Thanks to IT Business Edge Associate Editor Susan Hall who gave me the heads-up on this interesting piece over at PC World titled "A Small Business's Guide to the Cloud." The article attempts to shed some light on some of the more popular cloud computing platforms and how it relates to the small and medium-sized business. Interestingly, after reading it, I found myself holding to the opinion that the cloud might not for every SMB.
Now, if you have been following my SMB blog at ITBusinessEdge, you will know that I am not someone to shy away from novel or unusual solutions for the SMB. However, this article got me thinking hard about the cloud's suitability for SMBs. And I'm not talking theoretical deployment scenarios here, but real, literal use.
Before I give my take on this, let's take a quick look at the cloud platforms highlighted in that article:
I confess that this is the first time I am hearing of Skytap. After poring through the technical details, it is clear that Skytap offers an excellent environment for virtual lab automation. Rather than having to purchase and configure lots of hardware and servers to support development and testing, Skytap offers a standard virtual infrastructure complete with a VPN gateway for this purpose.
What became apparent rather quickly though, is that Skytap is primarily created to conduct pre-production testing. While there is nothing to stop customers from running actual production loads on them, the site offers no guarantees about uptime.
VMware's vSphere was only recently unveiled. While it can be called a cloud-based platform, vSphere does not implement a "cloud" as it is generally understood. VMware's vSphere gives organizations the ability to mesh together a pool of in-house servers into a single heterogeneous configuration with the management characteristics and failover redundancy of a cloud-based platform.
To understand why the cloud is for not every SMB, we need to focus mainly on Amazon's EC2 and Google's App Engine, which are well-regarded and mature offerings.
Web Applications Only
The most glaring limitation for cloud applications is probably that most of these platforms are really focused on providing Web applications. While Amazon does have a Windows beta running, the general wisdom is that if it does not run on the Web, then migrating to the cloud will be of limited use.
As such, an SMB looking to the cloud to host some off-the-shelf software packages or legacy applications is out of luck.
Development Not Included
In my opinion, however, the death knell of cloud-based platforms for most SMBs is really due to the fact that development is not included. Google's App Engine can be programmed in either Java or Python, while Amazon's Web Service (AWS) requires specialized knowledge of how the system is set up.
Where there is no doubt about the superior scalability of both cloud platforms, it would be folly in the extreme to expect a plug-and-play experience. Indeed, it is highly unlikely that any of the folks in a typical SMB-sized IT department will be able to deliver what you want with any immediacy.
Skytap's offering and VMware's vSphere 4 aside, the other cloud platforms require a certain amount of development and system engineering efforts that could well be outside the league of most SMBs. Of course, the arrival of Windows Azure might throw a spanner into the entire equation -- we'll certainly take stock of the situation again when the time comes.
Of course, there are definitely scenarios where it would do well for an SMB to take advantage of the potential of the cloud. I'll elaborate on this later this week, so stay tuned.