Cloud Computing In Agriculture: 5 Key Questions You Must Answer

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Are you a little unclear when it comes to understanding cloud computing? Partly cloudy on the cloud? You’re not alone. A Google search of “What is Cloud Computing?” returned 245 million results. People want to know about the cloud.

Cloud computing — or the practice of using a network of remote servers hosted on the Internet to store, manage, and process data, rather than a local server — has been gaining serious momentum in the last year in many data-driven industries. And agriculture is taking notice.

In the federal sector, the USDA was the first cabinet-level agency to move its e-mail and productivity applications to the cloud. The U.S. National Resource Conservation Service has taken the help of cloud-computing tools to enable 12,500 of its planners who go out into the fields to interact with farmers. Ag retailers are using cloud computing as part of the precision ag services they offer grower-customers.

“There is a hard push for wireless data transfer, mobile Web apps and cloud computing, which are all very rapidly becoming mainstream,” says Glen Franzluebbers, ag technology director at Central Valley Ag, a cooperative based in Nebraska.

Filling the demand for cloud computing in agriculture are companies like AgIntegrated, Hemisphere GPS and XS, Inc. Onsite, AgIntegrated’s newly launched cloud-based offering promises to make data movement and exchange between equipment and individuals significantly less stressful and more streamlined than the current state of affairs.

“It really solves a significant issue that consultants and retailers are struggling with right now,” says Mike Santostefano, director of marketing and business development at AgIntegrated. “They need the variety of systems and software they are using, but they are simply not connected. Onsite provides this service.”

After acquiring AgJunction from GVM in February, Hemisphere GPS has since integrated the cloud-based system with John Deere’s AgLogic fleet logistics management solution. Through this platform, agricultural service providers can experience seamless two-way transfer of data and in-field work order management.

XS Inc. recently built a private cloud infrastructure on Dell to help agricultural clients improve business processes and decision making through data management and analysis. The Dell infrastructure is critical to supporting XS, Inc.’s big data applications due to its flexibility and reliability.
 
“As population increases and farm land remains limited, efficiency on the field and in the data center is imperative,” says Darren Patterson, vice president of technology at XS, Inc. “When you factor in a drought, it’s even more important to make the most of your resources.”

As cloud computing in agriculture continues to increase, so too will the number of questions about it. To answer the most frequently asked questions, I’ve identified the top five things you need to know before entering the cloud, according to IT experts:

1. Private or public? If you’re considering adopting cloud computing, one of the first questions experts say you need to answer is private or public? A private cloud, built using your resources in your data center, leaves you in control but also means you shoulder the management overhead.  Public cloud services relieve you of that management burden but at the expense of some control. There’s also a hybrid approach, in which some data resides on a private cloud, while other data resides on a public cloud.

2. Is security a concern? For a long time people were concerned about the security of cloud-computing platforms, but most of them are actually now much more secure than traditional approaches that they replace, according to experts. That’s not to say you shouldn’t have any worries about security with cloud computing. The Cloud Security Alliance recommends you be aware of software interfaces, or APIs, that are used to interact with cloud services. “Reliance on a weak set of interfaces and APIs exposes organizations to a variety of security issues related to confidentiality, integrity, availability, and accountability,” says the group in its “Top Threats to Cloud Computing” document.

3. What are the benefits? Many cloud-computing service providers claim they can significantly reduce the cost and complexity of owning and operating computers and networks. Cloud services can often be customized and flexible to use, and providers can offer advanced services that an individual company might not have the money or expertise to develop. Plus, experts say you have ability to add storage as needed. When you need more capacity, you get more, and when you need less, you get less — and you pay only for what you get.

4. How can I ensure success? According to an April 2011 online survey by Baseline, two critical elements of a cloud strategy are not commonly recognized: attention to service levels and focus on integration. To ensure your path to cloud success, experts encourage businesses to incorporate both elements. Also, IT leaders should obtain hands-on experience with cloud computing to learn its capabilities before implementing a company-wide solution.

5. Will the role of my IT department change? Cloud computing will not eliminate the need for an IT team, but many experts believe it will likely shift the role it plays within an organization. Before cloud computing, technical support spent much of its time monitoring and/or recovering all devices and systems to make sure they were available for business operations. With the transition of many devices to the cloud, an IT staff can spend more time in the role of project manager, business analyst and strategic planner.

For more information on cloud computing, be sure to read business consultant Joe Dysart’s article, “Behind The ‘Cloud.’”

Hopkins is Senior Online Editor for the CropLife Media Group at Meister Media Worldwide.
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