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When experts predict the future of computing, their crystal balls are cloudy. As in cloud computing. If you use Gmail or Hotmail or post your status reports on Facebook, you are already using cloud computing. But email and social networking are only the first wave. Bigger clouds are building on the horizon.

Cloud Computing While it may be hard to define, cloud computing is the future — and it may save your business big money By Buddy Nevins Originally published in the Apr/May 2011 issue of 850 Business Magazine


When experts predict the future of computing, their crystal balls are cloudy. As in cloud computing.

If you use Gmail or Hotmail or post your status reports on Facebook, you are already using cloud computing. But email and social networking are only the first wave. Bigger clouds are building on the horizon.

In cloud computing, remote networks share information and software. Data is stored on distant servers, not in an individual computer. One big advantage to users is that it allows access to their accounts from any computer in the world. A drawback is the continuing uncertainty about security.

Regardless of the fears about protection of personal data, experts agree that cloud computing will someday save businesses and individuals money. Cloud computing will inexpensively offer previously costly features such as customization of information through the availability of thousands of possible software variations.

“Cloud computing is coming but is not ready for prime time,” said Carl Lofstrom, president of the Northwest Florida Association of Computer User Groups. Lofstrom’s group is an amalgam of several computer clubs in the Walton County area. They believe so much in the future of cloud computing there was a workshop on it at their winter Tech ’11 conference at Northwest Florida State College.

Lofstrom is right. The big payoffs are in the future. But what is available is being used — and users like it. The University of West Florida recently switched from a computer-based Outlook mail system to cloud-based Gmail.

“It is free, more accessible and comparatively just as secure as our previous solutions, the Microsoft Exchange platform,” said Geissler Golding, Information Technology Services director at UWF. “Our thinking at the time was that we had reached a critical point with our current Exchange platform — hitting limits on mailbox sizes and aging hardware — and we were looking at a very intensive upgrade, which in the end would basically deliver the same product … With shrinking budgets at the state level we could better employ our resources in efforts that were more focused towards the mission of the university. In addition to having no monetary cost, the Google service delivered many collaborative tools which we never had the money or time to deliver to our community.”

Businesses, too, will be able to use a large range of cloud computing hardware in the near future. Tech giants like Apple and Google and a host of startup companies will be offering services and space on their servers.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmers predicts any company will be able to cut the cost of such necessities as billing and financial record keeping by using forms and software found and stored on his company’s servers — available at a much lower cost. Firms like Carbonite are already selling services to back up everything from emails to documents on their remote servers. And Google is pouring tens of millions of dollars into developing hardware it would sell to supplement, and possibly replace, current desktop computers by connecting them to the cloud to hold most of their data.

The test versions of the Google Chrome OS have a new keyboard that sends a user to specific sites on the Internet with one tap of a key. A chief selling point, according to Google and other tech firms chasing the cloud, is that if a laptop is lost or an office burglarized, the data is still safe on the cloud. You just buy another computer and log into your account where everything is stored there for you. The new Chrome OS hardware won’t allow you to install software because it is designed to work only with software available on the Web. Google envisions thousands of applications — apps — that would allow users to customize their information technology without having to buy software for their home computer.

Fighting Crime

Saving money isn’t the only advantage. Cloud computing is already helping the police catch bad guys and recover stolen goods through the North Florida Pawn Network. A cloud partnership between Leon County government and the Leon County Sheriff’s Office has reduced the cost of gathering and searching information about who is pawning what merchandise. Under Florida law, pawnbrokers must report items that were pawned and police personnel are required to obtain either copies of the forms, computer printouts or electronic discs from pawnshops on a weekly basis. It was time consuming, costly and slowed down burglary and robbery investigations.

Lt. Steve Harrelson of the Leon County Sheriff’s Office and the county’s computer wizards came up with a better way. Almost four years ago they pioneered a cloud computing solution that allows all the information to be easily entered into one database. Pawnshops in counties that have joined the cloud electronically transfer the information, often by simple email, to the network hosted by Leon County. The information is now available to detectives in a day, rather than weeks. The network has become so popular that it has expanded to cover pawnshops from Walton County through the Big Bend to Marion County and parts of Georgia and Alabama bordering Florida.

“It’s been a win-win for everybody,” said Hermon Davis, Applications and Database manager for Leon County. He said that more than 1,300 items — from firearms to digital cameras and even bicycles — have been recovered by law enforcement agencies due to the network. Davis is most proud that Leon County’s technology division received the prestigious Honor Program Award from Computerworld in 2010 for organizations that have used information technology to benefit society.

Clouds in Class and Government

Northwest Florida students are also entering the cloud. It has already changed the way classes are taught, with thousands taking courses online using a college’s centralized servers. Florida State University offers an extensive range of teaching, including credit courses in technology and emergency management. Professor Norman Wilde, the Nystul Professor of Computer Science at the University of West Florida, taught a software course “that had students located in Washington, D.C., Tampa and San Francisco, as well as in the Northwest Florida area.” And later this year, FSU will be implementing cloud-based services “providing students with email and file storage services,” said Michael Barrett, FSU’s associate vice president and chief information officer.

The Florida House of Representatives also dabbled in cloud computing in 2010 and more is planned in the future. In a last-minute push to get every Floridian counted in the census, the House hosted MyFloridaCensus using a Windows Azure cloud platform. And the Legislature may even use cloud computing to help Floridians participate in redistricting this year.

Security Concerns Remain

But questions over the protection of data remain a major drawback that is holding back migration to cloud computing because some potential customers worry about putting their personal or proprietary information on a remote server. Indeed, potential users shied away from the cloud after widespread publicity about hacking incidents.

“There are obvious security issues,” conceded Wilde. But experts say the best way to guarantee peace of mind is to demand specific information about a cloud firm’s security before doing business with it. Another safeguard is to follow the example of the University of West Florida, which insisted on “a very explicit contract with Google about the security of our information” when it switched to Gmail, the university’s tech director Golding said.

“Ensuring that the data stored in these systems is kept secure from external access is critical …” said FSU’s Barrett. He suggests customers look at the track record of the company before signing any cloud contract. “Another security challenge facing public institutions such as FSU,” he said, “is the ability to retrieve data stored in the cloud to answer internal inquires and public records requests and subpoenas … The university needs to be able to respond to these needs as if the data were maintained in a locally-provided application.”

United Kingdom tech consultant Mac Scott, writing in the online publication Director of Finance, agreed security is a big issue. “Security becomes cloud computing’s major stumbling-block for business-specific applications such as core banking, insurance systems or point-of-sale for retail. Unless there are significant developments in IT security, it is unlikely that traditional or already established companies will turn to cloud computing for business-specific applications for many years.”

UWF’s Wilde suggests making sure everything sensitive that is put on remote servers is encrypted, although he warns that is not 100 percent foolproof.

Internet Access Is Critical

Another snag for portions of Northwest Florida is the Internet itself. Cloud computing requires fast Internet connections to work, restricting its use in more rural areas. Help is coming, though. More than $90 million in federal funds is being spent by the Florida Rural Broadband Alliance to connect homes, community facilities and small businesses to high-speed Internet in 14 Florida counties, including Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, Liberty and Washington in North Florida. As many as 16,000 businesses across Florida are expected to have high-speed access to the Internet for the first time, allowing them to access the benefits of cloud computing.

Such increased access to the Internet has the potential for a new form of economic development. New large cloud servers could be built in Northwest Florida to host Internet customers from across the globe. This would depend on making the building hurricane proof with a reliable source of electricity and network feeds. “Many cloud computing vendors have shown up in small and mid-sized cities that meet the criteria and are in a location where they are able to attract the workforce necessary to support the cloud,” Barrett said.

When will cloud computing start taking over information technology for the average user?

UWF’s Golding predicts it will be here soon because the cloud will “certainly decrease costs for small business. If I ran a small business I would, for example, take advantage of Google’s offering for email, calendar and officer productivity software. I would also take advantage of cloud-storing of any information created locally, thus possibly reducing the cost of back-ups.”

Wilde agreed with his UWF colleague. “If I owned a small business I would probably bet that Google or Amazon will have better system administrators than any I can hire, because that is their core competency,” he said.