Head in the Cloud

Dean Wood , 3 May 2014

Is it reassuring or not to be told there are many definitions for ‘the Cloud’? Dean Wood reports and reflects.

On 26 March ACA – WA members were treated to an introduction to the topic by Todd McGlinn, of CISCO. It was an opportunity to reflect on our current business practices and to learn about new offerings.

Todd defines ‘the Cloud’ as merely a means, via the Internet, to rent what you want or need, ideally based on the best market offering. This is tempered by your geographic location, your privacy requirements, cost constraints and legislative constraints.

So, at the simple end of the scale, you might just store data on a remote server for a period of time, without worrying too much about whether that data has been copied or retained (unknown to you) prior to your ‘removing’ it.

If, however, you are working on a high-security project and you want to have the project model held on a remote server, then your internet upload speeds become important (geographic location of your office), security arrangements for the hosting of your model become critical and you’ll probably need to be prepared to pay more. If it is a government project there may well also be legislative restraints to consider through State Records Storage Regulations.

The forecast is that we’re likely to use the Cloud for some services and not others, and that we would take services from different providers to suit different needs. So you might rent a complete email service from one provider (as does one Western Australian university, for all staff and students) and rent office software from two or more software providers.

There are smaller clouds also. There are private clouds – a surprise to me. It seems our firm of architects already has its own cloud! Our arrangement of servers and virtual servers, on premises and behind our firewall, is a private cloud (albeit a small one….  memories of the Rolling Stones singing ‘Get off of my Cloud’).

The Public Cloud is the external IT market economy – the world of external providers of digital services where you pay as you go. Like the market for hire cars, there is a range of services on offer out there, for a range of prices, from multiple providers. You need to choose the vehicle/s and providers that best suit your purposes.

Todd expects it to be likely that the majority of companies will progress is towards a blended model – a Hybrid Cloud model, where companies retain aspects of their business on inhouse computing in their private ‘cloud’ (particularly the mission-critical aspects), with less critical aspects carried out offsite via a range of external providers.

The key word in the Public Cloud is trust. Every business must assess the risks of using external providers and make their business decisions accordingly.

Key characteristics of Cloud technology are:

  • It is a new consumption and delivery model for computing services
  • It is normally a less expensive means of computing, especially for businesses
  • It is easily scalable – for example, for running public events where an organisation needs significant capacity for a three-day international event but normally is staffed by say 10 people needing minimal capacity
  • It needs minimal management effort. The more full services that are obtained via Cloud providers, the less support (of software for instance) and management that generally is required inhouse.

Increasingly, companies don’t need to have everything inhouse – their own servers, their own software on their own PCs. “Infrastructure as a Service” can be even supplied by external providers for the consumer to manage.

While the architectural market hasn’t reached this level of sophistication yet, there are, for example, retail companies selling widgets who don’t purchase the invoicing software for their business in the traditional way. They purchase subscriptions to use software licences that are held on the internet by a middleman. When they use the subscription software to write an invoice, their company logo and corporate details are added to the invoice. Competitors selling widgets use the same software, potentially held by the same middleman, also on a subscription basis, but adding their different logos and corporate details. The challenge for the cloud service provider is to make the cloud provisions look like their customer’s private system. Each widget-supply company pays less for access to the software but their staff assume they’re using in-house systems as their screen is fully customised. The middleman has to maintain the software and systems to a high standard to remain competitive and provides help-desk support in addition.

By the end of Todd’s talk I was reassured. We haven’t been left behind.

Cloud technology is still evolving and we already use it for some activities without exposing our business to unreasonable risks (we think). We will be reviewing the security of the file-sharing service we use, however, and will possibly upgrade to something more robust. We will continue to upload models for renders on occasion. And we’ll keep an eye on pricing of email services for smaller businesses (we can’t attract the discounts that a 25,000-seat university can).

I did wonder though whether someone might offer ACA members an email service, tailored to each architectural practice with a discount based on the fact that across many practices nationally there would potentially be lots of users … How about it?

Dean Oldfield is a senior architect at Oldfield Knott Architects in Perth and a member of the ACA – WA committee.

Todd McGlinn of CISCO spoke at an ACA – WA event on 26 March, 2014. The event was hosted by Richard Young in JCY Architects Boardroom