E-marketing E-ssentials: Demystifying Cloud Computing

May 2010
Eugene Carr, President

If you’ve read a technology-related article recently, it’s likely you’ve seen the phrase “cloud computing.” It’s become one of those buzzwords that everyone uses, and maybe you sort of get the idea, but deep down maybe you don’t really understand what it is. Cloud computing is important and not that complicated, and this article will give you some background and explain how this new model will become more and more relevant
for the arts.

Cloud computing is fundamentally a method by which technology is made available or delivered to a user. Back in the 1960s, computers were giant refrigerator-like machines in the basement of large buildings run by a database administrators. They were attached by wires upstairs to secretaries and managers who accessed those computers from “dumb” terminals. There were no PCs, so all the computing power was in the basement.

Then the PC arrived and computing power was available on the desktop. You installed programs that ran locally on your own computer, and in large corporate settings you would sometimes access a shared server for certain programs or data. These servers were still running somewhere on-site, incurring power and maintenance costs and requiring a system administrator to keep them running smoothly.

Enter the Internet, and suddenly there was another option. More and more, the computers are no longer on-site—they are in giant server farms buried in highly protected, bunker-like buildings, where hundreds, if not thousands, of computers are operating at dramatic efficiency, run by relatively few staff members. Today we access those computers not by wires down to the basement, but rather over the Internet.

This technology architecture is commonly known as cloud computing. Those big servers that you connect to online are “in the cloud”—you never visit them, and there’s no physical connection, but you always know that they are there. The Wikipedia definition of cloud computing is: “Internet-based computing, whereby shared resources, software and information are used by computers and other devices on-demand, like a traditional utility.”

We are all familiar with this concept of on-demand access, but perhaps we take it for granted. You probably don’t power your home by buying and owning your own generator in your backyard—instead, you lease power from a utility company and pay only for what you use. In cloud computing, it’s the same idea: Lease server power and space on demand, and only pay for what you use. And it’s simple to scale from a very tiny amount to a vast quantity. If you are a big organization, you pay for what you use, and the same goes for small organizations. What this means is that cloud computing is suitable for everyone, both big business and small non-profits. As an example close to home, our company doesn’t own or lease servers anymore. We don’t have to worry about a computer failing and someone having to replace a hard drive. We now operate entirely in the cloud—all of our PatronMail servers are hosted in a state-of-the-art cloud-computing center in Texas.

Cloud computing is a distinctly different and less expensive way to manage the delivery of software. And, while lower price is a key benefit, there are many others:

  1. No servers. Like I said, in a cloud-computing environment you don’t need to own or manage any servers. Your IT staff (if you have one) will be happy, because they won’t have to work as hard to manage your technology infrastructure. With cloud computing you are leasing someone else’s technology and they provide much of the support for it.
  2. Fast setup. Because cloud computing is Internet-based, it is by its very nature “plug and play,” which means that setup is often wizard-driven and relatively quick. There’s no waiting for servers to show up and be installed, and no time spent formatting hard drives!
  3. Convenience. You can access your data from any computer browser at any time, as long as you have an Internet connection.
  4. Green. Of course, owning fewer servers is better for our planet. Rather than using tons of energy and resources to mold plastic and silicon and metal into a small computers, now we can share a larger server with hundreds or thousands of other companies.

Having said all that, I’m sure one question may be still lurking in the back of your mind: data security. When I talk to colleagues about cloud computing, their kneejerk reaction is to say, “But wait, how secure is my data?”

My response is, “When was the last time you did a comprehensive off-site backup of all your data?” (You and I both know the answer…) You get the point. Yes, trusting your data in a cloud environment carries risk. But that risk is far less great than the risk you carry today if your own data security and backup systems are sub-par. (And, if you want double protection, there’s nothing stopping you from offloading your data weekly (or daily) FROM the cloud TO your office as a backup. It’s just the reverse of the more traditional approach, and a better one all around.)

Okay, so now you know the background—but how can cloud computing be valuable for arts organizations?

There are a few models for cloud computing which you probably are familiar with. First, if you’re not using Google Docs (which this article was written on) you ought become aware of it. Google has a suite of Web-based tools that essentially replace Microsoft Office. You can create documents, spreadsheets, even PowerPoint-like presentations —but instead of saving versions of files to your own computer, and having to collaborate by sending e-mails with file attachments, all the documents just exist “in the cloud,” accessible online by anyone who needs them. These tools are free with a Gmail account, but Google also offers a business-class service (which we use) and they make that service for free to non-profits. Read more about that here.

(Here’s a delightful explanation and introduction of Google Doc in the form of a video from Google.)

Here’s an even simpler example, in the same realm. Many of you have probably used Photoshop, a $699/licence product from Adobe for image editing. That product runs on a desktop computer. But here’s an article called “10 Free Web Based Alternatives to Photoshop,” all of which are “cloud-based” services.
There are going to be more and more of these cropping up in the next few years as more back-office and business services move to the cloud. (In a future article, I’ll be back to talk about one such service: Customer Relationship Management [CRM] systems.)

I hope this article has made your understanding of all of this new technology less cloudy (Sorry, you knew that was coming!).

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