Everywhere we look we find the 'cloud': tag clouds, word clouds, music clouds, private clouds, public clouds and the rest. 'Cloud' is one of those words that have expanded in meaning while losing precision, a process that is common when technical people (and sales people!) search for a handy metaphor. The cloud is a concept with multiple applications; substitute 'cluster' for 'cloud' and the concept becomes clearer. In the context of the Internet, clouds are clusters in cyberspace managed from remote web servers. At one end of the spectrum the word is applied to a very specific set of functions; at the other, to the way that cyberspace can be manipulated to produce positive results for businesses. The best way to begin is to examine the principles of 'cloud computing'.
The most commonly used analogy to describe cloud computing is the electricity grid. Traditionally, computing processes have been based around installed software on in-house devices, in much the same way as factories installed their own generating plants in the early days of electricity. With the introduction of the National Grid, industry could avoid installation and maintenance costs by tapping into a networked utility. Similarly, cloud computing delivers computing functions via the network of the Internet...
At simplest, this means moving your desktop to a server that is hosted by a third party, so that your systems, software, data and unique processes are moved over to a 'private cloud'. From there they can be accessed by authorised personnel through web browsers on desktop or mobile devices, regardless of their location. Centralised management means that all personnel are working on the same versions of the same software packages, and all are working with the most current data.
An alternative to 'hosted desktop' is 'Software-as-a-Service' [SaaS]. This refers to individual software applications that have been designed for the cloud and can be rented from providers. Capital outlay on computer software is avoided and there is usually no restriction on the number of users. A very basic example of a specific cloud-based application is Adobe CreatePDF, used for converting files into Portable Document Format [PDF] as an alternative to the Adobe Acrobat proprietary package. SaaS software is regularly upgraded at source at no additional cost. Again, a centralised web-based resource ensures consistency across the system for all end users.
Cloud computing, in any number of permutations, is offered in packages that vary in price and complexity, as the following examples show. A significant advantage of many cloud services is that uptake and therefore cost can be scaled flexibly to individual usage.
- Google Cloud Connect allows multiple users to share, simultaneously edit and back up files from the Microsoft Office suite.
- Microsoft offer a full pallet of individual cloud applications and storage solutions.
Much more sophisticated cloud systems are under continual refinement for larger organisations, where back-office (private cloud) functions are fully integrated with the customer-facing Internet presence (public cloud). These fast-moving developments in 'converged infrastructure' seamlessly link background processes (web database management systems, payment processing, etc.) with the public interface. For examples of this brave, new and very complicated world, visit MS System Centre 2012 or Dell Cloud Computing. For a handy guide that is much more relevant to SMEs and explains the advantages (and possible disadvantages) of cloud computing, download a nine page PDF 'The Cloud and You' from here.
Cloud Computing Elements
We've examined the basics of cloud computing as an overall alternative to a conventional back-office system, but there are elements that can be used individually to good effect.
Long long ago, in a galaxy far far away, setting up a web site was a complicated and expensive business. Web site design software, web hosting, the FTP [File Transfer Protocol] software required to upload content and, not least, the time required to set up and maintain a conventional web site: all came at a cost.
Share Wales is an example of a cloud-based alternative using a proprietory package. The content management system is WordPress, ostensibly designed for setting up blogs, but perfectly adequate for developing an Internet presence for small businesses. If WordPress seems a little complicated to new entrants, there are simpler platforms available such as Google's Blogger. Both of these examples are free.
WordPress, Blogger and similar platforms provide web site management systems around a pallet of design templates. The systems can accommodate photographs, video, audio, embedded content and much much more. No other design software is required; new content and amendments are delivered directly to the system; and there are no hosting charges. Any number of staff can be granted 'fishing rights' - authorised access to all (or some) elements of the system. And access to the remote servers that host the system is possible from anywhere in the world; all that is required is an Internet connection.
Cloud-Based Data Storage
My Internet Service Provider, my computer supplier and my smartphone operating system all offer free and secure 'digital vaults', where material of all kinds can be stored online and accessed via an Internet connection. But there are more specialised data storage options that cross over from the private cloud to the public cloud. A few examples will allow us to examine some of the implications.
Flickr is one of many photo sharing sites that let users upload images and videos, whether for public or private access. This example is chosen because Share Wales and Visit Wales have groups on Flickr designed to promote the Principality through imagery.
Slideshare hosts PowerPoint presentations, slide shows, documents, videos, etc. Once originated, Slideshare content can be accessed as part of the private cloud, left open to public view or embedded in web sites or in social media. The following is a Slideshare presentation pack from the recent Digital Past 2012 Conference.
Photosynth is a smart online application that works in conjunction with Microsoft ICE [Image Composite Editor]. MS ICE stitches together overlapping images to create panoramas, up to and including full 360° coverage. Once the composite is uploaded to Photosynth, users can zoom in or out and pan or tilt, to change their viewpoint or field of view. These dynamic panoramas can be embedded into other Internet media, as the example shows. You will need to download the (free) Silverlight Viewer. Don't be scared.
Most web-based resources of this kind are provided free of charge, at least at a basic level of service. All accept additional information and descriptions, an opportunity to introduce keyword rich content. Most have the facility to 'pin' locations to online mapping. For businesses, these resources should be seen as part of the process of creating their own public cloud.
Building a Public Cloud
Consider the totality of your Internet presence. You have a full web site or a blog-based site or both. You are active in one or more social media. You have set up reciprocal links with other businesses and organisations. You have listed your business with joint marketing web sites and web directories. Each of these elements of your Internet presence is linked to your main web site and, as far as possible, to each other. The result is a mosaic of differing perspectives on your business, its location and the services you offer. You have set up an online paper trail that will lead prospective customers from one aspect of your enterprise to another; and, as your Internet presence expands and increases in rich content, so does its appeal to Internet search engines. The screenshot is taken from my Profile on Google+. It gives links to Profiles on other sites, and links to personally created content that I think useful for promoting various aspects of my business activity. (Bear in mind that although tourism is a part of my business, I don't run a tourism business!)
Your public cloud is a constantly changing kaleidoscope: not so much a management system, more a state of mind!
The Cloud and Local Communities
Let's assume that you have developed your own business cloud and that other enterprises in your local community have done likewise - attractions, museums, galleries, local history groups, pubs, online itineraries, etc. By sharing content and linking together you will create a 'destination cloud' for a specific location - village, town or rural district - that will focus web searches and complement broader, national or regional, destination marketing activity.
So share thinking, share content and share marketing objectives: share Wales.