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Don't Dive Into Cloud Computing

Bob Evans has some great advice in his recent blog post, "Cloud Computing's Deadly Vulnerability -- And How To Avoid It." Cloud computing is a hot buzzword today, no doubt, but it's also a technology that is both emerging and embryonic. There are ways to take advantage of what's out there this year without risking your company or your job.
Bob Evans has some great advice in his recent blog post, "Cloud Computing's Deadly Vulnerability -- And How To Avoid It." Cloud computing is a hot buzzword today, no doubt, but it's also a technology that is both emerging and embryonic. There are ways to take advantage of what's out there this year without risking your company or your job.Maintaining lots of IT infrastructure is something most companies would rather not do. The IT infrastructure is important to supporting a company's core business goals, but so is electricity and very few companies have their own private dedicated power plants. It's not unusual for companies to have their own backup generators for when the public power goes out though. When it comes to power distribution, we know the probability of failure, the impact of failure, and the cost of providing a backup. Similar statistics on cloud computing are, well, cloudy.

With that in mind, the best thing for most companies to do is to first experiment with some of the simple cloud services that are available. The great thing about these services is that they are already widely used. If something goes wrong with them, it won't be just your site that's in peril. Yes, "misery loves company" isn't a disaster recovery plan. For now, think of it like "nobody ever got fired for expecting a simple Google/Amazon/Microsoft service to work."

Let's start with the simple and boring job of delivering bits. Most web sites have lots of static images, scripts, downloadable files, and html pages that are great candidates for a Content Delivery Network (CDN). If you use a Javascript framework such as jQuery, YUI, or Microsoft AJAX.NET, you can use the free services offered by Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft to get official versions of those frameworks. These services are geodistributed, so they're likely to be faster than your own servers.

Hosting your own files in the cloud isn't too difficult either. My favorite service, and one of the first to arrive on the scene, is Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3). You just upload your files to directory-like areas that Amazon calls "buckets", and then reference the files using a URL that can be mapped to your own domain. For example, you might put a file named logo.jpg into a bucket named "images" in your Amazon S3 area, which you have mapped by DNS to files.yourdomain.com. Then to retrieve an image you'd just reference it with http://files.yourdomain.com/images/logo.jpg. If you need even faster delivery of content, you can use Amazon's Cloudfront CDN to geodistribute your S3 files -- even streaming.

Google's own business depends almost exclusively on cloud services. One that they offer for free is Google Analytics, which provides incredible amounts of information about web site usage. It's most commonly used for public web sites, but is just as useful for intranet sites. It's not hard to add to a page, only a few lines of Javascript code. By telling you what's being used, Google Analytics reports can help to focus development efforts on the parts of the site that have the best payback.

Although most of these are relatively simple services and not difficult to integrate into existing infrastructure, they will still require the same sort of analysis and policy agonies that you'll need to consider for high-end cloud services like Azure. For example, how will you monitor the services to know when they've failed, and what steps do you take when they fail? Since many of these services are geodistributed, it's possible that your users in one part of the world may be having troubles when others are not. Services like Amazon's have status feeds that you can subscribe to, but it can take a while for problem reports to appear there.

In short, 2010 is the time to wade into cloud computing, not dive in -- the water isn't yet deep enough. This year, businesses of all sizes can take advantage of the basic cloud computing services already available. For more ambitious projects such as moving business-critical data into the cloud, 2010 should be spent experimenting with the offerings that become available and heeding the warnings of the pioneers who return with arrows in their back.

Editor's Choice
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing
John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author
John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author
James M. Connolly, Contributing Editor and Writer