If you Google “cloud computing,” you will get about 105 million hits. That is a lot of hits for any topic, but that is certainly a lot for a topic that most folks have difficulty defining. The reason for this is not that it is a complicated topic; the reason is that cloud computing is an umbrella term that has multiple definitions. In this article, I am going to address the concerns and comments that the readers have expressed regarding cloud computing. Specifically, I am going to touch upon the business economics and the high level technologies of cloud computing.
When you Google something, do you know specifically what city the servers are located in when your search query is actually being run? For that matter, do you care? The answers I usually hear go something like, “I don’t know and I don’t care. I simply want my results to come back to me quickly.” A follow-up question would be, “Would you rather have a small nuclear power plant in your backyard that you owned and managed, or would you rather just pay for what you use from the electric company?” The answer, as one would expect, would be: “I just want to pay for the electricity that I use and not worry about it.”
That is exactly what cloud computing is all about at a high level. From a technical standpoint, large server farms operated and maintained by someone else (loading new software, upgrades, patches, virus protection, and so on), and the user pays for exactly how much space on that server they use. In return, they get their requested results. Users can take advantage of cloud computing with a fast broadband connection and with a variety of browsers.
Cloud computing is important for moldmaking because it allows companies to avoid the countless lists of business and technical issues associated with running a data center. Companies save money by only paying for computing resources when they need it on a “pay-as-you-go” model. It is important to understand the key building blocks of cloud computing, which are fast bandwidth, the Web browser and large server farms.
Let’s go through some of the questions and comments from MoldMaking Technology readers. Following are a number of well-thought comments regarding concern about a lack of control:
• “Access to data/software depends on a working Internet connection (connection goes down, work flow is interrupted for those cloud services).”
This is absolutely true if all of your services run in the cloud. The obvious question that needs to be quantified is: what percentage of time was your internet provider down last year? Did it affect your production? Was it simply an inconvenience or did business stop? Those companies that rely on an internet connection typically take the necessary steps to pay their internet service provider (ISP) for a service level agreement (SLA) that guarantees a certain level of uptime, or they have alternate plans in place.
• “Software upgrades are at vendor's discretion, not the enduser's.”
It depends what type of cloud computing we are talking about here. If we are discussing the most popular type of cloud computing – Software as a Service (SaaS), then that statement is absolutely true. I would argue that this is a feature and not a bug. As a business, you don’t want to take on handling your own software patches and upgrades. You should be focusing on your business instead. In most cases, SaaS patching and upgrading is much, much more professional than your typical end user’s IT department.
• “Data could be compromised, outside of our internal control.”
This is true if your data is not always encrypted. Your data should ALWAYS be encrypted whether or not it is in flight or at rest. In flight means being moved over the network. At rest means when the data is on a storage device such as a disk drive. This could also be true if there are poor security procedures in place at the cloud computing provider.
• “Vendor lock-in with your data could occur (i.e., no way to move your data from one cloud supplier to another).”
This is an important concern and the reader makes a great point. This is called the “roach motel” of cloud computing. The “roach motel” analogy means your data checks in, but you can never check it out to move it someplace else. This is so important that I personally believe you should have it stated it writing how, when, and in what format you can retrieve your data from the cloud provider. An example of this would be a SaaS enterprise resource planning (ERP) offering with no ability to export all of your data so you could switch ERP providers. Scott McNealy, Sun Microsystems president and CEO, first coined the term "TCE-Total Cost to Exit" back in the early 1990s. TCE is about the ability to move/migrate both software and the data to other hardware and software vendors. TCE is something everyone who is considering cloud computing needs to ask about from their potential software providers.
A number of readers had security concerns with cloud computing. For example:
• “I am familiar with cloud computing but we do not use it due to potential security leaks, etc. With a company our size and the amount of sensitive information we have, we keep very tight reins on IT security/information storage and transfer. I'm sure as (cloud computing) becomes more mainstream, more companies will turn to it. Like anything else, as soon as this service proves to be a definite safe, cost-effective way to store, use or transfer knowledge, everyone will migrate to it. Right now it is very confusing....”
Security is far and away the No. 1 concern that users express regarding cloud computing. The underlying reasons are obvious. “If the data is not in my data center, then how do I know it is safe?” My answer is, “do you do online banking?” In other words, the level of security is totally dependent on the level of security the cloud provider has in place. Security is an end-to-end problem. Is your local system secure? Is your network secure? Is your data secure on your cloud provider? Security is job one when you are investigating cloud computing.
Many readers expressed concerns regarding the lack of cloud computing offerings in manufacturing. This was a typical comment:
• “I’ve heard some talk of it, but have not seen implementation at any tool suppliers or molders with whom I work. “
This is an area where we are slowly starting to see manufacturing in general embrace cloud computing. The economics for cloud computing make so much sense from a business standpoint that it is not a matter of if, it is a matter of when. But, let’s be clear that there are applications that do not lend themselves to the cloud. Applications that require real-time controls are examples of ones that do not work well in the cloud.
My one thought I would like to leave you with is this: Whether or not you have plans to investigate cloud computing, at a minimum, you should ask your software providers what their cloud computing plans are. If your software provider has no such plans, that should set off a number of alarms. If your software provider does have a cloud computing plan, you should learn the business and technical advantages of their plan. Ask the big questions first: “How does this save me time and/or make me money?” The advantages of cloud computing are real and cloud computing is here to stay. But, just like any technology, the right answer to the question, “Does this make sense for me?” is “It depends.” Take time for an in-depth discussion of your current situation and where cloud computing might make business sense. It’s worth a close investigation.
Dave Edstrom is President and Chairman of MTConnect Institute.