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The Bottom Line: Cloud Computing Reigns

March 15, 2012
By Maryann Lawlor, SIGNAL Connections
E-mail About the Author

Many people speak of cloud computing as if it’s been around for decades. In a way, it has. But today’s use of the phrase is more specific than simply a great big network in the sky. Understanding the cloud will determine whether it helps organizations realize the efficiencies and cost savings it promises or the opportunities that float on by.

In its simplest form, cloud computing enables organizations to purchase computing power and data storage services from third-party providers who offer these products via the Internet. Rather than investing in their own data centers or servers, businesses and agencies can pay as they go, which allows them to expand—or contract—as needed.

This business model offers several benefits; among the most attractive are lower upfront costs and increased agility. Organizations no longer have to predict how many servers they may need when their business grows. Yet, when an organization’s growth exceeds expectations, the server capacity it needs to succeed can be in place in minutes rather than weeks.

But the cloud is not all about its silver lining or a silver bullet. If, for some reason, access to the cloud is denied, users cannot retrieve the data they’ve stored there. In addition, security remains an issue. Although there have been few reports of a cloud being breached, the possibility exists, so the cloud is yet one more vulnerability that must be considered.

Brig. Gen. Steven J. Spano, USAF (Ret.), director, global public sector, Amazon Web Services, can reasonably speak about both the benefits and challenges of cloud computing. When Gen. Spano retired, he was the A-6, headquarters, Air Combat Command, a post he came to after serving as the deputy chief of staff, Multinational Forces–Iraq, where he was in charge of communications.

In terms of security, the general contends that a cloud environment can be more secure than keeping data in organization-owned servers. “The common thinking is that if an agency owns a data center, manages the equipment inside and employs the people who run the machines, then the agency has positive control of its data and it is, by default, secure. However, we have seen time and time again that the cloud offers just as much, if not more, security as a government-owned and -run data center. And here's why: control. In the cloud, CIOs can determine exactly what is running or when something ran, how long it ran and what it did,” he states.

But even this proponent of cloud computing admits that organizations cannot and should not leap into the cloud environment without serious strategic planning. Some jobs—Web and application hosting, high-performance computing and collaboration tools sharing—are naturals for migration. However, organizations also may have applications that require a step-by-step approach into the cloud. To address these divergent situations, Gen. Spano recommends building a migration plan—usually spanning two years—to transition applications into the new environment.

The bottom line is that, despite security concerns and tedious planning and execution, ultimately moving to the cloud can benefit an organization’s bottom line. It frees up chief information officers and engineers to focus on a company’s or agency’s core competencies instead of managing applications and data. Flying into the clouds may be a bit scary, but remaining on the ground could sink many promising programs.

Is cloud computing a fad or could it save organizations a fortune? Share with SIGNAL Connections readers your cloud computing conquests and conundrums. Is it the wave of the future … or are we already there?

Cloud computing was a primary topic discussed at the AFCEA International Homeland Security Conference in February. Go to the Coverage and Collaboration: AFCEA Homeland Security Conference website.