Cloud computing: special report

Cloud computing could be as important, and as game changing, as the first PCs. So how should businesses use the cloud, how should they prepare for it, and who are the vendors to watch? By Stephen Pritchard.

What is cloud computing?

Cloud computing is nothing short of a fundamental shift in information technology. For the last 30 years, the PC has ruled the IT landscape, along with the idea that computer processing is tied to a device whether a PC, a smartphone, or a server. If a business wants to process more data, then it buys a faster PC, or more servers; if it wants to keep more information, it buys more storage.

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The cloud changes all this. Instead of a buying a PC for the desk or a server for the back room or data centre, companies can rent slices of computer processing and storage by the month, day or hour, or even by the transaction, processor cycle or megabyte of storage. Businesses no longer have to buy their computers, and they pay for only what they use.

The same, too, applies to software. Instead of buying the licence for a software application up front, businesses can instead rent those applications for each user who needs them, and increase or decrease the number of users as business grows or shrinks.

Organisations can even rent specific services such as email, or online archiving, or backup in the cloud and pay neither for the hardware or the software, but instead pay an all-inclusive fee. And vendors in the cloud computing space are becoming ever more sophisticated, to the point where some smaller firms can now operate almost all, if not all, their business processes in the cloud.

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Cloud computing is, though, a broad term used to describe several forms of IT deployments, including software as a service (SaaS), platform as a service (PaaS) and infrastructure as a service (IaaS).

Some businesses might just want access to a specific application such as email or customer relationship management - without the need to buy and run the infrastructure to support it. Others will want to buy or develop their own applications and host them in the cloud, effectively on virtual servers (IaaS), or develop specific applications or services in the cloud environment, using tools provided as part of the cloud service (PaaS).

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