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An introduction to cloud computing
 

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An introduction to cloud computing

Ádám Kapovits
Eurescom
kapovits@eurescom.eu

Cloud computing is almost daily in the technology news. This brief introduction highlights the main benefits of cloud computing and the underlying business case as well as the most critical open issues.

What cloud computing is
Simply put, cloud computing is information technology (IT) as a service, whereby instead of building your own IT infrastructure to host databases and software, a third party hosts them for you in its large server farms, and data and services are accessed via the Internet. In this scenario IT joins electricity and water as another utility. 

The idea of cloud computing is not new. Its concept dates back to the 1960s, when John McCarthy said that “computation may some day be organised as a public utility”. Subsequently, many of the modern day characteristics of cloud computing and a comparison to the electricity were explored in 1966 by Douglas Parkhill in his book “The Challenge of the Computer Utility”. 

Cloud computing is not confined to business use. Many very successful consumer services use cloud computing, including Hotmail, Flickr and Facebook. Therefore, cloud computing should not be new to many Internet users, as they have already used it, but probably without knowing or noticing it. 

Main characteristics and benefits
Cloud computing has characteristics similar to other utility services: elastic provision, online, illusion of infinite supply. These characteristics translate to a number of benefits for users. Users pay only for what they actually consume, and there is no need for up front capital investment – which in the past used to be often quite significant. Furthermore, in contrast to the past, when large and geographically diverse corporations faced the problem to manage a very diverse set of IT infrastructures and applications, the cloud offers a unified environment, much easier to support and maintain, and less stressful to use for the workforce. 

The unification and homogenisation offers other advantages, including faster deployment of upgrades and the guarantee that those updates are implemented uniformly. Users of cloud services having cyclic high demand with intermittent idle or low demand periods can benefit of the elasticity and do not have to invest any longer into infrastructure and/or services that are not utilised for considerable periods. In addition, if your business is growing fast, your increased demand for computing services can be met seamlessly. Finally, cloud services are designed to be accessed remotely, so if you have a mobile workforce, your staff will have access to vital data and services on the go. 

There is one additional factor that is worth mentioning, namely that the current restrictive economic climate also favours cloud computing and contributes to its increased uptake. 

Issues with cloud computing
So far a lot of very positive effects were listed regarding cloud computing. However, there are a few issues which still need to be solved. One of these is that standardised solutions are needed to avoid user lock-in. This is extremely important on the medium to long term for the health of the cloud computing market. Another issue that is almost always brought up in relation to cloud computing is trust, which is based on security and privacy. At present, the significance of the effect of the trust issue on cloud computing is very difficult to assess. 

Clearly, a certain level of trust is needed for the decision to switch to cloud computing. However, users who have embraced cloud computing are reportedly happy and satisfied, and overall not concerned. The ease, speed and guaranteed uniformity of updates of systems speak in favour of cloud computing. However, the concentration of resources and potentially interesting information makes cloud hosted applications and data an attractive target for malicious attacks. 

Finally, an aspect needs to be mentioned that is particular to Europe, but exactly because of this needs to be considered. That is the non uniform legal environment. This is not to say that the somewhat aged European legal framework cannot used with a bit of effort, especially if we consider past ruling in similar issues as precedents to how to interpret certain roles and responsibilities.  

However, only a minimum is defined on the European level as a penalty for misbehaving, and it is left in the hands of national legislation to apply more restrictive measures. This results in a segmented market, where national boundaries act as boundaries for providers as they are reluctant to face the risks associated to the differences in national legislations - they are comfortable in their home market, but reluctant to extend their service offerings across national borders. 

Conclusion
Cloud computing is more than just another hype. Many of its characteristics fit extremely well with today’s business demands. Thus, cloud computing is a solution expected to stay, even after when the present hype wave will have subsided.

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