You own or operate a business and notice that the costs of installing, powering, cooling, and maintaining your computing resources keeps going up.  Sure, computers themselves cost less these days than they used to, but the real estate to house them, the power to run and cool them, and the staff to protect and maintain them 24×7 is still a major expense for most of you.

On top of that, more and more of your workers and key-contributors don’t come into the office to work every day.  Instead they travel and work from Starbucks, hotel rooms, or their home offices.  But, they still require remote access to the same information and productivity tools as they have in the building.  That’s another large expense when you consider buying laptops, productivity software, connectivity, and providing security AND compliance controls if you happen to be one of those lucky companies that must comply with SOX, HIPAA, PCI, and other regulations.

A key terms may help you get your hands around these ideas:

“Cloud Computing” is a relatively new concept that embraces the whole Internet in a general sense, but specifically refers to locating company data (and usually the programs that it depends on) out into “virtual” space – somewhere you rarely see let alone visit.  By virtual space we are just suggesting that the physical location itself where the information is housed is ubiquitous – and is independent of your facilities.  Rather we presume that the Cloud Computing vendor has adequate infrastructure, power, cooling, and manpower to cost-effectively and efficiently operate, deliver, and protect your “stuff” at a location that is secure and away from most property threats.  We also need to trust another set of vendors to provide private or Internet connectivity to these places that assure us secure access and enough connection speed (bandwidth) to keep us (and all our co-workers) productive and happy.  They also assure the privacy and protection of our data.

A popular example of “Cloud Computing” to emerge in the past few of years is Google Apps.  You log in to Google and can word process, do a spreadsheet, build and post your own website, and collaborate with others in your workgroup or Company in cyberspace.  All you need is a laptop or desktop and a connection to the internet.  Such connections, some free and others subscription or fee-based are usually available in many private offices, at Starbucks and airports, and in your hotel room or home office as well.  Google builds and maintains the applications and offers them to you and other members of your team as a service for a very reasonable fee, sometimes as low as $5 per month per user.

If you’ve ever installed financial or business process applications you already know that $5 per month per user is a real bargain.  Not that Google Apps will replicate the complexity or sophistocation that an Oracle, SAP, or Microsoft Dynamics will.  But even in these examples, all three of the corporations developing these complex business systems are concurrently developing the means for you to use their software “engine” or “platform” as a “service” (SAAS) with a nominal usage fee charged as a subscription or fee each time you or other users connect.  Another example is Salesforce.com Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software as a service (SAAS).  It exists only as a service platform.  You can’t own it or install it onto your own systems at your location.  Instead you provide connectivity and Internet security for your users so they can connect to the service from anywhere.

There are many new flavors of Cloud Computer in 2012:  SAAS or Software as a service, PAAS or Platform as a Service, and TAAS or Technology as a Service and an emerging host of new X-AAS acronyms

SAAS is a fully developed application that is ready to use, usually on a subscription bases.  An individual or organization pays a one-time, monthly, or annual  fee to use the application.  The transaction and user data created is then saved to your workstation, a local company server, or in a datastore in the Cloud.  One example is Turbotax online, which is available from Intuit, the makers of Quickbooks accounting software.

PAAS or Platform as a service is a platform applications standard like Microsoft .NET.  The service enables a dispersed “virtual” development team to build and deploy applications that utilize that platform.  Your development efforts can be spread into various regions around the world at costs that leverage offshore talent rates far lower than domestic.  By carefully selecting and deploying your development teams, you can retain control and costs.

TAAS or technology as a service is a new term for what used to be called “hosting”.  The TAAS vendor provides hardware and servers with or without operating systems that are rented whole or in-part to you or your company.  These hardware environments are highly scalable and can react to rapid computing demand changes.  As well you can also decrease the size of your hardware footprint seasonally or according to your own demand schedule to meet various customer needs. You rent or lease a “cage” or “rack” from the provider.  It is equipped with redundant, conditioned power, redundant ethernet (or fiber optic) connections to the “cloud”, physical security including access control and biometric authentication, and creature comforts like break and game rooms or temporary work spaces for your staff to build, maintain, upgrade, or perform technical services on your systems.  The management of these systems can be outsourced or handled by your own staff remotely.

“Virtualization” is the process of converting physical computing resources into a transportable software “image” that can be reused in a variety of ways:  quickly installed onto a virtualization hardware “platform”, rapidly moved from one platform to another, copied, archived, or duplicated for efficient “disaster recovery”, and managed from a centralized administration resource.  Stated simply, your traditional hardware server’s settings, operating system, and applications are copied “imaged” and then stored elsewhere for future use.  Changes are updated regularly.  When needed, these copies of your data center functional environment can quickly be deployed and become available wherever needed.

Regardless of whether you house your own hardware or collocate it, if your server hardware is more than 3 years-old, you need to consider a virtualization and consolidation strategy.  This will enable you to mutually install upwards of 10-12 “virtual” servers into a newer “multi-core” server the same footprint or smaller than your legacy hardware.  The power requirement will be 70-90% less as will be the cooling requirements for the space where you would have housed it.  The space savings are comparable and will reduce your data center footprint substantially.  Placed off-site during the migration phase, your “green” savings will be even greater.  The costs for any additional connectivity costs usually will be re-captured in the first year or two of the post-migtration consolidated operations.

If the amount of data you store continues to increase rapidly, consider off-site storage combined with data de-duplication – the systematic removal of multiple copies of data within your systems.  This practice will reduce or eliminate storage creep.  Most often de-duplication is done during backup or archiving of your data.

If your operations depend upon 99.999 or 99.9999% up time for your company to be competitive, consider a disaster recovery, business continuity strategy that duplicates (or replicates) your data, programs, and system “states” both at your site and also off-site in case of a business interruption like an earthquake, plane crash, flood, or even sabotage by a disaffected employee.  In the event of a failure or incident, the systems can be architected so that operations will automatically switch to an alternate on-site or even off-site location and business transactions will continue as if nothing has happened.  Your customers and users will usually never know.

If your IT physical space, power, and maintenance costs are increasing at a rate that has caught your attention, consider moving or consolidating some or all of your IT resources into the “Cloud”.  Take it from a business owner who has chosen to be as “virtual” as possible, there are many interesting ideas for IT planning in 2012 that may surprise you AND affect your bottom line.

Most of the time we don’t know or even care how we connect.  Its just “that” we connect and when we don’t or can’t we get really cranky.  At work its usually simple:  either you can or can’t depending upon whether Wi-Fi access is enabled for your tablet or laptop. (Smartphones usually take care of themselves with mobile wireless access that operates independently from your business network)  Watch for an explosion of Wi-Fi availability, especially in dense urban areas and even the implementation of MANs, metropolitan area networks.

Cisco Blog » Blog Archive » Will Wi-Fi Begin a New Chapter for Mobile?.