Living in the Cloud

Professional I.T. writers and pundits talk about the cloud and how it's the future. That's a pretty big statement.

So what exactly is "the cloud"? What does it do, why do I need it (or not), and is it really going to take over everything? Can I use just a little bit of the cloud?

In this article, I'll explain all this and undo the hype.

Nebulosity of a Cloud

OK, first a little blurb on the etymology of the word "cloud" as it applies to computing. If you've read many of my articles then you know how much I love to open with a bit of history and primer.

 

Engineers that design and describe networks -- that is, how computers and other devices connect to each other, will draw a blueprint that shows all these devices and how they are connected. Within the area under control, the computers, networking devices, and interconnects are generally specified and drawn. You can see how everything connects.

But areas of a network outside of an organization's control, such as the internet, are often drawn as a puffy cloud. That cloud signifies a segment of the connection that "just works" and knowing the details of that segment aren't necessary or relevant.

The cloud, from our perspective, is simply a utility to be tapped, not too unlike how the public water supply works.

Application Cloud

Let's take that idea further. In the old days of the internet, to use email a company had to set up and maintain an on-site email server. All incoming and outgoing email passed through that server. That's pretty inconvenient and there's costs.

 

Today, pretty much only large corporations run their own email servers. Small and medium sized businesses use email servers, such as Microsoft Exchange or Google G Suite, that are located in huge data centers. These customers don't know or care about how that data center is run, so long as its secure and reliable -- that it "just works".

This makes email one of the earliest cloud applications. Because the very nature of email is communicating with other people, then locating that system on a cloud server makes sense. Other collaboration tools are ideally cloud-based also.

Keeping it Local

But there's some things that should stay local. The "cloud" isn't the panacea as some cloud pundits might imply, especially those that offer cloud services, funnily enough. Cloud services have their downsides that must be considered.

Such as...

  • Costly. Cloud (or hosted) services are subscription-based. You'll pay monthly or yearly fees, generally per user or based on how much of the cloud service you make use of, depending on the service.

  • Loss of hands-on control. Depending on the service, your critical company data might be stored in a big data center somewhere, possibly in another country. It takes a lot of faith to entrust your data to some cloud provider. How good are their internal access controls and security?

  • Service Continuity. Services providers of all kinds come and go, are bought and sold, go bankrupt, or their owners lose interest in maintaining it. Maybe it's not making enough money so they shut it down. This is a real and growing problem as more cloud services compete for business. e.g. Google is famous for cancelling products and leaving their customers in a bind. Note: G Suite is a huge product, Google will never shut it down. But they've shut down a number of other, smaller products.

  • Dependency on Internet. Cloud providers require internet access to work. Granted, we all have internet pretty much all the time, so this isn't a biggie. But if your internet is down for some reason, then whatever you do that relies on a cloud service will not work. e.g. If you use QBO (QuickBooks Online) then you're SOL if your internet access is down.

  • Performance. Some cloud services are "over subscribed" (too many customers sharing too few resources), meaning that performance suffers. This translates to slow web page loads, slow data-fetches on the service, and other ways that it's not snappy and responsive. Also, poor internet performance specs (from your ISP) can hurt your cloud-based experience. Getting more download speed isn't necessarily the answer, either. Cloud-services can make heavy use of upload, which most ISPs give you very little of. e.g. It's not unusual for an ISP to cap upload speeds to a small fraction of the download speed. This is one of many reasons I'm not too excited about cloud-based backups.

  • Data Integrity. Probably the biggest mistake uninformed users make is assuming they don't need to backup their cloud-based data. "Hey, my files are in a big data center. Certainly they perform backups." Um, not necessarily. To be sure, big cloud providers do some backing up. But those backups are for the providers redundancy in case the server they have your data on fails. They can spin up another server and reload your data, sometimes without you even noticing. But those backups don't usually protect against faults that originate outside. e.g. You accidentally deleted an entire folder, deleted a calendar, deleted a user's email, or an encrypting virus jumped on the server from one of your computers. Are you protected against that? Good chance you aren't.

So, given the downsides enumerated above, what sort of things should stay local and off the cloud? Answer: Things that aren't collaborative by nature.

 

They include...

  • Server or Workstation Backups. Data backups should be local, period. They are much faster, less prone to a data breach, and far less costly. If you want a cloud backup as a second level of security, a belt and suspenders approach, that's fine. But the primary backup system must be local.

  • QuickBooks. QBO has its up-sides but, boy, does it have its downsides as well. But most of my clients that are heavy QB users have found that QuickBooks desktop is faster and more feature-filled. And it doesn't rely on the internet. And it's cheaper, too.

  • Company data. All the files your company users such as Word, Excel, etc. should be local. They are safer in your possession than on a cloud-server somewhere and are accessible even without internet access.

This isn't to say that you should never use a cloud service. Just don't believe everything you hear spouted by cloud service evangelists. As more complex products are being offered at the "retail level" (meaning, directly to end-users) without benefit of professional, knowledgeable advice, the more mistakes are made by folks who don't understand the tech involved and the consequences of actions taken.

This is where having an I.T. consultant that you can call is a good idea.