Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A real-world cloud user shares his findings

I subscribe to a number of mailing lists from my alma mater. A few weeks ago, an alum "John" posted a request for recommendations for a cloud computing vendor for his small investment firm. What follows is his email to the group following responses he received.

This is an incredibly illustrative peek inside of the "real world" of cloud computing, and what prospective SMB users are looking for and concerned about. As well as what's "Good Enough". I've not edited anything....

I had many requests to share our findings so I figured I would share with the group. I appreciate all of the input I received. It has been really helpful.

~ John

Having looked into cloud computing solutions for our small investment firm over the past few months, we have learned a lot about the growing movement towards remote data storage and accessibility. Our goal has been to find a cost-effective solution for our IT needs that would make it convenient for employees of our company to access our shared network (documents and emails) all over the globe without much hassle, difficulty, or expense. While the cloud computing landscape is still relatively new, what is already available is exciting. Both Google, Microsoft, and other companies have products available such as Google Apps and Microsoft Office Live, but neither has fully come to the point of being able to handle our business needs. We are currently in the process of setting up a Google Apps trial period, through a consultant, to try out business e-mail and calendar via Google’s Gmail and Google Calendar. We will do this test while retaining our current Microsoft Exchange server.

There have been many issues to consider as we have been speaking with various consultants and researching all of the available alternatives. First, since we are an SEC-registered investment adviser with lots of confidential and sensitive information on our hands, issues regarding the security of our electronic files – both in terms of disaster recovery as well the integrity of the company with whom we are entrusting to house our data – are paramount. This also ties in with the issue of record retention, which is equally important to us. In terms of data storage and backup – our current system is not ideal. We need to retain copies of all e-mails and files for at least seven years, if not more, and this information needs to be secure and easily accessible. There seem to be some progress in this area (Google Postini and Amazon S3, for example), but as of yet, there is not yet one system that can do all of these things in the way we’d require.

Second, since we currently are not pleased with our current remote network access - we would like an easy and inexpensive way to access email and our network drive from any computer with Internet access. We have discovered that while web-based, unlimited e-mail and calendar storage are currently available from multiple providers, a solution for mass file storage that would essentially replicate our shared network drive and allow large files for multiple software applications to be stored/backed up in the cloud does not yet exist at an attractive price. In particular, a system where we could modify docs in the cloud without having to download and upload/re-save the file each time it needs to be edited.

One interesting product we discovered during our search is called Dropbox. You download Dropbox to one computer, save any type of file you would like to a “Drop Box drive”, and it syncs up automatically with the Web. Then, when you are at home or traveling, you can access those docs through a web browser... or you can download Drop Box onto another computer anywhere and you can edit the docs directly in Drop Box. The only glitch is that Dropbox does not yet have file storage capacity for a company with over 200GB of data to store and seems to be geared more for individual users. Word on the street is that Google will be coming out with a new product soon that has similar features to Dropbox, but on a much larger scale that would be useful for businesses.

In terms of cost and ease, Google Apps seems to be the best solution for us right now (it comes out around $50/user/year), at least for the e-mail and archiving component. Microsoft’s upcoming 2010 Web Apps platform seems appealing as well, particularly because we might be able to edit complex Excel documents directly in the cloud from anywhere.

Bottom line, what we have learned is that this rapidly-developing option for IT is not yet 100% ready to cover all the bases our business needs, but it will probably get there sometime in the next year or two. For the time being, we are going to see how the e-mail works and go from there.

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