By Lisa Allen
Published Nov. 25, 2011
“)%–> But what is “the cloud?”
“No one has defined what the cloud is,” said Jason Abel, partner and co-founder of IntermixIT in Harrisburg. “It’s a loose term that is used for a lot of things.”
“Our definition is any resource that can be accessed without the resource being internal,” he said. “So if you’re accessing a file that isn’t on a server at your location, that’s the cloud. The cloud is not new. It’s getting buzz because smaller businesses are using it.”
The cloud enables small companies to access applications they couldn’t afford to provide for themselves, for example, online payroll or system security and monitoring functions.
“More and more people are interested in talking about going to the cloud,” said Jim Stewart, IT director at Morefield Communications in Hampden Township. “The common app is email services. It’s too expensive to build the redundant infrastructure.” That safeguard ensures that the application functions around the clock.
The four-person Logistics Consultants in York, which specializes in supply chains, moved to the cloud about a year ago, said Tim Dellinger, president.
“We moved everything that was on our server,” he said. “It was relatively painless and easy.”
Now the company can work anywhere and opened an office in California.
“We did it for the convenience to our business. We work remotely, and it’s easier to move to the cloud than maintain all of that hardware and iron in-house.”
They also moved their phones to voice over Internet protocol, or VoIP. In all, they cut technology costs by a third, Dellinger said.
Although the company retains accounting and tax data on personal computers, that information is backed up in the cloud continuously, and there no longer is concern about scheduling backup data dumps.
“We had more security concerns when we had the server,“ Dellinger said. “Our firewall and data encryption is much better now.”
The company’s employees also can transfer large AutoCAD files as easily as when they were stored on an on-site server. “We can’t tell any difference in speed.”
“Since the move, we’ve only had one or two days that we have been down. It’s much less than when we were on-site. Our provider had one glitch that caused us minor discomfort for a half a day. That was early, on and we‘ve had no problems since.”
Dellinger said his provider keeps him updated with maintenance schedules and upgrades.
“It’s a worry I don’t have to have any more,” he said.
Skittish companies can ease their way to the cloud, Abel said.
“We can install an in-house cloud that is more secure. You can take baby steps to the cloud,” Abel said.
The cloud has come a long way, said Alan Feldman, founder of Virtual October in York.
“We’ve come to a point now that Internet connections are strong enough and secure enough. We could do it 10 years ago, but didn’t have the fast enough connections,” he said.
For example, the slowest speed in Comcast’s Metro Ethernet network — 12 megabits per second — is eight times faster than a T1 line was, said Glenn Lytle, vice president of business services for Comcast’s Keystone Region. The region covers most of Pennsylvania and parts of Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland.
“Speed really does matter,” Lytle said. “We have to stay ahead of the curve, and we’re on the bleeding edge of network management. It’s not just the speed; you have to have great products, price points and service. We can cover all three of those. As the largest provider, we also stay in front of security protection.”
Comcast offers speeds up to 100 megabits per second in Central Pennsylvania.
Many companies start by putting their email, telephone and shared files and calendars in the cloud. A popular application is Microsoft Outlook 365, which offers a new twist on standard functions, Stewart said. People can save files either on their hard drives so they can work without having to connect to the Internet, or they can save them online and access them from anywhere.
Entire networks are moving to the cloud, which can save tens of thousands of dollars, Abel said.
“You don’t have to buy hardware or software every three years,” Abel said. “It’s pay-as-you-grow. You only pay for what you use.”
For example, a small business with 35 users and two servers running Windows 2003 would face a $15,000 upgrade for hardware, plus software, installation, monitoring and maintenance.
Instead, it could move to the cloud at a cost of only $1,000 to $1,500 per month, Abel said. Most cloud hosts use a utility fee model.
“The more you plug in and use it, the more you pay. The more users, the more you pay,” Stewart said.
One factor businesses have to consider is their own infrastructure.
“You always have to look at your Internet connection. It might have to be beefed up or have duplicate Internet access from different providers,” Feldman said. “It might not be a cheaper alternative, but it’s a better alternative.”
Mobility offered by cloud computing is another advantage.
“If your Internet connection goes down, you can always get up and move,” Feldman said.
The security fear
Concerns about security are more myth than reality, consultants said.
“The truth is, people are already using the cloud for email and online banking,” Feldman said. “Security isn’t really a risk. People ask, ‘Once you’re running all these business apps in the cloud, isn’t it going to be a hacker haven?’ We’re keeping an eye on that.”
But concerns over security might be masking another issue, Stewart said.
“People have a hard time letting go of their information. Everything has come full circle. It’s like old service bureaus. People feel a loss of control,” Stewart said.
The cloud is a perfect solution for disaster recovery, such as after a flood, Abel said. All that data can be stored offsite and backed up on the opposite coast.
“Most small businesses keep their servers in a tiny closet,” Abel said. “They have a lock on the door and call that good. It’s also hotter than hell in there. That’s a safe environment, compared to a fully staffed, 24-hour, climate-controlled server center? I don’t think so.
“It’s easy to show a monetary model. Education is the tough part. There is some falsified fear of security,” Abel said. “It all comes to business continuity and downtime. With cloud computing, you have 99.9 percent uptime. It’s all about redundancy. We’re not worried.”