From small companies to large enterprises, cloud computing is changing the way people think about software and services. Cloud computing allows users to use applications and infrastructure located outside the company, accessed over the Internet, writes Wayne de Nobrega, CEO of Altech Technology Concepts. 
The reason cloud computing is taking off worldwide boils down to business flexibility. By moving towards the cloud, organisations can get the technology they need without spending money on infrastructure, while allowing the service provider to manage the applications and data centres.
That’s what makes the cloud equally attractive to small businesses that don’t have internal IT departments and to big corporates that want to save costs rather than spending money on expensive infrastructure and IT resources. Whether a company has no IT department, or would rather refocus its IT department on strategic efforts or speeding up new application deployment, the cloud is a great option.
Cloud-based services enable companies to turn their IT expenses – normally a capital cost — into an operating item in the budget and to use their capital for other projects directly related to the business. It also means that they have access to the latest technology, while maintenance, operations and integration are all taken care of by the service provider.
The cloud also has an elastic component built into it. When deciding what equipment to buy, many businesses struggle to determine their exact needs, often resulting in overspending. With cloud-based services, users can pay for what they need today and rest assured that as the business grows, so the infrastructure will scale according to their needs.
The move to the cloud signifies a return to core business for many companies. Running an IT infrastructure is a burden for organisations that would far rather leverage the sophisticated services on offer and pay for them.
A critical consideration is the fact that the average business today cannot afford to own the level of technology offered by cloud-based service providers. These multi-million rand environments are designed to be robust and redundant and to cater for multiple users.
Because of economies of scale, cloud-based service providers can afford to implement, manage and maintain the best technology, the highest-performing disks, fully redundant power supplies and so on. That kind of reliability and resilience is simply not possible on a regular company-owned network without incurring a huge cost.
In an increasingly environmentally conscious world, there’s also a green component to the cloud. By running their own data centres, businesses run more processors, more drives and use more power than is actually necessary, whereas virtualisation ensures that the infrastructure is more evenly utilised and thus more energy efficient.
Choosing a service provider
Selecting the right service provider is a critically important decision. It determines the availability of applications and ultimately the smooth running of the business. Cloud-based service providers are popping up everywhere, which is why users need to be cautious. After all, it’s possible to buy a desktop computer and some virtualisation software and offer a cloud-based service. That’s an extreme example, but it can happen.
The first item users need to insist on is a service level agreement (SLA), which will provide evidence that the service provider believes in the ability of its own infrastructure to deliver on what it promises.
Without getting too technical, they also need to ask the right questions about the service provider’s architecture and how it has been designed. Find out about connectivity, resilience, redundancy and performance.
These may seem like complex questions, but if users ask several providers, they’ll be able to get an idea of how they compare. It’s also advisable to ensure that the service provider has the requisite staff in place behind its offering.
It’s best to park the question of cost and to look at the infrastructure and how the services are run first. Some providers invest millions in their systems; others do it on the cheap. Don’t make the error of comparing apples with pears.
A low-cost service run on poor infrastructure will not be of any benefit to a business. Users need to ensure that the entity they entrust with their technology requirements is able to deliver at every level.
Security and backup are key considerations. Remember that this is their data users are talking about, so they need to be clear about how the IP of the business is going to be protected.
Find out where the solution is hosted. It must sit on the backbone of the Internet, and not in someone’s back office; if connectivity to that office is lost, users will have no access to their own applications. A robust solution should always be hosted in a secure data centre.
Once users have a good idea of which provider is best able to meet their particular needs, ask them to run a test environment so that they can assess how it all works. That will give users the opportunity to see whether the organisation understands their business requirements from a virtualisation point of view.
There’s also no harm in asking for a two-week exit clause in the contract in case the organisation does not perform according to the predefined criteria. Let’s face it, if it’s not prepared to do that, it probably does not believe in its product. Lastly, feel free to ask for case studies and reference sites.
Cover all these bases, and the business will be able to benefit from world-class infrastructure and applications, while users focus on the bottom-line.