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Cloud Computing: What It Is and How to Use It

An in-depth look at the types of cloud as a service and how to utilize the cloud for business continuity

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If you listen to the IBM advertisements on television “The Cloud” is described as a “workload optimized service management platform” but what does that mean? Basically, in the most simplistic form, the Cloud is a virtual data center. That is it! People often ask me to explain what it is, how it is used and why is it so popular? Usually, to avoid the deer in the headlights look by trying to explain what an optimized workload is, I will usually explain that it is a virtual data center. However, there are unique characteristics that allow it to be referred to as the Cloud. First, it is usually fully virtualized and accessed via the internet (or cloud), whether it is a virtual private or public network. The technical concept actually isn’t new. Companies have been implementing their own virtual private data centers for years. However, now companies are looking to adopt cloud computing as a service to help reduce costs as well as time to implement new infrastructure, service platform or software application. One of the fastest growing areas of cloud services is utilizing it for disaster recovery and or improving recovery time objectives for storage backup processes.

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Most, if not all, Fortune 500 companies have had the Cloud for years. Basically, they have created their own virtual data center for disaster recovery or for centralized server management. These are considered virtual private data centers versus what the Cloud is typically referred as a virtual public data center, like Amazon, where services, platforms or infrastructure is accessed via the Internet. Google has been the “Software as a Service” (SaaS) model for years and is a way to access legal briefings and decisions for research. Lexis-Nexis® is probably the most notable provider of these types of services, they provide thousands of law firms worldwide with of content-enabled workflow solutions specifically tailored to professionals in the legal industry. Therefore, it essentially becomes a commodity type of service that you lease for as long as you need that information or service.

Another benefit of the Cloud is its ability to be utilized as a disaster recovery facility to enhance backup and recovery requirements. For smaller businesses the cost to create a data center is usually too expensive, therefore many companies don’t have the business continuity they would like. With the introduction of Cloud, it became more cost effective for SMB’s to lease infrastructure for disaster recovery rather than gathering funds required to make a purchase all at once. Another benefit in leasing infrastructure is that the company doesn’t need to acquire resources or staff to manage the additional datacenter. Also, a company only needs to pay for what it uses. The Pay-as-you-go model may have one of the largest advantages of utilizing cloud services. So, rather than purchasing all the equipment needed for a data center with three years of storage, the Cloud leases what you need and expands dynamically if more storage, processing or memory is required.

Only paying for the storage you need is what makes cloud providers like the Amazon EC2 an attractive backup and recovery option. Cloud computing can now provide a more readily available copy of data that can be recovered anytime and anywhere. It can also greatly reduce the recovery time objectives of using a tape archive solution. Company’s today are using cloud computing to enhance their existing backup solutions to reduce the amount of money spent on the tape, storage services and shipping but also reduce the amount of time it would take to recover. Tape has been around for a long time so I don’t see cloud computing replacing tape backup anytime soon. However, it will definitely be used to improve business critical servers that need a lower recovery time. Tape can still be used as an offsite archive solution to meet industry compliance regulations, such as when documents and data need to be available for upwards of 7 years before they can be destroyed.

So, what have we learned about the Cloud? It is a virtual data center that can dynamically add resources as needed in a Pay-as-you-go leasing model. But the real difference is how a data center is built, managed and utilized by companies. Cloud computing provides infrastructure, software and platforms as a purchasable service that would not be an option for most companies The cloud provides opportunities for companies to rapidly spin up data center resources without the need for knowledge experts, software administrators and hardware startup costs. The three functions that cloud computing can provide is serve as a disaster recovery facility, a platform and infrastructure for enhanced backup procedures as well as the ability to lease software as needed versus trying to disrupt the company organization to implement yourself. This is only the tip of the iceberg regarding cloud computing, over the next few years this industry will rapidly grow. In fact, it forecasted by many analysts as being a 25 billion dollar business opportunity.

The Different Types of Cloud as a Service
The next step in understanding the cloud is to comprehend the different types of services offered and how to use them. You have likely seen or heard of Software as a Service (SaaS), Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and Platform as a Service (PaaS). These are all types of services available via cloud computing. When the term first generated a buzz it was typically referring to utilizing software as a service or otherwise known in the industry as SaaS. Google is probably most known SaaS, but others in the social media industry rapidly shot up like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace as well as other hosted applications that were more business critical. Although SaaS was one of the first technical adoptions of the cloud in the last few years, PaaS and IaaS have also become viable solutions and maybe more beneficial to companies than just software.

1. Software as a Service (SaaS)
Other than the search engines like Google, Bing or Yahoo! what can these SaaS models do to help a company? The social media applications are quickly replacing traditional marketing like print advertising, this is one area but there are many other SaaS available that can help improve efficiency and productivity. However, the legal industry has been using the model for legal research for years. Again, Lexis-Nexis is a good example of a SaaS mode. It provides legal firms with the ability to research legal briefs and decisions all via the Internet. This is a great example of how cloud computing is used to help law firms. Document management is also another area where cloud computing can be utilized and with companies like Autonomy and Microsoft launching the Azure platform these are certainly areas that could help improve efficiency for data management. Anything from website hosting, content management or just a dependable database for backend infrastructure are all available options for a quick deployment to provide any law firm access to the services required.

2. Platform as a Service (PaaS)
Platform as a Service is more popular and was likely started with the introduction and popularity of Linux open source code. This cloud computing model provides a platform for developers to code, test and experiment new software without the complexity of setting up and maintaining test, development and production servers. This service may not have as a great of use for the legal industry other than IT staff looking to test the deployment of a new system before rolling into production.

3. Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)
Infrastructure as a service is where many large companies like HP, IBM, Amazon and Rackspace have focused their attention. This service model provides companies as well as consumers with the ability to utilize already optimized and maintained virtualized resources at a data center via a web service or VPN connection. Many will use this to backup or recover data files in the event of a disaster, black out, or system failute. It can also serve as the primary server and run the application workload from this location alleviating the company IT staff of having to procure and maintain the server infrastructure and/or the application expertise to provide that service. This is typically billed on a per use basis so only the resources, processing and/or storage used is billed at the end of each month.

4. Recovery as a Service (RaaS)
This newly evolving type of cloud computing service model is a combination of the above three services. However, it is primarily utilized by companies looking to reduce their recovery time objective within their IT infrastructure backup processes. It is also an extreme benefit to smaller businesses or legal firms that don’t have the initial capital to create a redundant or disaster recovery data center. If you think how long companies have been using tape and the length of time it takes to receive the media from an offsite location – it almost renders it an ineffective disaster recovery solution. With a RaaS model, companies can easily backup entire servers in real-time to a cloud provider, like Amazon EC2, all for a very low cost service fee that includes the cost of software. However, this isn’t a Mozy or Carbonite consumer solution that backs up your kids iTunes. This is a big boy solution that allows companies to backup entire servers or data centers including the operating system, applications as well as the associated data.

In the event that data on one of those servers is lost, those replicated server images can be spun up in the cloud infrastructure and run from the remote location as if you had a duplicate data center with up-to-date data for maximum productivity. This provides law firms the ability to service their customers and continue being productive to bill hours even when there is an interruption of business critical systems at the office. When the original primary data center or server has been restored, all the changes that have been made to the server workload running in the cloud can be replicated back and restored with minimal interruption. This is “Recovery as a Service” and it will be one of the fastest growing cloud computing trends in 2010.

Utilizing the Cloud for Business Continuity
Werner Volgels, the CTO for Amazon, in December of 2009 commented in a ZDNet article titled “Cloud computing an option for disaster recovery” on how cloud computing would be utilized for disaster recovery. But cloud computing isn’t just about recovery, it is also a very cost effective option for more importantly to the legal industry as business continuity. The two principles are similar, the only difference between them define the recovery time objective. Disaster recovery is typically thought as being able to recover from a disaster event like a hurricane and or earthquake where an entire data center is destroyed. That may take 24-48 hours to recover but the company will still be in business. Business continuity is really a more immediate failover option where servers and or entire datacenters can be readily replaced and available within a few hours if not minutes. The benefit of using cloud computing for business continuity in the legal industry is to ensure the firm’s ability to continue to bill hours for services. If a law firm can’t have access to applications like Lexis-Nexis, Autonomy or BlackBerry for research, document management or for communication then it is likely that not much is going to get done. Ultimately, this will impact revenue, the company’s ability to bill hours, or worse yet not being able to service the client who may be depending on the firm for their life or livelihood. Utilizing the cloud as a PaaS, SaaS or more importantly RaaS will enable law firms to ensure their attorneys can continue to be productive regardless of the interruption and therefore be able to service clients, cases and workloads worldwide.

More Stories By Brace Rennels

Brace Rennels is a passionate and experienced interactive marketing professional who thrives on building high energy marketing teams to drive global web strategies, SEO, social media and online PR web marketing. Recognized as an early adopter of technology and applying new techniques to innovative creative marketing, drive brand awareness, lead generation and revenue. As a Sr. Manager Global of Website Strategies his responsibilities included developing and launching global social media, SEO and web marketing initiatives and strategy. Recognized for applying innovative solutions to address unique problems and manage business relationships to effectively accomplish enterprise objectives. An accomplished writer, blogger and author for several publications on various marketing, social media and technical subjects such as industry trends, cloud computing, virtualization, website marketing, disaster recovery and business continuity. Publications include CIO.com, Enterprise Storage Journal, TechNewsWorld, Sys-Con, eWeek and Peer to Peer Magazine. Follow more of Brace's writing on his blog: http://bracerennels.com

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