Cloud formation

Cloud formation

Anyone who has got multiple offices should come to cloud. You don’t have to worry about networking and you are all looking at the same data.

Up until very recently, the only time you might connect the word “cloud’ with the word “computing” might have been when you were feeling particularly exasperated with your IT department, and how they had their head in the clouds all the time talking ethernets and RAMs – and probably Warcraft, when you weren’t listening. All you wanted to do was work out why you couldn’t send an email. But that could all be about to change.

Cloud computing, some say, is a new development in the world of IT, one that could revolutionise not just the way we set up our business infrastructure, but even the way that infrastructure is sold. Just as an example, we feature two Yorkshire businesses – one still very much a start-up, the other much more established, if relatively low profile – that could stand to gain enormously from the growth in cloud computing. But don’t just take their word for it.

Nowadays nothing seems to make the headlines in IT unless Microsoft is doing it, so a comment from Steve Ballmer, the software giant’s current chief executive, should make you sit up and take notice. Back in March, in a speech at the University of Washington, he revealed that around 75% of Microsoft’s entire workforce was already working on cloud-based or cloud-inspired technology.

Within a year, 90% them would be so employed, he said. So what is this new technology, so revolutionary that no less a person than Bill Gates has allowed his company to be dramatically restructured to cope with it? Well, let’s just assume (because we will in all probability be correct) that for the past few years the computers in your office have been linked to each other and to an often mysterious piece of apparatus called a server.

Everyone in the office knows where the server is, even if they don’t know what it does.  It’s generally in a cupboard which only those geeky guys from IT go into and which you want to avoid sitting next to, particularly on a hot summer’s day, because of the heat and noise it gives off.

And everyone knows that if there’s any hitch in the system, no matter whose fault it really is, hey, you can always blame it on the server. Well, cloud computing does away with all that in much the same way that client servers, as they are officially called, did away with even more clunky mainframe computers more than 30 years ago.

Essentially, and in very basic non-IT speak, under a cloud system your company doesn’t own a server. Instead, it pays a monthly subscription to a software provider and makes use of the software provider’s servers. Nor are these necessarily physical servers in the old-fashioned sense. The technology can “virtualise” a server so that you have your own secure system running across a range of machines, exactly as if it were a server in the office.

What are the advantages of such a system? Well, one is flexibility. The amount of server space made available to you can be expanded and contracted as you see fit. For example, Liquid Accounts, one of our profiled companies, provides accounting services for small businesses.  February and March are busy times of the year, because that’s when most small companies will be filing their accounts.

Managing director Matt Holmes says that under a conventional system, that would put a great strain on the server and lead to what he euphemistically refers to as a “resource issue” (a crash to you and me).  “But virtualisation will give us two more processorsautomatically,” he says. Another benefit is that you no longer have to go through all the inconvenience of buying software upgrades.

The software provider upgrades the system automatically for you, so you don’t have so many compatibility issues with other users and other offices.

“Anyone who has got multiple offices should come to cloud,” says Holmes. “You don’t have to worry about networking and you are all looking at the same data.” Another obvious benefit is the cost. Upfront subscription charges might appear to be expensive at the start, but fans of cloud computing point out that once you are all signed up the overall cost should come down as you should never have to worry yourself again about the expense and distraction of software upgrades. That’s certainly what EMIS, our second case study company, is hoping.  The £29m turnover Rawdon company has spent the past two decades building up an enviable reputation in providing software for GPs’ surgeries.

Its software is already used by 52% of all GPs in the country, while 63% of the UK population have their medical records stored on EMIS software. The company is in the process of rolling out a web-based system, EMIS Web, that should allow all those GPs and associated healthcare professionals to share such information easily.

It’s not surprising if that sounds familiar.  Over the past decade the NHS has been trying to establish something similar with its Connecting for Health project, except that after running up costs that some critics claimed were as high as £12bn, it effectively abandoned the project before it was finished.

Sean Riddell, EMIS’ chief executive, insists that some parts of Connecting for Health, such as the patient’s choose and book system, have proved effective, but he says the central problem with the main project – and the reason why it cost so much – was the “rip out and replace” approach that was adopted for installing new IT.

A web-based system, he says, will be much more cost-effective. Of course, cloud computing depends for its success on you having a reliable and high speed broadband connection – that’s really the reason why it hasn’t evolved earlier. And there is always the issue of security. There is still a wide body of opinion out there that maintains that your data is always going to be more secure if it is held physically in a machine that you own rather than somewhere out in the ether.  Holmes concedes this is an issue he is still facing.

But he insists that, because they have been developed more recently, cloud software providers’ security apparatus is often considerably more advanced than that of more conventional providers.  “We have a five-part log-in,” he says. “It drives me mad when you go to a website and you only have an email address and a password.” Companies that rely on traditional client servers may also have an overly optimistic view of their ability to retrieve a back-up, he says.

“How many people are doing tape back-ups and never checking that they can actually restore them?” he says. “Unless you test your back-ups on a regular basis, how do you know they will work? Even now you can back-up with cloud for £5 a month. You would be completely mad not to do it.” There are some issues that never change. How to deal with your legacy system, for example – a perennial problem in the world of IT – will still be an issue. There are no magic fixes there.  But the fact that Microsoft has moved so many of its 42,000 software developers over to cloud computing is a big sign that things are changing – not least because Microsoft has traditionally made all of its money on the conventional licensing route. It’s an upheaval indeed.

Even Holmes says he had something of a Damascene conversion two years ago, when he went to give a presentation armed with a USB memory pen.  “One guy in the audience stood up and said I was clearly not that into cloud, because if I was I could have accessed my presentation across the web,” he says.

“So, since then I have never done a presentation that isn’t online. I do turn up with a broadband dongle, in case there are communications issues. So far two, years in, I have never had a problem.”