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Clearing the Clouds around Cloud Computing

Simply put Cloud is a style of computing where standardized IT capabilities namely platforms, software or infrastructure are provided “as a service” using Internet technologies to multiple external customers in a pay-per-use and or self-service manner. In layman’s terms ‘Cloud’ is everything and anything as a service. Allow me to take out the hype around Cloud Computing and bring it to ground zero where it actually belongs.

Any innovation or break through is likely to raise concerns amongst stakeholders and this is understandable. History tells us this as was the switch from horseback to automobile, analog to digital telephony, memos to emails, storefronts to eCommerce, private lines to VPNs, fixed lines to mobile phones, 2G to 3G to LTE, the list goes on. Google invested USD 850 million in its data infrastructure in 2011, Microsoft invested USD 500 million in its data center in Dublin, and Apple invests USD 1 billion in its North Carolina data center. What does all this mean for Zambia?

Firstly there are 4 types of Cloud that you need to be aware of, namely:

Public Cloud. This is available to the general public or large industry group and is owned by an organisation selling cloud services. Most people will use BOX or Dropbox to store files, or use Apple iOS services to store music. BlackBerry, Samsung and Apple will allow you to back up contacts to either the device or their server. Google are masters and Google + and Gmail offer file archiving and storage. If you looking for affordability, pay as you go then public cloud is the way to go. Most are easily scalable and are responsive to your needs.

Community Cloud. This is a shared by several organisations and supports a specific community that has shared concerns. This is common in NGOs, medical and pharmaceutical fraternities. The community cloud is an enabler for customers that allows them to access the tools and content they need, when they need it and regardless of their location. Multiple environmental, meoteological and medical organisations have invested vast amounts in millions of dollars to allow scientists across the world to access pools of data that they can slice and dice whichever way they choose to draw inferences and make predictions. For instance, NASA has multiple data stored for astronomers, astrologers and experimental physicists that work in universities, colleges, research institutes and other technology hubs to allow real-time, multiple access to their data. The US Geological Service, allows access to the earth’s data for applications such as earthquakes, tsunami warning, and other global-scale events. Here in lies a huge opportunity for the both local and national government in the delivery of public services in Zambia. To leap frog the service gap using technology.

Private Cloud. This is operated solely for an organisation or company. Most banks use this for online banking services. Standard Chartered, Stanbic, and FNB, just to name a few, use this. Simply access your bank account over the Internet from anywhere in the world and transact. If your business demands high quality data, reliability, maximum security, and easy troubleshooting, a dedicated private connection, with Class of Service, connected to a tier-1 carrier that owns everything end-to-end and does full-time monitoring of your network is the best option. Asides the well-known applications in banking, finance, and trade such as stock exchanges, commodity and multiple currency trading, much of the dark net relies on high-level data encryption to allow national security, military and private medical organisations to have multiple users worldwide access to information that is used in decision-making, data transfer, and collaborative work. These are in a way some of the biggest consumers of big data and continue to be trail-blazers in privacy and other high stakes applications that result in billion dollar business functionality.

Hybrid Cloud. This is a combination of any two of the above, they remain unique entities but are bound together by standardized technologies.

With all these big investments made by Google, Microsoft and Apple what cloud services are they trying to achieve?

Infrastructure as a service (IaaS). Setting up a data centre not only is expensive but also requires a skill pool to run and maintain it. IaaS includes servers, memory and storage that allow a customer to scale up or down as required. It can be used by customers to run their own software with only the amount of resource that is needed at a given moment in time. There is no capital expenditure upfront, IaaS is an operating expense. There is no risk of obsolescence requiring constant upgrades. This is done for you by the service provider. Zambian businesses can take advantage of this and leapfrog the technology gap resulting in more efficient service delivery in products and services they offer. The old mind set of in-house infrastructure is gone! And wont be returning anytime soon.

Platforms as a service (PaaS). Allows users to use the Cloud to develop new applications without the need to have the software or infrastructure purchased in-house. Google recently held an APP developers conference to attract developers. How often have you seen web designers offer their platforms for you to run your on line business? PaaS essentially provides anything to support how a company or individual builds and delivers web applications and services in the Cloud. Today there are Zambian companies offering web design services using these Cloud services. No upfront investment in the research and development is required to set up the platforms, just straight to the business end and you are as good as anyone in the world!

Software as a service (SaaS). Delivers software over Internet without the need to install applications on the your own computers. They are run from one centralised location, which means that the software can be accessed from any location over the Internet. This helps to simplify maintenance and are usually pay-as-you-go for use. This has the impact of what per second billing did to monthly contracts and the post-paid business in voice telecommunications. Pay for what you use is a predictable and flexible model that favours the smaller businesses who don’t have the resources or excess cash flow to handle fluctuations in budgeting.

If Cloud computing is such an attractive IT strategy, why then are local Zambian businesses not flocking in droves towards this? The preference for an in-house home grown data center still dominates discussions in the board room.

Security. This is often raised as a showstopper. How secure is the Cloud? We could go around this topic finding potential threats forever. Is data more prone to being lost in the Cloud vs. local server if not backed up correctly? Is your information more exposed to hacking in a Cloud vs. local server? Of course they can if not installed, implemented or protected properly in either environment the security risk remains the same.

Quality of Service (QoS). How often have we heard this word when discussing mobile telecommunications? It is the most quoted excuse and least understood in the ICT industry, and has almost become synonymous with MNO (Mobile Network Operators) in Zambia. 

Until QoS is included as a feature for the mobile data connection to and from a device or platform the debate will continue as to whether QoS is better managed in a Cloud vs Local server environment. Required here is a 
 paradigm shift in understanding how to align, in a cost effective, organizational non-disruptive way, transitioning from local server to the Cloud. 

There is a natural evolution taking place, ignoring it, will cost your business dearly. Ask those who failed to outsource non-core business functions!

Solutions. How often have you heard ICT and Telecom companies talk about technology? It’s high time they learn to ‘solution sell’ rather than be beholden to the technology itself. This major disconnect in the approach to doing business is often seen as the single most deterrent in slowing the uptake of any new technology or service. You are sold an acronym, not a solution of what it can do for your business or how it can change your life. As this human resource capability is developed within the business we will see a corresponding change in the technologies being adopted.

Now that we have some clarity about Cloud computing there is after all a whole lot of sunshine behind the “Clouds”. Let us see how quickly the Regulators and other stakeholders adapt to this effervescent way of business.

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