A few days ago, with a deadline hovering, I left my office in Ikoyi to drive to my house for a final push. My notes on the project, however, stayed behind, saved in a folder on my desktop. After six phone calls, the recruitment of a technologically inept volunteer, a complicated “Save As,” and two email forwards, the document finally reached me on my laptop.
My old-school productivity software had failed me. Or rather, my mobile life had moved beyond the software’s limitations. The alternative, if only I had been forward-thinking enough to use it, would have been to save my document on the Internet and find it wherever I happened to find myself.
This approach, called cloud computing because data and software reside on servers in gigantic, remote data centers, has become an important model in the business of technology. It should become equally central in the business of business.
The change is already underway. In 2009, IBM, that grand old master, announced its own foray into the skies with its “Blue Cloud” initiative to allow corporate data centers to operate more like the Internet. Salesforce.com has also built its business on offering access to its products via “Software as a Service” (SaaS), a Web-based subscription model that is more efficient, agile, and cost-effective than the old program-in-a-box.
The advantages–faster deployment, no upfront licensing and infrastructure costs, and no ongoing headache and expense of maintaining an internal data center–mean that IT departments are free to focus their resources on supporting their company’s core business.
And Google, perhaps the company most closely associated with successful cloud computing, entered the scene with the wide release of Google Apps, its collection of productivity software services backed by the enormous computing resources that power its search and ad services.
Free to consumers and $50 annually per user for the Premier Edition for businesses, it has the potential to revolutionize both the price and the means of doing business. If you multiply the mess I made by countless workers saving files onto their unstable internal drives and emailing and transferring data from one disk to another, you have a productivity black hole that costs businesses millions a year. By contrast, Google Apps lets you collaborate online without installing new software and without ever pulling a file from folder to folder. That’s productivity.
For some IT professionals, the thought of not having their data within their control gives them nightmares. From an unexamined viewpoint, the nightmares make sense. You can imagine enough horrifying scenarios, from malicious hackers to a total service loss, that you could stop sleeping altogether.
But the truth is that there security breaches of the cloud are extremely rare. It is much easier to lose data on a company’s internal servers, subject to power outages, crashes, and plain human error. Or, even worse, when it is stored on a laptop that can be stolen from the back of someone’s car.
Tens of millions of consumers already store data on Google servers, in addition to the extremely sensitive business information from its AdSense customers; and Google’s acquisition of Postini, the third largest in the company’s history, added a layer of security to the Premier Edition of Google Apps that should comfort even the most nervous CIOs. After all, Google itself lives in the cloud, and their talented engineers have made it the most reliable place in the cosmos.
I have learned my lesson. My notes are now safely on Google’s servers, and with these last few words, I will have met my deadline and shared this document with those who are waiting for it. It is time to release our grip on that old seat of software and fly.