Behind The ‘Cloud’

Cloud Computing

Businesses in virtually every industry, including agriculture, can realize significant cost savings and efficiency from adopting the “cloud” approach to information technology (IT). Businesses that use the cloud essentially are moving some or all their business applications and data from their own local computers and servers to the Web.

This approach promises real benefits, but web security experts warn that using the cloud as an IT alternative carries with it the potential for higher risk. Specifically, skeptics say that relying on remote, Web-based providers to ensure critical data is safe, computer applications run efficiently, and all other computing needs are easily met, could do just fine in the cloud – or, face disappointment.

“As a security guy, I tend to look at the idea of cloud computing from a risk perspective,” says Kai Axford, a national manager at Accretive Solutions, a computer security firm headquartered in Chicago.  “I have to tell you, I don’t see a lot of companies agreeing to become liable if your data gets breached on their network.”

Anywhere, Anytime

In concept, cloud computing does seem to live up to its “breath-of-fresh-air” marketing. Instead of dealing with often overtaxed in-house computer services, businesses working in the cloud will be able to access all their computing needs the same way many businesses already log into Microsoft’s Hotmail for their messages, stop by YouTube to catch a video or two, or visit Google Docs online to jot down a few thoughts.

Essentially, ag employees using the cloud, no matter where they are on any given day, are able to instantly access online ag applications and data using a wide array of Internet devices – desktops, laptops, PDAs, smart phones – which are little more than “dumb,” easy-to-maintain terminals that are connected via the Web to a business’ universal brain.

Moreover, service fees for working in the cloud are often based on an extremely reasonable, metered plan. If your business only requires a smidgeon of computing time, that’s all you’ll pay for. If you need a little more time, you pay a little more. Very fair – and potentially, extremely inexpensive.

Plus, it seems clear that some of the biggest guns in the business are more than ready to help your farm navigate your way through the cloud, which helps make cloud computing very much a buyer’s market at the moment.

Says David Navetta, an IT consultant at Information Law Group: “When there is more than one potential cloud provider in the mix, firms can leverage the provider’s against each other and make them compete not only on price, but on issues of data confidentiality, integrity and availability,” he says.

IBM and microsoft are both pushing the cloud, for example. And a number of other heavy hitters, including Google, Salesforce.com, Amazon.com, Intuit, Hewlett Packard, Cisco Systems have been involved in the market even longer. “Cloud is an important new consumption and delivery model for IT and business services,” says Erich Clementi, senior vice president, global technology services, IBM.

In addition, tech personnel on staff at cloud providers are often among the best in the business. And many cloud providers often have redundant network connections, which are built to ensure your operation’s computing systems will virtually never fail. Top-shelf providers also often have a two-shift staff that can work through the night to solve an emergency you might have. And the complex computing systems cloud providers often have can handle IT projects often will beyond the reach of the typical farm-based computing system.

Indeed, in-house hardware costs can often be significantly reduced with cloud computing services, since a farm that has migrated completely to the cloud only needs a cheap desktop PC and a terminal to tap into all those state-of-the-art, remote services.

Weighing It Up

Still, out there in the mist, the naysayers persist. “There are plenty of positive things that cloud computing provides, but at what cost?” says Accretive’s Axford. “I’ll take the extra time to patch my enterprise’s servers if it means keeping my data close.”

Bottom line: before you launch your operation into new stratosphere, industry insiders recommend you ask yourself – and your potential cloud solutions provider – these tough questions:

  • Can I Afford Service Outages or Apps That Don’t Work? Anyone who has had to endure endless downtime with their Web host provider or other online services vendor knows that service hiccups can be infuriating. With apps and data at your location, you can pay, cajole or order your computer services people to go into maximum overdrive to fix a snafu. But when your apps are in the cloud, priorities on system fixes are decided by someone who is not on your payroll, who may have other plans for the evening.
  • How Vulnerable Am I to Vista-Syndrome? Before Windows 7 was released, most growers wisely avoided upgrading to Vista, due to its reputation as an often incompatible, resource hog. In fact, en masse, most businesses voted “No” to the OS, one computer services director at a time. But with cloud computing, your operation’s vote, and the votes of hundreds and even thousands of businesses, will no longer count. Instead, all those votes will be usurped by a handful of IT directors, working at a handful of cloud computing service providers. Does your farm really want to relinquish its vote about which apps fly, and which apps die, to a handful of future, all-powerful, Gatekeepers of the Cloud?
  • Will I Become Trapped in the Cloud?  Another great risk in entrusting all your apps and data to a remote third party is that once you’re locked into their service, it may be very difficult to migrate to another provider, or migrate back to an in-house solution. Happy smiles, warm handshakes – all those may vanish the day you tell your cloud provider, “We’ve decided to move on.”
  • How Secure is My Data? The nature of cloud computing – generally distributing data and apps on multiple servers across the Web – lends itself to lapses in security. Your cloud solutions provider agreement may include all sorts of reassuring verbiage about painstaking safeguards. But in the end, what’s stopping your cloud provider from storing your farm’s data on a server in Afganistan?
  • Who’s Liable if My Data is Stolen? As IT security pros know all too well, stolen data too often affects scores of customers, in addition to your business. If there’s a security breach on your cloud provider’s server, is that ultimately the cloud provider’s responsibility, or does your business take the hit? Put another way, who’s name and signature at your farm is going to be at the end of a ‘Breach of Security’ letter you’ll need to send out to your customers if your cloud provider missteps on security, Accretive’s Axford says.
  • How Safe Are My Trade Secrets? Another spin on data security, this concern warrants separate consideration. Best intentions by cloud solutions providers don’t prevent competitors from placing hackers inside their businesses, freely cherry-picking your business’ best marketing ideas, studying your future strategies, collecting key contacts from your database, and the like.
  • Who Calls the Shots if the Government Comes Calling? In-house counsel can be energized and beefed-up to fend off unfair government perusal of your business and your data for years if need be. But how motivated will a cloud solutions provider be to defend one business from the government, when it can simply kiss off your company, and go back to servicing hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of other clients?
  • What Happens if Your Cloud Provider Goes Bankrupt? Not a pretty thought, but it happens. Will your cloud provider have a contingency plan in place to keep your farm’s operations running and your data accessible if it suddenly goes bankrupt? Will the contingency plan really matter once there are locks and chains on the doors of a bankrupt cloud provider, and its servers and other computer equipment has been sold off to liquidators?

Ultimately, your decision on the cloud will hinge on how much trust you’re willing to place in your cloud provider. The time, labor and cost savings associated with a move – or even a partial move – can be extremely substantial proposition. You simply need to know from the get-go that if things getting a little tricky, your cloud provider will be there, standing firmly behind you – and not scooting down the road.

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