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Hendon Publishing

Are things really better up in the cloud(s)?

Cloud computing (as defined by Wikipedia) is Internet-based computing, whereby shared resources, software, and information are provided to computers and other devices on demand, like the electricity grid.

The term “cloud” is used as a metaphor for the Internet, based on the cloud drawing used in the past to represent the telephone network. Typical cloud computing providers deliver common business applications online that are accessed from another Web service or software like a Web browser, while the software and data are stored on servers. The major cloud service providers include Microsoft, Salesforce, Skytap, Amazon and Google. The city of Orlando moved all their employee e-mail to Google Apps. (See “City of Orlando goes Google” on the cover.)

This type of Web-based computing offers many advantages to desktop computing and opens up new forms of group collaboration. Having your data and business computing programs running online, rather than exclusively on your office computers, means that you and your staff have access to them anytime, anywhere there’s an Internet connection.

Cloud computing also offers virtually limitless storage. Your computer’s current hard drive storage capacity is nothing compared to the hundreds of petabytes (one million gigabytes) available in the cloud. In addition, unlike desktop computing, in which a hard disk crash can destroy all your valuable data, a computer crashing in the cloud shouldn’t affect the storage of your data. That also means if your personal computer crashes, all your data is still out there in the cloud, still accessible. In a world where few individual desktop PC users back up their data on a regular basis, cloud computing is the ultimate in data-safe computing.

To many users, one of the most important aspects of cloud computing is multiple users can collaborate easily on documents and projects. Because the documents are hosted in the cloud, not on individual computers, all employees need is a computer with an Internet connection, and they’re collaborating.

The cost savings is hard to dismiss, especially for small business and agencies. Software provided online is upgraded and maintained by the provider, so the small business owner or agency does not have to purchase the newest version of a software program or download fixes and patches. To learn more, see “Trusting the Cloud for your data backup” on page 25.

But as attractive as all that sounds, some people still question the security of their data when it is stored on a remote server, as opposed to one under their own roof. Can unauthorized users gain access to your confidential data? Cloud computing companies say that data is secure, but it’s too early in the game to be completely sure of that. Experts on the subject say the key to using cloud hosting safely is finding a responsible provider that provides backup programs so your online data can also be stored in-house. One recommendation: Make sure the cloud provider has its own servers, not shared servers with other companies.

Cloud computing requires a constant Internet connection. If you can’t connect to the Internet due to an outage or a rural area, you can’t access your documents. Even on a fast connection, Web-based applications can sometimes be slower than accessing a similar software program on your desktop PC.

Moving to the “Cloud” may not be for everyone just yet. Factors such as agency size, budget, demographic will no doubt play into your decision. Only time will tell if moving e-mail and other apps into the Cloud is really better for your public safety agency.

Published in Public Safety IT, Jul/Aug 2010

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