Most businesses would not be happy to be described as “operating under a cloud”.
However, one particular cloud on the horizon is being described as a new way of computing which could change the world of |technology, and offer massive savings and efficiencies to businesses and public services alike.
Cloud computing is the structure that runs sites like Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter.
The concept of the cloud has been around for a long time in the business world, and usually refers to a grid of computers serving and delivering software and data.
While most websites and server-based applications run on particular computers or servers, the cloud uses the resources from the computers as a collective virtual computer, where the applications can run independently from particular computer or server configurations floating around in a “cloud of resources”, making the hardware — and space to hold that hardware — less important.
Already, Microsoft has launched its’ first ‘mega data centre’ in Dublin, the first in Europe, to meet continued growth in demand for its online, live, and Cloud services.
The $500m (£437m) data centre opened last year. It covers 303,000 square feet, and can generate up to 5.4 megawatts of critical power, with the potential to expand to a total of 22.2 megawatts of critical power.
There have now been calls from a senior civil servant for another European data centre to be located in Northern Ireland as the technology expands.
With massive Government cuts looming, it has been predicted that the savings that embracing cloud technology could bring could match or even eventually outweigh the scale of the feared efficiency measures.
During the two-day Northern Ireland Civil Service ICT Conference, under the theme of New Horizons and held at the Radisson SAS Roe Park Resort in Limavady last week, over 150 ICT and business professionals from both the Northern Ireland central and local government heard about the exciting developments that the technology could bring.
Barry Lowry, director of enterprise shared services for Northern Ireland Civil Service, who is in charge of delivery of IT, says that the benefits cloud could bring to both the public and private sectors are obvious.
“We’re already using the principles of cloud technology in the Northern Ireland Civil Service, and by streamlining our IT services into a shared service, IT Assist, used by every civil servant and Government agency worker in Northern Ireland, we have already saved £18,500,” he said.
“By moving away from the traditional methods of storing hardware and indeed software, we saved money, time, and space, and cloud technology could further reduce all of those things.
“Using the cloud principle, we have delivered a very efficient model. You could say we already have our own cloud network, with a shared database on once piece of infrastructure, in a joined up approach.
“Any civil servant can work our system in any location.
“Joining the wider cloud network, like Mircosoft’s Cloud service, would be much cheaper all round, from a Northern Ireland plc point of view, than using a traditional method of storing hardware and software.
“Cloud offers a fixed price across a certain number of users, and can deliver all sorts of services.
“There is no reason why, like Dublin, Northern Ireland cannot be a location for one of the datacentres, which would provide jobs and a boost to the local economy — the Northern Ireland government would be very keen to see that happen.
“Some of the cost savings projected are very impressive. Microsoft are saying that by using their Cloud service, it could |deliver savings of up to two thirds for some businesses.
“We in the Northern Ireland Civil Service are already one of the highest value IT services in terms of UK Government, and the savings we have already made would mean that predicted savings to our budget by fully embracing Microsoft Cloud would be around a third. Having said that, those savings would almost match the scale of the proposed cuts to the public sector budget, so of course it would still be worthwhile.”
But Mr Lowry said that security was one of the issues holding local government back from fully embracing cloud.
“Obviously we deal with a lot of sensitive information, and right now that information is stored in our own hardware and software in our own buildings,” he said.
“Using a service like Microsoft’s Cloud would mean everything going to and from a datacentre at another location.
“Once we have been assured of data protection and security by Microsoft, or indeed any other company, and we have had long discussions about this, there is no reason why we could not |embrace this service fully.
“However, at the moment what would be most attractive would be a hybrid service where the most sensitive information would remain under the control of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, contained in hardware and software in one of our locations, while using a Microsoft Cloud or similar service to provide less high-security services like e-mail, diaries, memo services, and similar.”
Stephen McGibbon, Microsoft chief technological officer for Europe Middle East and Africa, said: “Cloud isn’t fluffy — the name is in fact a hark back to an old engineering network diagram.
“Basically, Cloud massively reduces the amount of infrastructure and therefore the space and time it takes for information to get from A to B. It is the technology which helps enable our services like Hotmail and Instant Messenging.
“It has benefits to everyone, from the NHS, who we have pitched to, one of Europe’s biggest employers, to the smallest enterprises or entrepreneurs.
“Someone with a business idea, if they wanted a website for instance, used to have to find a server, a provider, used to have to be working at one computer to do all their work on it. Now they can use a personal device to update their site, anywhere at any time, in the same way as someone can use Twitter or other social networking sites. We no longer need all the big, clunky infrastructure that we once did.
“Cloud is a real gift to |innovation and innovators, and also to the public sector and even charity. The RNLI is using our Cloud service Microsoft Azure to run a service which detects when someone has gone overboard from a fishing vessel. The RNLI doesn’t need to take up space with a server room because the technology runs through our datacentre.
“We are currently working with the US Department of Defence, and by using Cloud, when someone comes in with an order for a piece of equipment, something that used to take six months now takes six minutes.
“Something which used to need between ten and 16 servers at each step of the way to exact the command, now goes to one of |our centres, which has shipping containers-worth full of servers, all automated, and you can imagine what savings that can represent.
“Indeed, Ordnance Survey, who we are working with, have reported something like a ten-time saving in their operating costs, thanks to using Cloud.
“Some concerns have been expressed about security, and we can see where people are coming from on that. Keeping things |in-house is obviously a safe option for many companies. However we are asking the question, are there things that really need to be protected? The menu list for the staff canteen? Council minutes?
“Let the Cloud take care of that and anything else. Keep it in house would be our message if people have concerns. Even using two systems, the costs would be massively reduced.
“Another aspect is interfacing between the three screens in people’s lives, the mobile phone or personal device, the laptop or desktop computer, the television, and seamless services between those — that’s what Cloud does. We are using technology that allows someone to move a conversation from their laptop to their mobile phone, without |hanging up and redialling.
This could have benefits, for example, in hospitals, where a cardiologist could take a scan or x-ray from a screen in their office, put it onto their handheld device, and walk across the ward and transfer it onto a screen next to the patients bed and talk it through with them.
“Cloud, like the internet itself when it first came to prominence, reduces transactions and reduces transaction costs for a set of transactions.
“It’s just the same, helping to streamline companies and adding competitive pressure.”
Derek N Woods, senior lecturer, school of computing and intelligent Systems at the University of Ulster, said: “The cloud is essentially a source of very high capacity data or information processing power implemented by clusters of computer systems, distributed across the net.
“The cloud concept offers an opportunity for a radically new business model, both for the consumer and the provider of software based services. This has become known as ‘Software as a Service’ (SoS).
“However, the software industry has always been a service industry. What changes is how the service gets delivered.
“For any business, their collective data is in essence where the value of the organization resides.
“A business considering cloud services needs to adopt the same approach as is needed for wind power providers. You need to have sufficient conventional back-up generation capacity for when the wind stops. So the cost of maintaining of some level of IT backup provision need to be part of the equation.
“Anyone who stores data on the internet would be well advised to work from the basis that high security is expensive, and total security is impossible.
“Will the Cloud concept be a success? The answer is yes, it surely will. Indeed, in some situations it already is. For many consumers the advantages are many, and the disadvantages don’t matter much.
“In such a situation, the cloud can offer unprecedented access to services, which either were not previously available or, if they were, were not cost effective for most consumers.
“Given that such markets are potentially global, this is a business opportunity which may well have a similar impact on society as the internet itself has had.”