What Is the Cloud and Why it's Important for printers?
Forget the hype. The cloud makes it possible to increase capacity without additional investment in new hardware and software
You can’t open up a business publication these days without seeing an article about cloud computing,” or “the cloud.” To many, it may seem like hype designed to sell new equipment and software. Others may think it’s no different than SaaS (Software as a Service). Still others may think it is too far off in the future to worry about, that it is only for big companies, or that it is for “crazy” Internet startups. There are many advantages to the new cloud computing model, for companies large and small that can be reaped today. Cloud computing represents both a new technology approach and a new business model for acquiring and using technology—the combination is what delivers the benefits.
One of the most fascinating things about cloud computing is that you are probably already using it today, in many cases without even realizing it. It is nothing short of a revolution—the next generation of computing and the Internet. You don’t have to be an Internet entrepreneur or tech geek to take advantage of the benefits. Let’s take a look at what constitutes the cloud, and then examine some great ways a printing company can leverage the new paradigm.
What Is “The Cloud?”
Cloud computing is named for the way the Internet is depicted in network diagrams. At the most basic level, it is a new approach to deployment and utilization of computing resources. The cloud lets you increase capacity or add capabilities as needed, without making capital investments in new hardware and software. Servers are “virtualized” and shared across many companies—and are only employed when needed. Instead of “building the church for Easter Sunday” (building large capacity and rarely utilizing it), you instead access the servers and computing power you need based on your demand—at slow times you consume fewer resources, and at peak times the system can automatically scale up to meet your requirements.
Cloud computing environments provide the computing power, storage, databases, messaging, and other necessary components to be used to run business applications. With cloud computing, your local computers no longer have to provide all the resources necessary to get a particular job done. Much of the heavy lifting of running applications and hosting and accessing data are done outside of your premises.
With cloud computing, users can access their applications and data from anywhere at any time from almost any Internet-connected computer. Cloud computing lessens the need for expensive hardware, both for the end user and for the company providing the applications. You no longer have to buy additional or bigger servers to keep up with the demands of your business. And you won’t run out of storage or constantly need to buy new hard drives—the cloud platform handles those needs for you. Similarly, the computer from which users access the resources in the cloud doesn’t have to be the most powerful workstation available—it can be a very simple, inexpensive device, including diskless thin client workstations, netbooks, tablets, or even smart phones. In addition to decreasing ongoing capital investments, you will also reduce the need for hardware maintenance and having to manage backing up your data. Leveraging the cloud will also eliminate energy requirements and associated costs due to having fewer (or no) servers on your premises, as well as for air conditioning required to keep those servers healthy.
If you have a lot of remote users, or your customers deliver jobs to you via the Internet, you won’t need to scale your on-premises Internet connection to handle all those users accessing your applications hosted inside your own facility. You will only have to worry about the traffic from your users (and/or customers) going to the cloud provider, who has a virtually unlimited amount of bandwidth available.
Cloud computing powers many popular websites on the Internet today. We’ll discuss some examples later. There are two big reasons why it has become immensely popular. First, the aforementioned ability to create an IT infrastructure without capital investment appeals greatly to Web developers. It is now possible to start a Web-based business without raising money—in many ways, it can be said that the cloud computing business model has enabled and accelerated the explosion over the last couple of years of very useful, fun, and exciting Web 2.0 applications.
And, as we previously briefly mentioned, cloud computing provides scalability advantages. For example, if a website suddenly becomes popular because it is mentioned by bloggers, or a celebrity or other public figure endorses it and tweets a glowing comment about it, that application would immediately experience an increased workload. Under such circumstances, your own Web server might crash. With the cloud platform, it would instead automatically be provisioned with additional resources (bandwidth, computing power, memory, storage) to allow the business to keep up with the unexpected demand.
In early 2008, Dr Pepper pledged to give a free soda to everyone in America if the long-delayed Guns N’ Roses album Chinese Democracy came out that year. When the album finally appeared in November of that year, the company announced that people could claim their coupon on DrPepper. com. On Sunday, November 23, very shortly after the announcement, the company’s website crashed. How do you plan for capacity when you make a free offer to 300 million people? As a result of the outage, they extended the offer deadline and added a phone number to massage unhappy fans. At the end of the day, the outage resulted in a lot of publicity for Dr Pepper, albeit somewhat negative (along with a lot of hand-wringing and additional expense to support the onslaught of Web traffic). Had the company deployed DrPepper.com on a cloud platform, they likely would have avoided the negative aspects and been able to focus on the positive publicity from the campaign.
Cloud Billing Is Like a Utility
We talked about the fact that when you deploy in the cloud you don’t have to buy servers or pay fixed costs for bandwidth. This, in and of itself, is a great advantage—why pay for more capacity than you actually need? The other great advantage to the cloud computing business model is that it generally bills like a utility. Pay as you go and only pay for what you actually use. In contrast, most SaaS (Software as a Service) applications, for example Salesforce.com, bill as a subscription. Usually they charge “per seat” or by “named user,” which means you pay a monthly or quarterly subscription for each user. You pay the same no matter how much of the resources each user (or your customer) consumes. You pay the same amount even if a user never logs in. Another great advantage is that you can generally terminate cloud computing contracts at any time. If you decide you want to use another platform, or it’s time to retire a particular application you are running in the cloud, you can simply turn it off and stop paying.
If your company has an IT department and you maintain your business applications on servers that are located on your own premises (whether in a “data center” or a “server room”), it would be highly advisable to start considering cloud computing now. The applications in a printing operation that are appropriate and could easily be moved to the cloud today include corporate websites, corporate email, CRM, print MIS systems, and Web-to-print. In the future, even shop floor and print production workflow systems could be deployed in the cloud. We will talk more about business applications shortly, but first let’s look at the services available and who is providing them.
There are several major cloud computing platform services from which to choose. Each offers a variety of options. The business of the cloud is growing rapidly, so there are new companies and new service options emerging on an almost daily basis. In addition to those mentioned below, there are many other vendor choices, some lesser known. Quite a few smaller companies known primarily for Web hosting, such as Rackspace, are getting into the business. Several other companies offer services such as “cloud storage” or “cloud backup.” Here’s a brief description of some of the most popular general purpose platform choices available today:
Microsoft is again a late entrant into a big computing paradigm shift, and their offerings have yet to receive the buzz of some other companies in the space. However, as is often the case with their technologies, when they finally show up, they are very robust. Their Azure Services Platform (http://www.microsoft.com/windowsazure/products) is a set of cloud computing services that provides computing, storage, hosting, and management capabilities. One of the major advantages of Microsoft’s approach is that it allows resources in the cloud to work in concert with resources that are operated on your own premises. Windows Azure is described as a “cloud operating system” that serves as the development, service hosting, and service environment for the Windows Azure platform. The services are hosted in many global Microsoft datacenters.
Since one of the most popular cloud computing applications is the hosting of Web applications, Windows Azure offerings include Microsoft’s popular IIS (Internet Information Server), as well as storage services and a CDN (Content Distribution Network). This has become a popular adjunct service for placing copies of data closer to users so fewer long Internet trips are necessary for users further away from the actual hosted home of the application—improving response times. Another important cloud offering from Microsoft is SQL Azure, which provides many of the advantages of the company’s extremely popular SQL Server environment along with the highly available, scalable benefits of cloud computing and cloud storage.
Amazon Web Services (AWS, http://aws.amazon.com) is one of the first commercially available cloud computing platforms and inarguably the most popular today. By the time Amazon launched AWS, they had spent more than a decade and hundreds of millions of dollars building and managing the large-scale, reliable, and efficient IT infrastructure that allowed them to become one of the world’s largest online retail platforms. AWS lets others capitalize on Amazon’s experience and investment for their own applications. Amazon’s services include Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2), which provides scalable computing resources, Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3), used to store and retrieve “any amount of data, at any time,” from the Web; and Amazon Relational Database Service (Amazon RDS), providing an easy way to set up, operate, and scale SQL databases. Amazon Simple DB, as the name implies, is a simpler database built specifically to support Web applications and their own CDN called Amazon CloudFront.
Google App Engine (http://code.google.com/appengine) is newer, and as of this writing a less robust service offering than the Amazon and Microsoft cloud services. Google lets you build and run Web applications on Google’s obviously global and very robust infrastructure. Google is much further advanced with their excellent corporate email and apps, which we will discuss later. Google also offers Google Online Storage, providing the availability of massive cloud-based storage at affordable prices, both for end users and developers. We can expect much more from Google in this area in the future and that they will become a ubiquitous leader in the cloud revolution.
Salesforce.com (http://www.salesforce.com) is well known for their CRM system, which has really become the gold standard for such applications. In the last few years, they’ve also focused their global infrastructure into a cloud platform, which they call Force.com, upon which business applications can be built and deployed. Many third parties have adopted the platform and have added functionality to it, including some Web-to-print vendors. In contrast to Microsoft and Amazon, Salesforce is a bit more restrictive but at the same time somewhat “easier,” because you can leverage all of the Salesforce applications and third-party tools that already exist to build your own applications. Salesforce tends to be the “priciest” of the choices I’ve mentioned, but they do add a lot of value. They are a couple of rungs up
the “stack” in terms of functionality provided versus the others, i.e., it’s an application development environment more than a basic infrastructure offering. Unlike other platform providers, though, Salesforce.com has a somewhat more complex licensing model that is more akin to a subscription.
A big part of the magic of the cloud is the many applications that are exclusively offered as cloud applications available today. They serve as examples of what can be done and provide awesome business value. Any printing company must depend heavily on information technology to be successful. If you were to start a printing company today, the last thing you would do is go out and buy a bunch of servers. Instead, allocate capital to staffing and only the equipment necessary to actually manufacture print. The capital investments I would make would be exclusively focused on adding value for the customer. This idea is a basic tenet of Lean manufacturing—so it’s a good thing to do, even forgetting about the cloud for a second. Then, consider this: having people running around installing and maintaining software on computers adds no value. So you would not want to do that. Instead, use cloud resources for the new company’s website, CRM, email, office applications, Web-to-print, and print MIS. In fact, this is something that we are doing at Mimeo.com, and will continue to do more of in the future. Cloud applications let us focus on our core competencies: acquiring and serving customers and producing and distributing high-quality print products.
At Mimeo, we use Google’s Gmail, and we use Google Apps for collaboration. In our environment, Gmail replaced an expensive and administration intensive set of Microsoft Exchange servers providing email for our 500-plus employees—a transition that took a few months but had a very quick time to ROI. We are saving tens of thousands annually, and we have great new tools to boot. Google Apps don’t entirely replace Microsoft Office for all of our users yet (notably, the spreadsheet is weak and doesn’t connect to our data warehouse), but they complement it very well. Microsoft now has some pretty exciting cloud-based versions of the Office applications, too (http://www.officelive.com), but they weren’t available when we decided we needed to make the jump. We use Salesforce.com for sales automation and customer care, and we are constantly adding functionality and enhancing the applications it provides. We have some applications that are deployed on AWS, and are now always looking to the cloud when we build something new.
HP Records Growth in Cloud Computing
Ernest Sales, the recently appointed Managing Director and Vice President of HP MEMA (Middle East, Mediterranean and Africa) region revealed that the company is seeing increased opportunities in cloud computing business. In a press statement, he stated, “We are the number one open standard company that meets the objectives of covering the layers to meet cloud computing. Our one-stop shop service will enable organisations to streamline operations while delivering improved service. Businesses need to adopt cloud computing and take advantage of both its efficiency and agility, while achieving levels of operational efficiency that were previously unthinkable.”
The company today offers solutions in cloud computing that help data security, information optimisation and IT investment. Ernest Sales talking about the advantages of cloud computing said, “Cloud is changing the face of IT today. It provides greater flexibility for organisations and helps them to meet the changing needs with limited resources. Most companies offer one piece of the component and if that fails the cloud will not work, or if that company breaks the tie-up with other companies then that service will break. HP on the other hand offers all the components in cloud, making it a complete provider. I think that most of the firms will move into cloud by 2015.”
HP Cloud storage can be used for storing web content, for back-up and archival purposes and also for storing very large amount of data.