Expert Interview with Steve Prentice on Cloud Computing for Business

It's hard to believe that just five years ago not many people outside the tech world knew anything about cloud computing. Wikipedia only had a couple of sentences about it, and not too many websites were discussing it either.

So Steve Prentice and his colleagues decided to cash in on what they suspected would be game-changing technology by creating CloudTweaks, a site devoted to educating business leaders, entrepreneurs and techies about cloud-based technology.

"We knew that this was going to be a high-growth industry with lots of interest due to the online accessibility and low costs of SaaS and cloud computing," Steve says. "This is when we decided that it was a good time to start to educate CEOs CTOs, governments and students on the subject, and we have not looked back since."

Their gambit has paid off. Today, everywhere you look there are references to cloud computing, and CloudTweaks has continued to position itself as a highly regarded source of industry news.

We recently checked in with Steve, a senior writer at CloudTweaks, to learn a little cloud 411 and find out how the technology can help business owners. Here's what he had to say:

Who should be reading CloudTweaks, and what will they find on it?

People who need to make decisions on the use of cloud technology in their business. So, CEOs, CTOs, CIOs, senior IT managers and business owners. Our articles are more informational and strategic than technical. You will find discussions, for example, about Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks and what this means to a company, rather than going into specifics of coding or other highly technical terms. Readers learn about companies that are delivering innovative products and services to the cloud industry, as well as trends and other news.

In layman's terms, what is the cloud? Why should we care about it?

The cloud refers to using off-site computers to store and process a company's data, which represents a great leap forward from the past, where companies stored and backed up their essential data in their own computers or manually archived them.

Cloud is extremely dynamic and cost-effective. The companies that provide cloud services are responsible for upgrades and growth of storage and computing resources, so that their clients can enjoy state-of-the-art technology without having to own it themselves.

The imagery of an actual cloud is useful, since anywhere you walk, clouds are always above you. In business, the same applies. Since a company's data is stored in an Internet-accessible databank anywhere on earth, employees and customers can more easily access that data from any device at any time. And if there is a surge - for example, a large number of customers rushing to purchase a product on a sale day - a cloud provider can scale up to meet the temporary increase in computing need, and then scale down afterwards, thus providing a reactive and tailored supply of computing power, without a company having to purchase it permanently.

In what ways are most of us already on the cloud, even if we don't realize it?

If you use DropBox, Flickr, iTunes, Microsoft OneDrive - basically storing and accessing data such as files, photos, music and video from somewhere other than your device's own hard drive - you are using the cloud. Any time you shop online, the stores that you visit, such as Target, Amazon and pretty much anything else, will be using cloud technology to quickly service your browsing and purchasing needs. Behind the scenes, the computing power that helps you bank online; that schedules buses, subways and planes; that delivers Netflix; or that stores your medical records is all on cloud or moving to it.

What are the most common types of services or functions is the cloud used for in businesses?

  • Data storage
  • Processing power
  • Mission-critical applications (the things that make the business run on a minute-by-minute basis)
  • Virtual software (instead of buying 50 packages of Microsoft Word, a company buys an access license to use the application on an as-needed basis from the cloud)
  • Virtualization (instead of buying a bunch of new computers for an office, these computers can be created "virtually" and used only for as long as needed)

Why are more businesses using cloud-based technology? What are the benefits?

  • More economical through reduced need for hard purchases
  • Scalability - services grow and shrink as needed
  • Guaranteed uptime
  • Constant upgrades and reliability maintained by the cloud provider
  • Up-to-date security measures
  • Reduced need for IT staff and related expenses
  • Security through redundancy - multiple copies of your data made to offset danger of loss or damage
  • Ease of use
  • Ease of access
  • Reduced depreciation of computing assets, since so much is virtual and dynamic

What's the cost comparison for using cloud-based technology compared with company-specific software?

This depends on the company, but cost efficiencies, as described in the answers above, almost always prove themselves when cloud is used.

Cloud providers absorb the cost of innovation, security and uptime and collect it back from their numerous clients. This is much like being part of a condominium, where expenses are shared between owners, as opposed to owning a house, where everything is the responsibility of the homeowner, and where all the assets get older each day.

When it comes to using the cloud for money management, whether it's payroll or point-of-sales systems, what types of questions should businesses ask vendors before signing on?

Ask about security, redundancy, speed, backup, ease of use for the end user, location of head office, quality of customer support and help desk, vendor company history and its other clients.

How can consumers protect themselves when buying from or interacting with businesses that operate on the cloud?

Do research. Check out the vendor's client list and approach them directly. Turn to online news sources (such as CloudTweaks) as well as Google and Twitter to find articles and people talking about this vendor. Read customer support pages to assess the quality and timeliness of a vendor's responses to questions and complaints. Set up a Google news alert to be informed of every past and developing story that mentions the vendor. Assess the quality of the website/customer interface. Look for broken links, poor grammar and non-intuitive instructions. Set up a test account and try it out. Many reputable vendors offer a 30-day trial period.

How secure are cloud-based services? How can a small business owner tell if their vendor is doing everything it can to protect sensitive data?

Most cloud-based services are highly secure, since that is a core part of their business. However, hacking and viruses are always present. A vendor should be willing and able to explain the measures it takes to protect a customer's information in a language the customer understands. But once again, due diligence using the methods described above makes for good insurance. I often gauge companies by the speed and quality of their customer alerts during or after a major hack attack - their reminders to change passwords, explanations of dangers and what they have done to keep things secure.

One extra point to add here: There are many bad guys out there who will send emails pretending to be the bank or the store or the service provider. This is known as phishing and is designed to lure a reader into clicking a link that is ostensibly a link back to the provider, but is in fact a link to a malware download. No matter how reputable a cloud vendor is, end-customers must always stay on guard against phishing by keeping their wits about them when reading any email that has a link, and also by keeping their virus scanning software up to date, and by using a password manager to generate and maintain better quality passwords.

What do you think is the future of the cloud? Is it poised to overcast the world?

Cloud technology is here to stay, in one form or another. The advent of reliable, secure wireless communication has rid us of the need to physically be in the same place as our data. Computers will become smaller, faster and more versatile with each passing year. In an esoteric sense, planet Earth's atmosphere is becoming the storage center for all of our data, allowing for total mobility and flexibility for the end user. In other words, to quote from the cult film Buckaroo Banzai (who co-opted it from Confucius), "No matter where you go, there you are."