Could cloud computing save you money?
Right now, cloud computing is all the rage. Considering whether cloud holds any value is high on most vendors’ and IT managers’ agendas. As with any hyped technology, cloud offers both practical and silly uses. I remember when XML and Web services were making their mark on the world around the year 2000—one of my first exposures to overhyped technologies right out of college. People were asking, “What’s a Web service and how can I use this new technology?” The community eventually realized XML Web services were nothing more than program-to-program communication. The only difference was new technologies like XML, XSD, SOAP and HTTP were being used to accomplish cross-language and -platform communication. While it was initially quite hard to find Web services that did anything other than convert Celsius to Fahrenheit or get stock quotes, eventually many business-critical ones emerged, like credit-card processing, shipping carrier real-time updates on packages and sending business documents like purchase orders that were traditionally sent via EDI and the X.12 standard.
I think cloud computing is a little different because it seems people were already accomplishing the buzzword before the buzzword really caught on. The browser has become a necessity in the daily life of any user. For example, I’ve been using Google Docs, Gmail and Google Calendar for several years. These services, which are used by both home and business users, are considered the SaaS (Sofware as a Service) variety of cloud computing. If you haven’t tried the free Google Docs, it’s well worth your time. It has the amazing capability to allow multiple people to be editing the same document at the same time and see one another’s changes in real-time. Because of features like these, and the remotely located workforce I collaborate with, I probably use Google Docs either the same or slightly more often than traditional desktop-only documents (i.e., Microsoft Word). What’s interesting is Google Docs gives me updates to the “product” as soon as they’re available versus me spending the time to upgrading Microsoft Office, which is another attribute of the cloud. Google will also put some features out in beta mode so users can see if they like the new functionality. It’s very intriguing that end users can choose, in some cases, what features to have included in their own cloud application.
Learning From Personal Experience
It might be the case that you aren’t using any SaaS applications yet, so let me briefly describe a scenario we went through at my employer, KrengelTech, that helped us determine when it was right to embrace the cloud. KrengelTech is comprised of many skilled technology professionals who love technical challenges. We hosted our own mail server for a time and had the opportunity to install our own instance of a Microsoft Exchange server. At that point, we realized that we needed to look at our options. We weren’t in the business of setting up Exchange servers, nor did we want to be. We knew enough to be dangerous in setting up the whole infrastructure, but any ongoing maintenance would inevitably cause us to lose out on other more profitable endeavors. We decided that hosting our own Exchange server wasn’t part of our core competency and instead pursued a very reasonably priced solution at MailStreet where you can get entry-level accounts for e-mail and calendar starting at $3.95/user/month. Google Apps has even more features at just under $5/month. Some maintenance is still required for setting up users, but it can be done by a business user rather than more expensive IT personnel.
The next level of SaaS, and arguably the most popular, would be SalesForce.com with its many offerings of applications that go far beyond their initial customer relationship management (CRM) solution. We’ve been using SalesForce for CRM purposes for a couple years but are looking to have it also take over our project management, service desk, time tracking, quoting and contracts functionality. What’s intriguing about SalesForce.com is that they’ve made it incredibly easy to extend and expand on their base offering and, in the same breath, have been able to keep it intuitive and easy to learn. Not only that but they have built infrastructure to encourage people to write their own applications and extensions that can be made for sale.
IBM’s in the Game
Many things can be run in the browser, but what about developers who require beefy desktops to run high-resource-consuming IDEs like RDP (fka RDi and WDSC) and Eclipse? Parties out there are working on that also. A while back I found Eclifox, which is an IBM effort at making Eclipse work in the browser (see a demo). I downloaded the package and installed it locally. While it works, it still has a ways to go before being production ready because it used a lot of CPU on the server side—even more than what it would have taken to run it on my PC in normal fashion. But what’s most interesting is that I wouldn’t have even ventured to think it was possible and here’s somebody that already has put together an initial beta. Times are changing faster than we think.
In case you haven’t seen it, IBM also offers IBM i Access for Web, which gives you several options including the capability to bring up a 5250 interface without installing Client Access on your desktop. Not only that, but IBM is continually adding features into the browser with its IBM Systems Director that started shipping with 6.1 systems.
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