Technology: cloud computing myths

It's not fog, it's cloud

6 October 2016

Colin Wales dispels some of the myths about cloud computing


Life would be very different without the cloud. It has become so integral to our everyday lives that most people use it without even realising. In fact, life without the cloud would be unthinkable for them: there would be no Facebook, Twitter, Gmail or Spotify.

Estimates vary widely on the worldwide spend on cloud services. However, they do seem already to run into billions of dollars, and the figures are expected to increase hugely by 2017 as public and private organisations invest in cloud services as the foundation for new, more efficient business systems.

What is cloud computing?

Simply put, cloud computing is computing based on the internet. Whereas in the past, people would run applications or programs from software downloaded on a physical computer or server in their building, cloud computing allows people access to the same kinds of applications through the internet. It is growing in popularity, especially among SMEs in the private sector.

There are a number of advantages to deploying systems from the cloud. By replacing local servers, there is an immediate saving in terms of hardware, depreciation and replacement costs. Servers need back-up and, if this is intended to provide business resilience, then yet more are required to ensure that a second disaster recovery can be initiated if the main server fails.

Servers do have a shelf life, probably three or four years at best, and need replacing; operating systems change and routine maintenance is necessary for patches and upgrades. Cloud-based delivery can handle all such operations. Any changes to optimise speed of use or apply upgrades all take place in the background and do not require systems to be offline for days or hours at a time.

By freeing technical resources from the mundane tasks associated with keeping the machinery running, more time can be made available to work on the things that really change the business – the website, self-service transactions and the way that the technology can be used to market services more effectively. There have been many studies confirming how useful this can be, and businesses that use the cloud were reported as being able to resolve issues in an average of 2.1 hours – nearly four times faster than those that did not.

Working together

To unlock the real value of the cloud, organisations need to consider how their systems work together and whether legacy systems actually get in the way of a more efficient operating model. Moving existing systems to cloud storage does save time and money, but to put that into some sort of context, consider the fact that simply moving your car from your driveway into your garage does not fundamentally change or improve your driving experience. There are small advantages: it is better protected from rust, less likely to be broken into and might start a bit better in the morning, but it is still the same car. If you want a better driving experience, better fuel economy or more bells and whistles on your daily drive, you probably need to change the car itself.

On the move

This is where cloud and digital platform technology combine to make organisations fundamentally more efficient and business easier to conduct. Arcus Global uses Salesforce, a platform that provides browser-accessed systems that can be reached from any device, in the office, at home or on site. While there are occasions when there will be no internet connectivity and live system data will be unavailable, if these occur 10% of the time, this is still a huge improvement on what most organisations can achieve today.

By providing offline forms on devices – essentially apps that allow data capture – it is still possible to record details of an inspection once and upload it into the live system as soon as the connection is restored. And why might that become even more important?

There is a shift from office-based work to working on the move. IT research firm Gartner predicted that in 2015, a total of 320m tablets and almost 2bn mobile phones – of which 70% would be smartphones – would be sold, as opposed to just 316m laptops and desktops.

The cloud gives greater flexibility: no longer do you have to wait for the release of the next version of software, which may potentially be in a year or two, or for IT to schedule an upgrade and take down the system for a period of time. Changes can be made as background tasks and users need simply to log out and log back in again to see them on their screens. The BBC News app would be rather less popular if it showed you last week’s news until someone got around to updating it.

A report in the May 2015 issue of Computerworld UK states: “The latest research from the Cloud Industry Forum shows the overall cloud adoption rate in the UK now stands at 84%, with almost four in five (78%) of cloud users having adopted two or more cloud services. ... half of all respondents expect to move their entire IT estate to the cloud at some point, with 16% intending to do so as soon as practically possible – double the same figure from 2014.”

Overall, cloud computing also uses less energy than a distributed hardware model. Businesses employing cloud computing only make use of the server space they need, and Salesforce estimates that using the cloud results in at least 30% lower energy consumption and carbon emissions than using on-site servers. According to Salesforce, this could benefit SMEs by as much as 90%.

Most private retail businesses have already made the transition to cloud and platform technology because it is more efficient and provides more flexibility, scaleability and access to data for customers and staff alike than the legacy systems infrastructure ever allowed.

Figure 1 shows Salesforce’s growth since 2003 and demonstrates the rise of cloud computing in the business environment.

Salesforce.com revenue

Figure 1: Salesforce.com revenue

Security

So why is everyone not making the transition if it is secure, cheaper in the long term, less energy-intensive and more flexible, as well as allowing more automation of business processes?

In December 2015, another major security breach of sensitive customer data hit the headlines, this time at a telephone company. This sort of incident exacerbates the concerns of those who see cloud-based systems as being a security risk, and is used to argue that systems should be based locally, where they can be secured against cyber attack.

Overall, cloud computing also uses less energy than a distributed hardware model

This is, of course, the argument that arises when we hear of an aviation accident, but, while it is catastrophic for anyone involved or affected, such incidents are thankfully rare and air travel remains as the safest form of transport based on all available statistics. The same is true of cloud systems and cyber attacks: organisations are no more or less likely to be hacked in the cloud than they are with a local server and systems infrastructure. In fact, most hacking takes place from inside organisations themselves. As long as organisations plan their security well, there should be no more risk associated with cloud storage than there is with local systems.

The nature of the information stored by property professionals makes it extremely unlikely that they will attract any attention at all from the organised criminal fraternity. Widespread adoption of the cloud in the private and public sector has dispelled concerns over how secure information storage is, but it goes without saying that customers have every right to expect their personal or financial details to be protected. A good data security policy would ensure that none of that information was stored and available in the inspection or case management system unless protected by strong data encryption. Even then, it should only be available to those staff who need to see it as an essential part of their business function.

Organisations need to stop using security as an excuse and start looking at how cloud-based technology benefits a modern practitioner-based business.

Colin Wales is Business Development Director at Arcus Global

Further information

This feature was taken from the RICS Property journal (July/August 2016).