Cloud Hosting: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

January 6th, 2011 by

In recent years, there has been a blurring of distinction between the terms virtualisation and cloud computing.  Virtualisation is actually not new; it was invented by IBM nearly 40 years ago and allows an IT department to split a single server into several virtual dedicated servers or “virtual machines (VM)”.

Picture Courtesy of honcho-sfx.com

This abstraction of hardware and software offer a number of benefits including simplicity, reduced costs, portability and increased agility for a web host or an IT department.

Cloud computing on the other hand extends virtualisation through the Internet “As a Service” to deliver remote “on-demand” resources to an IT department at a fraction of traditional hosting costs.

Theoretically, nothing is exempt from end-to-end IT virtualisation including hardware, platforms or software, all of which may be accessed remotely from a hosting provider (via the Internet) as part of a public or private cloud based service

The implications of cloud computing are profound and far-reaching and could be distilled into this simple formula:  Cloud computing = Virtualisation + Internet.

While virtualisation has been around for a while, it’s only recently that the managerial and technical capabilities to execute public and private clouds have come together in such a way as to realise the promise of this technology for businesses and enterprise customers over the Internet.

Increasingly, web-hosting platforms in the UK and around the world are introducing new cloud services at a frenetic pace. But, some are struggling more than others to offer adequate support services and keep pace with the evolving demands of their customers based on both private and public virtual dedicated servers.

Further, while forward-thinking companies are waking up to the benefits of the cloud they are still not completely comfortable offshoring their data, applications and storage requirements to a public cloud service provider.

The eternal specter of security looms over any cloud service and is being pushed along by a media hungry to expose the good and bad in this exciting re-born technology.

It’s worthwhile summarising both the pros and cons of cloud hosting and where you as a decision-maker should be positioning your company.

The Good

Without doubt one of the key benefits to deploying a public cloud is how quick and painless it is. The quick, easy wizard-driven process surprises many skeptics and turns non-believers into converts.

If you add in the elastic ability to scale to meet seasonable demands over Xmas and New Year, then things are looking pretty good.

But it gets even better. Statistics show that some companies may save in costs between 50-70% over traditional colocated and dedicated servers provided they follow a gradual deployment timeline, rather than an overly ambitious one.

Plus, because you can isolate virtual machines (VM) from each other you can minimise exposure to risk between different applications running on different OS platforms.  Many companies are also loving the portability feature of cloud VM’s which allows them to migrate from one server to the next in record time.

The list goes on, including the benefits of standardising your IT technology platform and reducing complexity. The ability to self-service your future requirements quickly and effortlessly via a metered pay-as-you-go business model appeals to many decision-makers.

Finally, if you find yourself nodding vigorously while watching Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” then you will rejoice in the fact that a public or private cloud promises to lower your carbon footprint and promote “Green IT” as a real concept within your organisation.

The Bad

Of course, the biggest fear associated with implementing a public cloud service or a private virtualised server usually centers on security.  Many enterprise customers are skeptical that web hosts can actually protect their resources in the cloud.

The recent phishing attack on Google by Chinese government-backed hackers and the subsequent Denial of Service (DoS) attack on the infamous WikiLeaks website housed on Amazon cloud servers, has temporarily raised doubt in some people’s minds.

Ironically, these two incidents will actually serve to accelerate increased security in the cloud and eliminate future concerns. The best minds in the business are currently engaged in this venture. Further, customers may also consider opting for a private cloud over a public virtualised server if they wish to absolutely control the level of compliance and security; they do not need to wait for a web host to catch up with their expectations.  Expect to see private clouds grow in popularity over the next few years.

The Ugly

Yes, it can get ugly. While virtual dedicated servers are generally safe, easy to administer and cost affective, they can be implemented badly, even terribly.  The old expression “garbage in, garbage out” applies just as strongly to implementation as it does to CRM data entry.  When companies rush into a cloud deployment they risk inconsistent results, security implications and costly delays in bringing a product to market.  Instead, it’s recommended that a company start small and gradually add new cloud features “on-demand” as required. This approach, for example, may take advantage of a Xen cloud server to safely test new products in a sandbox environment before making products live to a customer.

The way forward

All the points highlighted above must be tempered by the fact that your ultimate success will depend on the knowledge, experience and customer support features of the web host you select to drive your new cloud implementations.

A number of web hosts in the UK are suffering from growing pains — growing too quickly, too fast, which increases risk for a company seeking long-term stability in the cloud.

Further, make sure your web host demonstrates the ability to offer flexible, customised SLAs to help tailor your requirements in a scalable, cost-effective and safe manner.

If you follow these rules things will be mostly good, hardly ever bad and certainly never ugly.

Long live the cloud!

Guest Blogger: Jason Stevens from jason-stevens.com / Freelance web developer, tech writer and follower of cloud computing trends. Follow him on Twitter @_jason_stevens_

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