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October 13th, 2009

“Cloud computing” is the buzzword of the day (maybe even the month). Is it ready for prime time? CRE helps businesses get their head in (or out) of the clouds.

What is Cloud Computing?

Head in the clouds?

Cloud computing is like grid computing—it uses shared computers instead of local PCs to run applications. This is the “distributed” supercomputing model scaled down for corporate IT folks, promising trillions of computations per second. The cloud computing model uses groups of servers with consumer-level PC components, creating networks that share the data-crunching chores. Right now, cloud computing is a hot “new thing,” and its potential for “sharing and multiplying” PC power makes it attractive to corporate data centers.

It is all rather nebulous, though, and early adopters need courage as well as big budgets. Some have found it economical to test the theory, as you could do by networking a number of  computer desktop rentals and getting a trial account with a cloud computing service. This way you can keep your experiment safely separated from your mission-critical work and find your own, best answer to the cloud conundrum.

The cloud bandwagon

The term “cloud computing” can mean “utility computing,” “grid computing” and “software-as-a-service,” among other things. Someone using the term may be thinking of one (even several) of these definitions, and the reader/listener may be thinking of another concept entirely. Many people believe the term cloud computing is just another doomed buzzword, and that it refers to too many technologies, making it confusing.

The tech forums are full of folks who have high-traffic web sites—around the 10,000-hits-per-day range, not “high-traffic” as in iTunes—with enough demand for a dedicated server. Some are enticed by the cloud’s claim of “huge cost savings” with “the cloud,” but discover additional monthly charges beyond the utility billing. You also need to establish the actual need for cloud computing. Perhaps you just need a more powerful server, like an Xserve rental. You can try this out before you make a commitment either way.

The problem, clearly, is that there’s no way (yet) to make a good cost-benefit calculation. It is difficult to get a quick, definitive answer on cost, especially since cloud companies’ online “usage and cost calculators” only give an estimate of a monthly bill based on predicted bandwidth and storage needs—at rates that might change later on. If you try a cloud setup, it might behoove you to benchmark your results against, say, the performance of a high-end PC or a Mac Pro rental from CRE,  just to see if you’re realizing any actual advantage.

Does it even work?

One user forum participant discussing cloud computing worked for a cost-conscious startup. He stated that his company had moved to hosting “in the cloud” for “all the advertised reasons,” but three months later, he said, they were “looking at moving back because it’s too expensive.” Being drawn in by the hype is a common thing for early adopters to say. Once the advertising hype has settled, that will be the first clue that cloud computing is getting closer to being “ready for primetime.”

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