Everywhere I turn these days I keep hearing the term “the cloud” — my data will be stored “in the cloud,” my applications will be accessed “from the cloud,” and my music will be streamed “from the cloud.” It all sounds very cutting edge, and in a way, it is.
In short, cloud computing is a clever way for the end user (that’s you) to access any program or any piece of data, anywhere in the world. Yes, you still have to pay for it, but you only pay for what you use. This model allows you potentially to have access to much more sophisticated programs and infrastructure than you could afford if you had to buy, install and support it all yourself.
However, the concept is far from new, as so called “thin clients” have been around for decades in the corporate environment. Remember that data terminal with the green screen that accessed a mainframe computer? The key difference between that and cloud computing is that instead of those thin clients accessing a dedicated computer in your (or your company’s) office, the server(s) is now shared by many groups, all unrelated, over the internet.
Another more direct and well-known example of cloud computing is web-based email services such as Gmail and Hotmail. With these services, you access a fully functional email system through the web, with no technical support or heavy-lifting on your end.
As with any technology, there are pros and cons that should be considered. For example:
- Users are able to access their applications and data from anywhere at any time. Data wouldn’t be confined to a hard drive on one user’s computer or even on a corporation’s internal network.
- It should bring hardware costs down. Cloud computing systems reduce the need for advanced hardware on the client side. You don’t need to buy the fastest computer with the most memory because the cloud system would take care of those needs for you. Instead, you can buy an inexpensive computer.
- Cloud computing systems give these organizations company-wide access to computer applications. The companies don’t have to buy a set of software or software licenses for every employee. Instead, the company could pay a metered fee to a cloud computing company, just for what they use.
- Servers and digital storage devices take up space. Some companies rent physical space to store servers and databases because they don’t have it available on site. Cloud computing gives these companies the option of storing data on someone else’s hardware, removing the need for physical space on the front end.
- Security and Privacy. Companies with sensitive data may be concerned that others will figure out how to access their info since it is on a “shared” resource. Although possible, this is highly unlikely. Cloud computing services know that their reputation is based on security, probably more than any other factor. Data encryption and authentication methods have improved dramatically and make this a highly unlikely scenario at this point.
- Legal Concerns. Who owns the data stored on the service? If you don’t pay your bill, can the service prevent you from accessing your own data? These are generally addressed in the service agreements you sign and are typically not an issue. However, as this trend grows and morphs, you can expect to see legal challenges come and go.
For associations, cloud computing offers a terrific opportunity to reduce overhead while maintaining cutting-edge technology systems. There are already some big, trusted players in the market such as Amazon, Google and Oracle, to name a few. To get started, it helps to know a little about your current usage (storage, bandwidth, etc., but most have inexpensive plans that allow you to test them for very little money. You can then expand it as you feel more comfortable.
In the end, cloud computing is, without a doubt, the wave of the future for both personal and business technology, and can very well be a major cost saver for your association in the future.
Marcus Underwood is vice president and general manager of NaylorNet, the online media solutions division of Naylor, LLC.