Microsoft South Africa's Albie Bester says hosting is ideal for smaller players. | Photos by Suzanne Gell.Photos by Suzanne Gell.Microsoft South Africa's Albie Bester says hosting is ideal for smaller players.

“The Cloud”. Suddenly, it’s everywhere, and everyone’s doing it. Those who aren’t doing it are trying to sell it anyway. But what exactly is this cloud, what does it offer, and who stands to benefit?

Trying to pin down exactly what cloud computing is, and what it is not, is about as easy as trying to pin down an actual cloud. At its broadest, “the cloud” is synonymous with “the internet”, but that non-definition is not much help to those struggling to sort the hot air and the hype from the reality.

A more useful approach is to think about cloud computing as “Everything as a Service”. Providing for your IT needs is increasingly not about buying stuff, it’s about buying the ability to do things. We all want, for example, to back up our data, to do it securely and reliably and to pay as little as possible for doing so. Exactly where those backups are stored, and how they are made is immaterial as long as they exist and we can get them when we need to. Nowadays, getting someone else to take care of it for us is a real alternative to going out and buying a set of tapes or a spare server.

RSAWeb's Rob Gilmour says rapid scalability is one of cloud infrastructure's biggest selling points.RSAWeb's Rob Gilmour says rapid scalability is one of cloud infrastructure's biggest selling points.

So: storage as a service. Likewise software as a service, hardware as a service, infrastructure as a service, data as a service, platforms as a service, disaster recovery as a service and so on. Or, to give them their jargon names, the friendly family of StaaS, SaaS, HaaS, IaaS, DaaS, PaaS, DRaaS and their inevitable cousins yet to be named.

“Cloud computing is about turning IT into a utility,” says RSAWeb MD Rob Gilmour. “With infrastructure, for example, you don’t actually need a server – rather, you need access to processing power, system memory, data storage and transport. Those are the services we provide.”

For technology and financial managers alike, the benefits of making the shift away from seeing IT infrastructure in terms of physical hardware are legion.

Chris Norton, VMWare, says planned downtime is no longer a problem.Chris Norton, VMWare, says planned downtime is no longer a problem.

Thanks to technology that allows multiple virtual servers to run independently on a single piece of hardware, infrastructure service providers can reap economies of scale that are simply unavailable to anyone else except the largest enterprises.

“You reduce the resources needed to run your physical environment, because you can utilise your physical assets far better,” says regional director of VMWare Southern Africa . “Without virtualisation, it’s quite common to get an organisation running, say, 1 000 servers at eight percent capacity. With virtualisation, you can reduce that to ten servers running at 70 to 80 percent capacity. You get significant consolidation.”

Virtualisation – and the move to the cloud that it enables – can make services more reliable as well.

“We now have the ability to move a live, running virtual server from one physical machine to another without interrupting operations,” says Norton. “That removes planned downtime from the equation.”

Getting off the upgrade treadmill

Richard Vester, Vodacom Business, says customers will be able to add and remove servers remotely from their desktops.Richard Vester, Vodacom Business, says customers will be able to add and remove servers remotely from their desktops.

In addition to this increased efficiency and reliability, scalability and flexibility are the other most frequently cited advantages of the move to buying infrastructure as
a service.

It’s a relatively common experience, for example, to discover that when you upgrade the software your business runs on, your existing hardware suddenly can’t cope with new demands.

“If your server suddenly needs double the memory, in a cloud computing situation that’s a matter of a few clicks,” says , head of technology and product strategy at MWeb Business.

“We can give you a new server in five minutes,” confirms RSAWeb’s Gilmour. “This on-demand scalability is one of cloud infrastructure’s biggest selling points when you compare it to the traditional hardware purchase cycle where you need to buy the server, configure it and host it. Under that scenario you’re lucky to get it running in days.”

Adding a new server need not even involve a phone call, says , executive head of hosted services at Business. “We’re moving to the point where customers can provision their own resources remotely. We can hand over the capability for them to add machines to their resource pool as they need them, based on predefined templates. It can all be done from their desktops in the office.”

“The advantages are all about capacity and scalability”, says Accenture’s cloud computing lead Willem Thompson.

Just as attractive as the ability to increase capacity quickly is the ability to reduce it again – businesses only pay for what they need, when they need it.

“Our customers like the idea that they don’t have to pay for resources that are only ever used at peak times. If there’s a demand spike at month-end, it’s the vendor’s problem to make sure that demand is met,” he says.

There are other advantages too. When you move to the cloud, maintaining your IT infrastructure becomes someone else’s problem.

“By moving applications, systems and services into the cloud, you are removing your requirement to have skills in-house or contracted,” says Hogh. “You can outsource all the complexity; your service provider has to deliver according to your service level agreement.”

Similar arguments apply to the idea of buying software as a service (let’s surrender and call it SaaS).

“The whole idea of SaaS is to spread the cost of your system over time based on usage,” says Rony Ross, CTO of business intelligence company Panorama Software. “One of the big issues has always been adding new users to your application: you need to buy new licences, ensure the users have compatible machines, install the software, then keep it upgraded and maintained.”

If your server suddenly needs double the memory, in a cloud computing situation that`s a matter of a few clicks. Roman Hogh, Mweb business.

In the cloud, that all goes away.

The most commonly touted advantage of SaaS is doing away with lump sum payments for software.

“Software becomes an opex cost that’s predictable month by month,” says , head of MEA portfolio and marketing for BT Global Services. “The service provider takes the risk of investing in the massive shared platforms that are needed, and the customer is able to add and remove capacity flexibly as demand fluctuates.”

So, SaaS is financially attractive and promises far greater ease of management than the alternative of buying your software on CDs the old-fashioned way. But there is a risk: when that software is being delivered over the internet, the quality and reliability of your bandwidth becomes critical.

“The whole premise of cloud computing is that your services are remote from your actual location,” says MWeb’s Hogh. “That means your communications, as the foundation of it all, need to be solid, reliable and fast. It’s no good putting stuff in the cloud if the underlying foundation can’t offer you performance and reliability that matches what you would have had on site.”

The bandwidth bottleneck

Has South Africa reached the point where the speed and reliability of its bandwidth makes a move to the cloud feasible? The consensus appears to be “almost”.

“The bandwidth issue is being solved,” says RSAWeb’s Gilmour. “I’d say we’re at the point where anything that isn’t mission-critical can and should be run in the cloud.”

But with international bandwidth still reliant on a handful of cables that are subject to outages – as users discovered to their cost in July – Gilmour says there is an important proviso: the cloud should be local.

“There are some global SaaS vendors that don’t offer the option yet, but if I could choose, I would definitely host locally,” says Gilmour. “The link between the server and the desktop should be as short as possible. People used to prefer hosting overseas because of price, but that doesn’t hold true anymore. The only reason to host offshore is to serve offshore clients.”

Much also depends on the application you’re trying to run from the cloud. “We definitely have enough bandwidth to run applications like,” says Accenture’s Thompson. “But if you’re going to move lots of digital content, you need to make arrangements with your telco. There’s so much being invested in communications infrastructure right now, though, that things are getting better all the time.”

“The more we have in the market, the better things are going to get,” adds , CEO of the Digital Solutions Group. “What I expect we will begin to see is the ability to pay for quality of service. Right now, we’re paying, but without the service. We’ll soon see people willing to pay more for guaranteed service levels.”

Until then, customers looking at basing their applications in the cloud need to ensure they have at least one backup connection in place – and preferably more, says Hogh of MWeb Business, which focuses primarily on small to medium-sized businesses. “Between fibre, ADSL, WiMax, iBurst and the various 3G connectivity options, there’s a viable failover option for every customer,” he says. “It all depends very much on their individual needs and how long they can afford for their connections to be down. In some businesses, half an hour is fine; in others, that would be catastrophic.”

The boundaries of the organisation are now logical, not physical. Chris norton, VMWare.

This ability to rely on service providers to advise on and help design appropriate solutions, without needing to bring in expensive consultants, is one more reason why cloud solutions are proving especially popular among small and mid-sized companies.

“These are the companies that don’t need or want to run their own IT infrastructure,” says VMWare’s Norton. “Large enterprises like banks, on the other hand, don’t trust anyone else to run it.”

All about control

This is where the distinction between private and public clouds becomes useful. Running a private cloud doesn’t necessarily mean building your own data centre: it’s entirely possible to build one using someone else’s physical infrastructure. What is critical is keeping everything inside your own firewalls, under your control.

“So long as the resource is within the customer’s domain and control, and limited to their use, it’s a private cloud,” says VMWare’s Norton. “Physical location is irrelevant. It would be entirely possible, for example, to create a private cloud for the government, linking locations across the country through the Sita backbone.”

To make matters more confusing, it’s equally possible to have equipment that’s housed on your own premises, but is not part of your own private cloud. This is a solution some organisations have used to get the benefits of cloud computing without the hazards of bandwidth trouble.

“We have a few cases where we have built cloud-like infrastructure at the client’s site,” says , CEO of MIP. “We own and manage the equipment and use a cloud billing model, but the customer doesn’t have any issues with bandwidth or latency.”

This is one variant of an increasingly common phenomenon, the hybrid cloud: a variable mix of public and private, on-site and remote infrastructure and services. “The cloud” is not an all-or-nothing affair.

There are many different examples of hybrid solutions. One of the most common is the increasing trend for small and medium businesses to give up on owning and managing their own e-mail servers, opting to have these hosted by a professional provider.

“The peripheral services are the first things to move into the cloud,” says Hogh. “Smaller businesses in particular are keen to outsource things like e-mail, , virus protection, archiving and so on. It’s important, but not core to their business.”

“We have 50 000 Exchange mailboxes hosted in South Africa,” confirms South Africa cloud business development manager . “It’s an ideal solution for the smaller guys who can’t afford to retain the best in-house skills and run their own hardware.”

Another hybrid strategy is to “provision for the average and outsource the peaks”, as Norton puts it. “You only need to have enough infrastructure in-house to cater for your average demand; then you can burst into the cloud during peak times. That whole process can be completely automated so that the business will never even know it’s happened.”

Panorama Software’s Ross offers a third strategy, of separating applications from data.

“It’s great to have an application running in the cloud, but people want to keep data on their own premises for security and speed reasons. Putting just the application layer in the cloud allows people to enjoy the power and cost benefits of cloud computing, while maintaining control over their data.”

Whatever you do, says Schoeman, “don’t move without an audit. Most cloud service providers have consultancy practices as well to help clients establish a baseline: what they have, what is under-used, what is over-used, what applications are suitable for the cloud and what a sensible migration path would be.”

Also, says Accenture’s Thompson: “Cost savings are not automatic; you need to do the sums. Flexibility is often a stronger motivator than cost.”