The new frontier: Data storage in the cloud

Cloud computing continues to shape the IT world, impacting business

Scott Huotari

Look – up in the sky! Is it a bird? A plane? No, it’s the cloud, and it’s here to change the way businesses crunch data and manage their operations.

Welcome to the era of cloud computing. It sounds amorphous, but “the cloud” is actually a fairly simple concept. Today, most businesses store information and run software from computers and servers they own and maintain. A growing number, however, are choosing to store data online, or even to run programs from computers located elsewhere.

Cloud for beginners

A company that wants to share information with clients may choose an online service like Dropbox (www.dropbox.com), for example, to upload large files that would clog an email inbox.

Co-workers collaborating on a project from multiple offices could choose to use Google Drive (drive.google.com) to create spreadsheets and word processing documents that any team member with permission and an Internet connection can edit, rather than trying to keep track of emailed Microsoft Excel and Word documents.

Secure data hosting

More sophisticated businesses – and those that handle extremely sensitive information – can pay to develop their own secure cloud networks.

Scott Huotari, president of Creative Computer Solutions Inc. in Vancouver, said he has seen demand for cloud computing grow among his clients. Companies want to have careful control over their data, but also want employees to be able to access documents from home, the office and even their mobile devices.

With what Huotari calls a “hybrid cloud solution,” businesses can store data in the office so they can get to files even if Internet access goes down. But by also keeping files in the cloud, telecommuters, sales reps and other workers who must leave the office to do their jobs can still get easy access to the documents they need.

Crunching on the cloud

Taking it to the next level, large businesses and those that crunch a lot of data are learning that the cloud can give them heavy-duty processing power without requiring large up-front investments in computers.

“The cloud can give you infrastructure that’s pay-as-you-go,” said David Chiu, assistant professor of computer science at Washington State University Vancouver.

A company may not need much computing power most of the time, but running a monthly data report could take days to churn through when the time comes. Cloud hosts like Amazon and Infinity Internet now offer pay-by-the-day and pay-by-the-hour computing power. When it’s time to run that monthly report, a business can pay for extra computing power to speed up the process, then ramp back down to normal once the work is done.

Major Web services like Netflix have come to rely on Amazon’s cloud computers to crank up capacity in the evenings, when millions of subscribers watch streaming online TV, and crank down during the day, when more people are at work and fewer are tuning in.

Storm clouds ahead?

Proponents of the cloud may look to the silver linings of online computing, but businesses should be aware that there are risks to taking everything online.

Dropbox, Google Drive and other low-cost entry-level cloud services are easy to use, but businesses can’t control security risks when they rely on third-party services. In 2012, Dropbox usernames and passwords were hacked following a security breach. Often, these cloud-based services do not track who has accessed a file, and they make it difficult to let some users (say, the entire accounting department) access one set of data while others (perhaps sales representatives) access other files, Huotari said.

That makes many of the easiest and cheapest cloud services a risky place to store financial data, health information, and anything else that could get a business in trouble.

Switching to a custom-built solution can give businesses the advantages of the cloud while mitigating security risks, Huotari said.

“Anyone who handles credit cards, to be insured, will be asked, ‘Do you know everybody that gets into your network? Do you have a way of auditing this?’” he said. “That’s something we can help with.”

Just don’t expect a custom-built cloud to save a ton of money. Huotari said hybrid cloud systems cost about the same as a business would pay to install and manage its own network on site. The financial benefit is a boost in productivity because employees can access data anywhere.

Opting to work with large cloud hosts like Amazon and Infinity comes with a downside as well.

“Not only are you shifting risk, you’re shifting control,” Chiu said. “When something goes down at Amazon, things really hit the fan. When you rely on another company and they goof up, there’s really no reconciliation.”

In recent months, an Amazon cloud crash took down the entire Netflix streaming system for several hours. After a 2011 Amazon cloud failure, some companies permanently lost data they had relied on.

“The best business practice is to diversify,” Chiu said. “There are many other cloud providers out there. You should leverage that. Put some resources in each. You do not want to rely on a single point of failure.”

Working in the cloud

At the same time as the cloud is creating opportunities for businesses to share and manage data, it’s also creating opportunities for some workers.

Clark College, launched a cloud computing program earlier this academic year, and hopes to provide entry to many of those career opportunities. A one-year certificate through the college prepares students for entry-level positions in the data centers that host cloud operations.

Entry-level pay of around $16 an hour is lower than many tech positions, but there are more of those jobs available than some of the higher-paid cloud-related positions, according to Professor Dwight Hughes, who oversees the Clark program.

Students who stick around for a second year can earn an associate degree that can lead to $50,000-and-up salaries, and Eastern Washington University offers courses for a four-year degree that students can complete from Clark’s campus.

With businesses like Camas-based Abacast developing cloud-based software and Chiu at WSUV exploring how cloud computing can better integrate with the electrical power grid, other professional opportunities abound.

“Cloud computing is big and emerging,” Hughes said. “The field has not defined what all the jobs are yet.”

“The best business practice is to diversify. There are many other cloud providers out there. You should leverage that. Put some resources in each. You do not want to rely on a single point of failure.” – David Chiu

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