Thursday, 31 May 2012

Little Fluffy Clouds

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Never a week goes by without someone, generally a user or department manager asking me about ‘cloud computing’. How are other housing associations and groups getting on with this and should all their computer systems be in ‘the cloud’. It always makes me frown a bit, I must admit. Having said that if I had £50 for each of those queries, I would have a useful top up to my pension fund!

The hype and advertising collateral has done a great job of confusing users and making many rash promises that in many cases are simplistic at best. “Put all your applications in the cloud and have them work together seamlessly, access them everywhere on any device, yadda, yadda, yadda...”.  In many cases suppliers are offering what used to be the dull and boringly named ‘hosting’. IE move your data to their servers to host, offsite, rather than in your IT department or data centre. Depending on the application, this might not even make it more accessible on more types of devices; smartphones, tablets, ipads etc, without more expense.

Please however, don’t get the idea that I am anti-cloud, I am certainly not. Many applications (or ‘apps’ as the you’t would have it) work and belong in the cloud. Webmail, Spotify, Evernote all spring to mind. In the housing world, applications like TPTracker and EBS React are often delivered using a similar model, with no software required to be installed on PC’s, laptops or other devices. Integrated links with Housing Management Systems (HMS) can pose challenges, but are not insurmountable. Some HMS systems or part of them can be accessed via browsers, this is more a delivery method than use of the ‘cloud’ however. A true cloud app does not require local software to be installed. Microsoft’s Office365 breaks this rule where used in large business situations. For interfaces with the traditional HMS applications, fat client installs will almost certainly be needed.

Using cloud storage and services does provide scalability. Peaks in requirement can be easily managed, you just rent a bit more of the service, bandwidth or space. The lack of big upfront costs attract many smaller organisations. Rather than spend £30K on a little server area, a similar amount can be paid on more of a pay as you go model, over fixed term contracts, monthly. Strong SLA’s and guarantee of service are essential. Sometimes a ‘private cloud’ can be the best option, for larger organisations, particularly where vast quantities of data are being managed or generated. Costs based on data volumes or bandwidth can often be expensive. One other factor can be your bandwidth availability to the outside world. If you are on the edge of a town or conurbation, an upgrade to your local node might be a pre-requisite. If you cannot, it may derail your plans.

How fast applications run will certainly be affected by cloud hosting. While I don’t mind waiting 10 seconds to complete my Amazon or Ticketmaster purchase, you probably would not like your staff waiting around too long to update a rent account or a repair request. Use of a private cloud might be more controllable however.

The last elephant in the room is can you rely on your sensitive resident data being stored in the cloud, maybe not in the UK or even Europe. All those NI, HB numbers, DD sort codes and accounts, birth dates etc. Extremely useful if hacked. For me I would be reluctant to put sensitive customer data in the cloud or an application that provides competitive advantage. It’s a tough call and if you feel you want to, needs a reliable partner with some tight contracts!

Read on to: Why you need to name your projects well

Chillout to this.

(c) Tony Smith, Acutance Consulting

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