The cloud. Wherever you go, you hear about “the cloud” and phrases like “cloud management” or “put it up on the cloud.” But what is the cloud? And what does moving to the cloud actually mean for your business? Perhaps you work for (or maybe even run) a company which has an old website you’re looking to update. Or maybe your business depends on an application built five to ten years ago and it’s holding back growth. If so, the cloud could be a big help.
In this post, we’ll give you a brief summary of what the cloud is, and explain why moving your application to the cloud may save you money—or your entire business.
The Cloud: What Is It, Exactly?
Here’s a secret—“the cloud” is really just “the Internet.” It’s a bunch of connected computers communicating with each other on which web sites, web applications, and web storage can run. Think of it as all the computers you could connect to over the Internet that aren’t other people’s home machines.
Why did someone invent this new term? Well, because of the sheer amount of computers that exist now, a huge percent of which are dedicated for Internet-based use. The name Internet came from a visual image of these countless connected computers hooked together like a fishing or basketball net. If you needed to, you could locate and count each place in such a net where two pieces of cord tied together. Now picture a small puffy cloud in the sky. Now try and consider how many drops of water are in there. That’s probably how many computers are now connected on the Internet.
Now that you have a sense of what the cloud is, let’s discuss three benefits of moving your site or application to the cloud: scalability, disaster recovery, and SaaS applications.
Scalability: Getting More (For Less)
What This Is: When you hear someone say “scalability,” it means this: a web application which used to only run on one machine can now run on two, three, 27, etc., all at the same time. Most websites of olden days (and still many today) ran on a single computer. A “scalable” web site or application is designed to run smoothly no matter how many physical computers it’s copied to.
Why This Matters: Does your website experience random peak times when the number of visitors rapidly escalates? For example, a news website may have an average daily amount of traffic. But if a major story breaks, the traffic number could be ten times that of the average. If your infrastructure doesn’t have the capacity to handle this kind of surge, these peak periods could crash your website.
That said, you don’t want to buy lots of physical IT equipment in preparation for peak usage. Imagine your website was a restaurant – you might need 20 people on staff Friday nights, but only ten on Wednesday lunch. If you kept a maximum staff all the time, you’d be paying a lot of employees to stand around “just in case.” In the same way, why pay for a huge web server all of the time if you know three days of the month are the busiest?
How the Cloud Helps: Cloud scalability solves this by allowing an application to run on a smaller machine for normal use, and more machines can be turned on automatically. For example, an Amazon Web Services cloud lets you schedule when machines turn on or off. AWS can also change capacity automatically based on how much usage a website is getting. Either way, this translates directly into lower costs and prevents your website from being overloaded.
Disaster Recovery: Better Safe than Sorry
What This Is: Sometimes, computers just die. “Disaster Recovery” means you avoid losing data and/or business because part of your IT infrastructure fails.
Why This Matters: What happens when the one machine that handles orders from your customers up and dies? If this disaster strikes and you’re not prepared, that web application (and thus a major part of your business) is toast. Also, if you rely on a single web server in a data warehouse, and it fails, your website will be offline while your IT department rebuilds that server.
How the Cloud Helps: In the cloud, the physical machine your application runs on doesn’t matter. Your web site, the operating system it runs on, and all the magic your IT gurus have set up are all configured and saved. If the machine hosting your site fails, the cloud realizes that machine is no longer available, and it automatically sets up a new one. Your website could be back up and running in 15 to 30 minutes without you having to do anything.
Want an even better option? Use the cloud to run two copies of your site on two separate machines. If one machine fails, the other is still in control and handles the load until the first is replaced—with no downtime.
SaaS Offerings: What You Need May Already Be on the Cloud
What This Is: A “SaaS” stands for “Software as a Service.” This is a program you can sign up for and log into through the web. It’s not custom-made for you but instead may serve thousands of other users. Common examples are Google Docs or Office 365, which are SaaS offerings designed to replace Microsoft Word.
Why This Matters: Say you’re ready to adopt a new web-based application to replace your old system and increase productivity. However, you currently have a lot of processes in place “just because you have to” due to the old system. Is it worth the time and effort to customize your new cloud solution?
How the Cloud Helps: SaaS offerings can offset some custom development while giving you a highly visible and agile workflow. This makes it easier to fix those bad business practices. You can now use software designed for growth and flexibility. This not only sets up your company for faster growth, it also controls costs.
Plus, a good SaaS offering will have a well-documented and robust Application Program Interface (API). An API allows your custom site to work with a SaaS. For example: Dropbox for file storage and Mavenlink for project management are excellent SaaS offerings with great APIs.
Make the Cloud Yours
There are plenty more cloud-based features out there. Amazon’s AWS alone offers: cloud-based web servers, databases, file storage, email services, text notifications, and countless other services. All of these features set your business up for higher productivity and dynamic growth—without high overhead costs.
Your cloud migration won’t look exactly like everyone else’s. Take a few minutes to think about the programs you use that keep your business running and profitable. Are they scalable? Could you recover from disaster? Is there a good, inexpensive, online way to do part of what you’re doing?
If you said yes to any of these, welcome to the cloud.
*photo courtesy of Nicolas Raymond on Flickr