS and PaaS – the ability to scale dynamically, a utility-like pricing model, distributed resources, and the ability for multiple users to share a single piece of hardware. It benefits organizations that don’t have the money to invest in hardware, avoids the usual IT-related problems of rapid expansion, and helps with volatile demand, absorbing spikes and dips without a hitch.
Drawbacks of Cloud Computing
Clearly, cloud computing provides a plethora of advantages for business owners, while saving them money at the same time. But what’s the catch? Where does cloud computing fall short?
The first drawback of cloud computing options is speed. Whether or not that is problematic depends on your business, and how critically you depend on your operational efficiency. For the average user, this doesn’t make a difference. But if you require extremely fast processing of real time data – for instance, in the financial industry – then the time required for your local network to communicate with your cloud resources may make this option infeasible.
The second drawback – though first in the minds of many, hence private clouds – is security. There are a number of risks associated with cloud computing, and while security of cloud computing is improving rapidly, some companies do not feel comfortable leaving their sensitive data – and applications – in the hands of a third party.
Cloud computing also may be impractical for companies who have to follow certain compliance standards about where data is stored. Some industries (and countries) have rigid rules, which cloud computing does not necessarily meet. However, with modern encryption, the major cloud providers now meet most standards.
Finally, one of the biggest and most obvious drawbacks of cloud computing is the cloud itself, and how you connect to it. Cloud computing allows you to replace much of your software, platform, and infrastructure needs with access over the Internet, but that requires, well, the Internet! Without that connection, end users can’t access their data, their applications, or anything else that’s not also locally available. This isn’t necessarily a huge concern for every business, but it does require a little more care when planning out business operations.
Taking the First Step
Phew! That was quite a ride, and we covered a lot. But believe it or not, we just barely dipped a toe into the field of cloud computing. So what do you think? Cool, right?? Well, we think so too. Cloud computing is an incredibly powerful tool when leveraged properly, and we encourage you to consider how it can benefit your business.
But the transition is a complex process, and it helps to have some support. Ascend is here to answer any questions or concerns you might have about what cloud computing can do for you.
We provide cloud strategy, integration and support, and training for users. We’ll find the provider that meets your budget and business needs, and work with you to unsure you get the most.
Written by Luke Robbins