The Cloud – a ray of sunshine for business

It is often said that the Cloud is the biggest innovation in computer technology since the introduction of the internet and maybe, even, the PC as the standard for computer usage.

It has fundamentally changed the way we interact with others and how business operates – yet it is still has a long way to go to be accepted by some business sectors even though most people interact with the Cloud in their everyday lives in some form or other.

So what are the advantages for business of all sizes and how can Cloud use add value to most business processes.

Universal access – the principal advantage is the ability to access one’s data literally any time anywhere on a true 24/7 basis. Because data is stored, and applications are operated, in the Cloud, business processes can be accessed from any computer where there is internet access. In many respects, computer technology has come full circle, in that our desktop computers – or indeed mobiles or tablets – have become little more than dumb terminals whose only purpose is to serve as a gateway to our data in the Cloud. And this of course points to the next advantage -

Lower infrastructure costs – the more applications that are operated in the Cloud, the less requirement there is for internal office IT infrastructure. Complex servers and by extension, costly IT departments can be reduced in size as more processes can be moved “off premise”. In theory a business could operate with no servers but group internet access thus avoiding the need for backups and expensive IT maintenance.

For smaller organisations this greatly facilitates the setup cost and process and can save considerable initial capital costs.

Software as a service –  Cloud applications have, in most cases, fundamentally changed the charging structure for business software. With on premise software, there is usually a hefty initial cost for the licence and and an expensive charge for training, both based on the number of users.

With Software as a service (“SAAS”), there are no upfront costs and charges are frequently based on a rental basis – pay as you use in effect. This will have a considerable impact on making a decisions as to what software application to use as it is a “try it – buy it – if it doesn’t work, stop it” process.

Security – The first question asked about the Cloud is “ is it secure”? The answer is a resounding “YES!”. Cloud services are generally hosted by dedicated service providers where data security is paramount – any one in doubt about this should refer to the service level agreement of organisations such as Amazon (who apart from being one of the largest online retailers, is also one of the of the largest hosted application providers) – security protocols  and data backup is of the highest standards.

And consider this – if laptops and computers are not used for data storage, the theft of a laptop from a parked vehicle for example, would not lead to the loss of sensitive data. The failure of a PC hard drive would not lead to the loss of many hours of hard work.

The above is a brief summary of the advantages of the Cloud – one thing is certain that it will continue to develop and enhance the way businesses operates.

Cloud security – perception vs reality

One of the first questions that invariably get raised when I speak about the Cloud is…”is it secure?”.

I attempt to counter this by discussing the potential insecurity of most office networks and explaining that in most cases the Cloud is considerably more secure as the various applications are being hosted in dedicated data securities where security procedures are designed from the ground up.

That is not to say that breaches do not occur – of course they do. In this digital age where technogeeks do their utmost to hack into anything just to prove it can be done, there are going to be instances where security protocols in the best run data centres are tested, sometimes successfully. After all even the Pentagon and the CIA are not invulnerable from the most determined hackers.

The other day, I was arranging with a client to transfer some documents that were needed for their accounts and as there were quite a few I suggested that she got them to me via Dropbox, the online storage facility that I use for all my files. She responded that her IT Director was not happy about this as, apparently, there had recently been some sort of security breach at Dropbox and he was concerned about the vulnerability of the data.

We resolved the issue by zipping up and password protecting the documents before they were uploaded but I do wonder if all this actually misses the point. Firstly, the fact that any attempt at a security breach had been discovered in the first place is surely what it is all about… how many office networks are geared up to do this. The quote from the Dropbox blog on the incident is worth noting:

…”Today we sent an email directly to users whose accounts were likely compromised during the recent security lapse. According to our records, there were fewer than a hundred affected users and neither account settings nor files were modified in any of these accounts. Our team has been working tirelessly to review what happened and to make sure that it never happens again. At this point, we have contacted all these users and provided them more detail.”

They updated a little later :

…”Yesterday we made a code update at 1:54pm Pacific time that introduced a bug affecting our authentication mechanism. We discovered this at 5:41pm and a fix was live at 5:46pm. A very small number of users (much less than 1 percent) logged in during that period, some of whom could have logged into an account without the correct password. As a precaution, we ended all logged in sessions.”

Now they are the first to admit that the error, whatever it was, should never have happened, but lets face it – in the best run organisations things do go wrong. The point is, it was quickly spotted and remedied and users can be secure (pardon the pun) that the systems are in place to spot and rectify these issues. To an infinitely greater degree than most on-premise setups. After all it is their business to ensure that the security is as fool proof as possible.

Dropbox have also published on their website  some information about their  security protocols :

…” We encrypt the files that you store on Dropbox using the AES-256 standard, which is the same encryption standard used by banks to secure customer data. Encryption for storage is applied after files are uploaded, and we manage the encryption keys.

Dropbox uses Amazon S3 for data storage. Amazon stores data over several large-scale data centers. According to Amazon, they use military grade perimeter control berms, video surveillance, and professional security staff to keep their data centers physically secure.”

I don’t claim to be a security expert, however I do know that reading that, makes me feel confident that my data in the Cloud is as secure as it needs to be and  a darn site more so than most  UK businesses.