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An Introduction to Cloud Computing

The boom in cloud computing over the past few years has led to a situation that is common to many innovations and new technologies: many have heard of it, but far fewer actually understand what it is and, more importantly, how it can benefit them. This white paper will attempt to clarify these issues by offering a comprehensive definition of cloud computing, and outlining the business benefits cloud solutions can bring.

In an attempt to gain a competitive edge, businesses are increasingly looking for new and innovative ways to cut costs while maximising value. They recognise that they need to grow, but are simultaneously under pressure to save money. This has forced the realisation that new ideas and methods may produce better results than the tried and tested formulas of yesteryear. It is the growing acceptance of innovative technologies that has seen cloud computing become the biggest buzzword in IT.

However, before an organisation decides to make the jump to the cloud, it is important to understand what, why, how and from whom. Not all cloud computing providers are the same. The range and quality of services on offer varies tremendously, so we encourage you to investigate the market thoroughly, with a clearly defined set of requirements in mind.

What is ‘Cloud Computing’?
Many people are confused as to exactly what cloud computing is, especially as the term can be used to mean almost anything. Roughly, it describes highly scalable computing resources provided as an external service via the internet on a pay-as-you-go basis. The cloud is simply a metaphor for the internet, based on the symbol used to represent the worldwide network in computer network diagrams.

Economically, the main appeal of cloud computing is that customers only use what they need, and only pay for what they actually use. Resources are available to be accessed from the cloud at any time, and from any location via the internet. There’s no need to worry about how things are being maintained behind the scenes – you simply purchase the IT service you require as you would any other utility. Because of this, cloud computing has also been called utility computing, or ‘IT on demand’.

This new, web-based generation of computing utilises remote servers housed in highly secure data centres for data storage and management, so organisations no longer need to purchase and look after their IT solutions in-house.

What does it comprise of?
Cloud computing can be visualised as a pyramid consisting of three sections:

1. Cloud Application 
This is the apex of the cloud pyramid, where applications are run and interacted with via a web browser, hosted desktop or remote client. A hallmark of commercial cloud computing applications is that users never need to purchase expensive software licenses themselves. Instead, the cost is incorporated into the subscription fee. A cloud application eliminates the need to install and run the application on the customer’s own computer, thus removing the burden of software maintenance, ongoing operation and support.

2. Cloud Platform 
The middle layer of the cloud pyramid, which provides a computing platform or framework as a service. A cloud computing platform dynamically provisions, configures, reconfigures and de-provisions servers as needed to cope with increases or decreases in demand. This in reality is a distributed computing model, where many services pull together to deliver an application or infrastructure request.

3. Cloud Infrastructure (Infrastructure as a service)
The foundation of the cloud pyramid is the delivery of IT infrastructure through virtualisation. Virtualisation allows the splitting of a single physical piece of hardware into independent, self governed environments, which can be scaled in terms of CPU, RAM, Disk and other elements. The infrastructure includes servers, networks and other hardware appliances delivered as either Infrastructure “Web Services”, “farms” or “cloud centres”. These are then interlinked with others for resilience and additional capacity.

Types of Cloud Computing:

Public Cloud
Public cloud (also referred to as “external” cloud) describes the conventional meaning of cloud computing: scalable, dynamically provisioned, often virtualised resources available over the internet from an off-site third-party provider, which divides up resources and bills its customers on a ‘utility’ basis.

An example is Zeara, a company that provides a multi-tenant architecture for supplying services such as Hosted Desktops, Software as a Service and Platform as a Service. Other popular cloud vendors include Salesforce.com, Amazon AWS and Microsoft Azure.

Private Cloud 
Private cloud (also referred to as ‘corporate’ or ‘internal’ cloud) is a term used to denote a proprietary computing architecture providing hosted services on private networks. This type of cloud computing is generally used by large companies, and allows their corporate network and data centre administrators to effectively become in-house ‘service providers’ catering to ‘customers’ within the corporation. However, it negates many of the benefits of cloud computing, as organisations still need to purchase, set up and manage their own clouds. The king of private cloud software is Vmware.

Hybrid Cloud 
It has been suggested that a hybrid cloud environment combining resources from both internal and external providers will become the most popular choice for enterprises. For example, a company could choose to use a public cloud service for general computing, but store its business-critical data within its own data centre. This may be because larger organisations are likely to have already invested heavily in the infrastructure required to provide resources in-house – or they may be concerned about the security of public clouds

Why switch from traditional IT to the cloud?
There are many reasons why organisations of all sizes and types are adopting this model of IT. It provides a way to increase capacity or add capabilities on the fly without investing in new infrastructure, training new personnel, or licensing new software. Ultimately, it can save companies a considerable amount of money…

Removal/reduction of capital expenditure
Customers can avoid spending large amounts of capital on purchasing and installing their IT infrastructure or applications by moving to the cloud model. Capital expenditure on IT reduces available working capital for other critical operations and business investments. Cloud computing offers a simple operational expense that is easier to budget for month-by-month, and prevents money being wasted on depreciating assets. Additionally, customers do not need to pay for excess resource capacity in-house to meet fluctuating demand.

Reduced administration costs
IT solutions can be deployed extremely quickly and managed, maintained, patched and upgraded remotely by your service provider. Technical support is provided round the clock by reputable providers like Zeara for no extra charge, reducing the burden on IT staff. This means that they are free to focus on business-critical tasks, and businesses can avoid incurring additional manpower and training costs. IT giant IBM has pointed out that cloud computing allows organisations to streamline procurement processes, and eliminates the need to duplicate certain computer administrative skills related to setup, configuration, and support.

Improved resource utilisation
Combining resources into large clouds reduces costs and maximises utilisation by delivering resources only when they are needed. Businesses needn’t worry about over-provisioning for a service whose use does not meet their predictions, or under-provisioning for one that becomes unexpectedly popular. Moving more and more applications, infrastructure, and even support into the cloud can free up precious time, effort and budgets to concentrate on the real job of exploiting technology to improve the mission of the company. It really comes down to making better use of your time – focusing on your business and allowing cloud providers to manage the resources to get you to where you need to go. Sharing computing power among multiple tenants can improve utilisation rates, as servers are not left idle, which can reduce costs significantly while increasing the speed of application development. A side effect of this approach is that computer capacity rises dramatically, as customers do not have to engineer for peak loads.

Economies of scale
Cloud computing customers can benefit from the economies of scale enjoyed by providers, who typically use very large-scale data centres operating at much higher efficiency levels, and multi-tenant architecture to share resources between many different customers. This model of IT provision allows them to pass on savings to their customers.

Scalability on demand
Scalability and flexibility are highly valuable advantages offered by cloud computing, allowing customers to react quickly to changing IT needs, adding or subtracting capacity and users as and when required and responding to real rather than projected requirements. Even better, because cloud-computing follows a utility model in which service costs are based on actual consumption, you only pay for what you use. Customers benefit from greater elasticity of resources, without paying a premium for large scale.

Quick and easy implementation
Without the need to purchase hardware, software licences or implementation services, a company can get its cloud computing arrangement off the ground in minutes.

Helps smaller businesses compete
Historically, there has been a huge disparity between the IT resources available to small businesses and to enterprises. Cloud computing has made it possible for smaller companies to compete on an even playing field with much bigger competitors. ‘Renting’ IT services instead of investing in hardware and software makes them much more affordable, and means that capital can instead be used for other vital projects. Providers like Zeara take enterprise technology and offer SMBs services that would otherwise cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for a low monthly fee.

Guaranteed uptime, SLAs
Always ask a prospective provider about reliability and guaranteed service levels – ensure your applications and/or services are always online and accessible.

Anywhere access
Cloud-based IT services let you access your applications and data securely from any location via an internet connection. It’s easier to collaborate too; with both the application and the data stored in the cloud, multiple users can work together on the same project, share calendars and contacts etc. It has been pointed out that if your internet connection fails, you will not be able to access your data. However, due to the ‘anywhere access’ nature of the cloud, users can simply connect from a different location – so if your office connection fails and you have no redundancy, you can access your data from home or the nearest Wi-Fi enabled point. Because of this, flexible / remote working is easily enabled, allowing you to cut overheads, meet new working regulations and keep your staff happy!

Disaster recovery / backup
Recent research has indicated that around 90% of businesses do not have adequate disaster recovery or business continuity plans, leaving them vulnerable to any disruptions that might occur. Providers like Zeara can provide an array of disaster recovery services, from cloud backup (allowing you to store important files from your desktop or office network within their data centres) to having ready-to-go desktops and services in case your business is hit by problems. Cloud Hosted-Desktops from Zeara, for example, mean you don’t have to worry about data backup or disaster recovery, as this is taken care of as part of the service. Files are stored twice at different remote locations to ensure that there’s always a copy available 24 hours a day, 7 days per week.

What about integration?
In order to make the most of your existing IT provision, the cloud computing services you decide to subscribe to should be able to integrate easily with your current infrastructure. Key to Zeara’s enterprise offerings is being able to easily integrate with customers’ existing networks, so that our services become a seamless extension of those already provided by in-house IT departments. Cloud computing infrastructure should allow enterprises to achieve more efficient use of their existing IT hardware and software investments.

Zeara works with many channel partners to provide an end-to-end cloud solution to Australian and New Zealand businesses, so if a company wishes to evaluate, plan migrations and move towards cloud computing, this can be done quickly and simply, hand in hand.

Conclusion
When your business grows, your IT needs grow too. The scalability and speed of deployment offered by cloud computing means you can expand your IT provision instantly to meet increased requirements, and you can also scale it down again whenever you want. Security is typically greatly enhanced, along with resilience, and the flexibility and responsiveness of cloud-based IT services mean that you can react quickly to a changing business environment. Waste (of both time and resources) is reduced, allowing you to effectively do more with less. This provides you with a leaner, more efficient IT model, available on demand.