With all the talk of cloud computing and Software-as-a-Service models, businesses are increasingly questioning their continued use of on-premises and “traditional” software implementations. Having heard that cloud applications are cheaper and better than locally installed solutions, some small business owners and IT managers are actively seeking alternatives to their current software selections. In too many cases, however, these business owners or IT managers aren’t looking at the longer term impacts of their decisions, and may be adopting cloud software solutions simply because it seems to be the way things are going these days.
The cloud is simply a term being applied to a new way of looking at information technology – how businesses buy it, how they use it, and what they expect from it. Even as technology gets more complicated, users are demanding greater ease-of-use and lower costs. The response to these conditions is the cloud: addressing basic and common requirements and delivering the solution for a low-cost to many users. While the approach meets the simplicity and affordability elements, it may or may not fully address all the functional, compliance or sustainability needs of the business.
One size never fits all, and this is as true with cloud computing as it is with bathing suits. For the business owner or IT manager considering adoption of cloud-based applications for the business, keep in mind these 4 Rules of Thumb so that the hype and excitement doesn’t cloud your judgment.
Rule 1: Software is software, and it is installed somewhere. Just because an application is accessed using a browser (which is software) doesn’t mean the product isn’t installed somewhere. When it’s a SaaS solution, the product is simply installed and running on the provider’s servers rather than your own computers. Software can fail even when it isn’t on your computer, so it should be expected that failure could happen with SaaS solutions. The difference is that a failure of an app on one machine isn’t news; failure of an app that lots of people are using at the same time is news.
Rule 2: Software that talks to other software means there is integration between the two. Whether the products are installed on the PC or whether they run from different providers’ systems, they still have to be able to communicate together at some common level. The Windows platform used to provide a “common” standard for integration of Windows applications. When applications move from the desktop platform to the web, many of the common integration approaches no longer work and new methods must be developed. Just because a solution integrates with the desktop edition of a product does not mean it will automatically integrate with a web or SaaS edition of the product (QuickBooks exemplifies this).
Rule 3: Software still requires hardware and other resources. When cloud-based solutions are implemented, the cost of the server and storage facilities (along with other elements) may be included in the subscription price. The efficiency and scale economies developed by the provider will ultimately determine their profitability, but it is generally the case that centralization of resources, management and administration can significantly reduce the cost of operations. With most cloud solutions, it is the assumption of scale (leveraging a single asset base to many subscribing customers) which makes things more affordable than deploying similar capabilities individually for each customer. Consider also that any deployment of cloud software solutions still means that businesses must retain their local networks and devices. While PCs, laptops and tablets may not be running business applications, they are still computing devices which may need to connect to networks, have virus protection, have remote access or connection software installed on them, and any number of other things. In short, moving to the cloud does not remove the requirement to have and maintain user devices, printers and LANs. And really, don’t most people still want Office applications on their devices, even if they also have remote access to such applications? Office for iPad is somewhat of a tell in that respect; kind of proves the point.
Rule 4: Not all data is stored in the same manner. This is as true on a PC or LAN as it is in the cloud. However, cloud solutions can introduce quite a wrinkle when it comes to keeping copies of business data over time. With PCs and local networks, a business would back up their data in any variety of ways, preserving the files and formats for possible later use. As long as there was software available to read and open the files, the backed up data would be usable. Simply due to the popularity of some data formats, there might also be tools or utilities available to read the data even if the original application was lost. The wrinkle introduced with cloud solutions is not necessarily that the format of the data is strange – it is likely that most cloud-based business applications use fairly proven and recognizable database technology. The difficulty is that the actual database file(s) containing a company’s unique data may or may not be separate from other company data. If it is separate (single-tenant database), it is unlikely that the database as structured is portable. The fact is, most web-based or cloud solutions will allow users to export data from the database, but cannot provide actual structured data files ready for use with another application, lacking logical data or table relationships. Some solutions suggest that simple list exports are sufficient, and others may say they have data conversion capabilities, but the reality is that data existing in a cloud application is not very portable. Business intelligence is a terrible thing to waste, so it is really important to be able to take all the data with you (in a meaningful way, not as a bunch of disparate lists).
Cloud computing covers a really broad spectrum of technologies and delivery models, and most of the above is more about SaaS applications rather than actual cloud platforms. The platforms are where the applications live – server and network environments. This is where hosting companies do their work, as the things they host live on the platforms.
Businesses electing to add mobility, management, fault tolerance and other capabilities to their systems should explore the benefits of application hosting and cloud platforms, and not immediately look to SaaS and cloud application alternatives to their existing software solutions. By deploying their systems in a managed hosting environment, businesses can often keep using their existing core software products, integrations, and data archiving methods while gaining the best benefits of “cloud”.