Cloud Computing: 5 Reasons It May Be Right For You

Posted by · June 4, 2012 4:32 pm

As more people make their way up into the cloud, others are likely wondering what—other than perhaps file backup—could possibly be so great about cloud computing. What is cloud computing, you ask? Here’s a quick video to get you caught up:

One might wonder: Is the cloud for everybody, and if so, what makes it right for me? Meanwhile, others are sure to be skeptical of the hyperbolic claims made by companies who want consumers to choose their cloud service over others—and rightly so.

The purpose of this article, however, is not to convince readers to choose one cloud service over another. Rather, it is to give readers a fair and detailed look at the benefits that cloud computing in general can offer potential users, both for business and personal use.

Cloud Computing Provides Convenience

Perhaps the cloud’s most obvious benefit—or at least the most advertised one—is that of convenience. By storing their information in the cloud, users no longer have to be tethered to a single device to access it. If a document is created from a desktop and saved to the cloud, that same document can be accessed from a mobile device, tablet, or another desktop without the need to email it or save it to a flash drive.

This is especially appealing for those who own small businesses or work with clients all day.

Speaking to that point, ReadWriteWeb’s Mike Kirkwood points out that for businesses, convenience is key:

Although costs and IT asset reduction are important benefits, the most important driver behind the move to the cloud is convenience. The ability to spin up new services on a whim without waiting to procure and configure gear is a major win for the business leader who is trying to react to all the opportunities of leveraging computing to run a business.

But it doesn’t stop at that. As Kirkwood points out, the increased convenience the cloud offers also shortens the amount of time that system administrator might require to respond to a problem or complete a high-priority project.

“[The cloud] allows an admin to spin up a new host environment with the flick of the wrist, responding to business needs in record time, and giving the system admin a chance to go home on the weekend and enjoy the better things in life,” he adds.

Finally, as mobile computing becomes more ubiquitous, giving rise to the growing BYOD (“bring your own device”) trend in the workplace, the convenience offered by the cloud is yet to be fully realized. Then again, so are the inevitable IT headaches that such a trend has already inspired.

Cloud Computing Increases Productivity

Along those same lines, tapping into the cloud also stands as a potential boon to productivity—both personal and commercial. On the business side of things, the cloud can be used as a means of improving sales numbers, streamlining management practices, simplifying workflow processes, and improving overall decision making processes. Of course, the access to such benefits is all but obvious given the added convenience that the cloud itself offers.

Thanks to the cloud’s inherent mobility, completing a task is less of a geographical concern than it’s ever been in many professions.

“With the Cloud, it’s possible to check email on a plane, finish a proposal from a hotel room or access all of your company’s data and applications at a new prospect’s headquarters,” writes Centrom’s Mitch Jones.

Allowing employees to telecommute—a proven time saver, stress reducer and general happiness maker—is another productivity booster. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that happy workers are generally more productive.

And these are just the structural characteristics of the cloud that make it such a valuable aid to personal and commercial productivity. Thanks to countless cloud apps for businesses and consumers alike, users are equipped with the necessary tools to maximize their productive potential.

Cloud Computing Ensures Stability

With stories of cloud outages appearing in the headlines from time to time, this may come across as somewhat of a bold statement to some readers. In fact, the fear of an outage could be a dealbreaker for some. However, this possibility alone should not prevent potential users from reaping the other benefits that the cloud has to offer.

This is not to say that potential cloud users should simply leave the fate of their data to chance. However, that is not the only choice users have when debating whether to start computing in the cloud. As GigaOm’s Barb Darrow points out:

No cloud is perfect. And after some very public cloud outages, business customers are looking harder at divvying up their workloads among multiple clouds to mitigate risk.

. . .

To hedge their bets, businesses are looking into multi-cloud solutions. That means companies that used to default to Amazon Web Services (AWS) might take a harder look at enterprise-class clouds fielded by Joyent, Terremark or Savvis.

Consumers have a similar variety at their fingertips to diversify their cloud use and guard against a possible data center shutdown. Several cloud storage services, including Google Drive, Dropbox, and Microsoft SkyDrive, offer multiple gigabytes of free cloud storage just to get users to subscribe. In turn, these offers provide users with an affordable means of creating as much redundancy as is necessary to make them feel comfortable about maintaining uninterrupted access to their information.

But this is not the only way that the cloud offers stability. After a particularly noteworthy AWS outage back in August 2011, Information Week writer Charles Babcock made the following observation:

It’s still possible that having the ability to fail-over to a second availability zone within the data center would have saved a customer’s system. Availability zones within an Amazon data center typically have different sources of power and telecommunications, allowing one to fail and others to pick up parts of its load.

In other words, cloud services also have the ability of developing their own contingency plans by having customer information stored in more than one server, allowing them to continue accessing their information via another zone during an unexpected outage.

“But not everyone has signed up for fail-over service to a second zone,” Babcock continues, “and Amazon spokesperson Drew Herdener declined to say whether secondary zones remained available in Dublin after the primary zone outage.”

Even still, given the options available to both businesses and consumers to maintain uninterrupted access to their cloud-stored data, the idea of keeping one’s information on a server that’s stored in an air-conditioned, heavily secured data center sounds far more stable than leaving it all on a desktop at home or the office.

Cloud Computing Offers Universal Access

Although this point almost seems redundant at this point, the accessibility that the cloud provides to its users is no less noteworthy. For those with more than one workplace—or perhaps even a mobile workplace—universal access is a priceless asset. With it, users can begin a project on the office desktop, continue working on it using a laptop or tablet while traveling, and make final adjustments and submit the same project from a smartphone. In other words, accessing an important piece of information or staying up-to-date on a crucial task is not a geographic matter in the cloud.

Then again, when one speaks of universal access, this is not to say that access is perfectly universal. Writing for Pipeline, Jack Zubarev makes the following observation about how universal access can be improved:

End users expect to be able to use a desktop, laptop, tablet, or mobile device to access the services they need. The ability to provide service, regardless of the underlying platform, is critical for end-user satisfaction. Therefore, a complete cloud service delivery platform must be able to work with a multitude of operating systems, databases and application servers that power provisioned services and their individual components; be able to mix and match them efficiently to provide best-of-breed service offerings; and be able to easily replace one component with another if the need arises . . . This complexity requires cloud service delivery platforms to be able to handle the widest range of diverse components.

Helping move toward cloud computing toward this goal, the European Commission’s Community Research and Development Information Service (CORDIS) began a project known as “Cloud4all” to help expand both accessibility by both in terms of what can be accessed and who is able to access it—namely the disabled. According to project objective, this will be done “by pulling together a large multi-sector international community including stakeholders, industry leaders and experts in emerging technologies to thoughtfully research, design, develop and test the key software infrastructure and pilot implementations needed to explore this promising approach to digital inclusion.” (Although the project does not end until October 2015, the group has published some of its initial findings in a PDF here.)

Meanwhile, others are looking for ways to maximize the accessibility benefits that current cloud technology has to offer, especially in the workplace. In the video below, Microsoft’s Mark Taylor and Jon Honeyball discuss the ways in which cloud computing—using MS Office 365 as one example, of course—has the potential to “bring a distributed workforce together.”

Though reaching its full potential remains a work in progress, the benefit universal access (or let’s just say near-universal access for the time being) is one of the most compelling reasons to start working in the cloud.

Cloud Computing Protects Personal Privacy

Now this one’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, the cloud is impressively secure. When one uploads information to the cloud, that data is stored on a server that is kept in a massive data center. Such facilities are hardly the glamorous, skyline-shaping spectacles of the companies that offer cloud services. Rather, as CNN’s John Sutter observed, these server-saturated warehouses are maintained off the grid, often replicated several times over in different locations to ensure uninterrupted access.

“[The cloud] is made up of a massive and growing network of data centers, which are huge warehouses full of computers,” he writes. “They store and process information from all around the world, largely in secret.”

This is certainly a double-edged sword. While secure, secretive operation of cloud services ensures that companies are investing in the protection of the data entrusted to them, the question that lingers is one of ownership.

When a user stores personal data in the cloud, does it still belong to the user? The answer: It’s complicated. Unfortunately, this is the point where it’s difficult to avoid coming across as being more in favor of some cloud services than others. And the reason for this is the fact that each cloud service’s privacy policy is going to differ—sometimes marginally, other times drastically.

In general, most privacy policies are similar. As The Washington Post points out, “[A]ll web services should be subject to harsh scrutiny of their privacy policies”; however, a “close and careful reading” of these agreements reveals that most policies are basically the same—even Google’s, argues the Post’s Nilay Patel. And to an extent, it’s true. None of the major consumer cloud services (Google Drive, Microsoft SkyDrive, Apple iCloud, and Dropbox) explicitly claim ownership rights over user data.

However, there are some services that go to greater lengths than others to assure potential users that their data is still theirs and theirs alone. And in the midst of all these offers of multiple gigabytes of free storage at signup, it is worth considering how clear each service’s terms are.

Google Drive

Given the one-size-fits-all philosophy enshrined in Google’s new privacy policy, it is important to be aware of the vague language (especially the “worldwide license” provision) that is employed throughout the agreement to make it cohesive with all of Google’s services, including Google Drive. Needless to say, this has only served to equip Google’s critics with more ammunition.

Microsoft SkyDrive

Microsoft SkyDrive has also taken the streamlined approach with its terms. By dumping the legalese for plainer language and developing a universal user agreement, this cloud service has basically the same policy as Google Drive. Although they don’t use the term “Worldwide license,” they request the same rights and privileges that Google does.

Apple iCloud

When one agrees to Apple’s iCloud terms, the primary difference is that while Google and Microsoft say they will meet their responsibilities under copyright law, Apple says it will unilaterally delete any content that it finds “objectionable.” And without a clear definition of how that term is enforced, users are left to figure out what Apple will allow.

Dropbox

What sets Dropbox apart from any of the abovementioned cloud services, however, is that cloud storage and file sharing is the extent of its service offerings. Unlike Google, Microsoft, and Apple, Dropbox does not have other services that it wants users to sign up for, thereby decreasing the likelihood that it will give itself the same latitude with user data that some fear the above services might. Nevertheless, even the language of the Dropbox agreement doesn’t substantially differ from that of the others.

What truly matters, though, suggests ReadWriteWeb’s Antone Gonsalves, is not so much the terms themselves, but “how they deal [with] law enforcement, government agencies and lawyers in civil cases.”

“All the storage providers say they will hand over files if required by to by law, but they don’t commit to telling the affected customers,” he continues. “This makes it possible for vendors to follow law enforcement requests to keep their actions secret, but is a red flag for privacy advocates.”

One solution to such concerns is choosing a cloud service that encrypts user data and only allows users to decrypt it. Of all four services discussed above, not a single one relinquishes the power to decrypt user data, leaving some users concerned that their privacy is always one step away from being compromised. Therefore, users looking for the right cloud service are placed in a position where the right decision is hardly obvious, leaving users with the daunting task of comparing services and, after choosing a service, thinking carefully about what they choose to upload.

Ultimately, users who want to protect their privacy in the cloud should ask themselves one question: Who do I trust?

For more about Cloud Computing . . .