Public cloud: Is it right for your business?

In a few short years we’ve gone from an abstract thing called “the cloud” to more cloud providers and services than you can shake a stick at. But one fundamental question remains for many IT pros: Is it really safe to store your information in the public cloud?

ThinkstockPhotos-482254891What is the public cloud, anyway?

First of all, it’s difficult to tell what really constitutes the catch-all phrase “public cloud.” The best definition may be from Webopedia, which defines it as:

A form of cloud computing in which a company relies on a third-party cloud service provider for services such as servers, data storage and applications, which are delivered to the company through the Internet.

This differentiates it from a private cloud (where cloud-like services are managed and provided on-site) and a hybrid cloud (in which a balance of public and private clouds work together).

But as security concerns of handing data storage and servers to a third-party have taken hold, most providers shy away from the “public cloud” label, preferring to highlight what businesses still can control. This lets them market themselves as “hybrid clouds” – whether or not that’s actually a fair description.

Security concerns abound

So what are these security concerns? To name a few:

  • Data loss. The cloud still relies on traditional hardware in many ways – just this equipment is stored off-site. It’s still possible that information can be lost due to equipment failure (though good providers will have multiple methods of back-up to protect it).
  • Insider threats. If you’re worried about a user making a mistake or committing an act of vandalism against your company, imagine how much greater the concern when that employee works for a cloud provider … Not only would you not be able to spot the warning signs, you also may never learn that the attack or breach happened if your provider decides to keep the incident quiet.
  • Unavailability. If you’re connecting to your information and applications over the Internet, an outage on either end could seriously cripple your ability to do business. Being unable to access your own files until the problem is fixed is many IT pros idea of sitting in limbo.
  • Loss of control. If a provider changes hands or gets bought out, you may find yourself doing business with people other than the ones you initially signed up with (and who you may not trust as much). And if a provider goes out of business, you’ll be scrambling to find a replacement before your data goes with them.

Benefits may outweigh risks

Of course, the benefits of cloud services – and the public cloud in particular – can be huge. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have caught on as much as it has.

The No. 1 benefit in most cases is costs. It can be easier and cheaper to store data with a third-party than in-house (if you’re choosing your providers wisely).

Plus, the flexibility allowed by the cloud is almost undeniable. You should be able to pay for only as much data and service as you need. One thing to beware of, however, is sprawl: Many companies find that if it’s easy to add users or capacity, they’ll continue to do so – and soon could be spending much more on the cloud than they had ever anticipated.

Verdict: A cop-out, of course

This leads us to the closing you’ve probably been anticipating all along: There’s no one right answer for every company, it depends what you’re looking for, etc.

Some advice in getting to a place where you can make that decision, however:

  • It shouldn’t be an IT decision – it needs to be an IT, finance, leadership, HR and every other stakeholder decision.
  • Conduct risk assessments focusing on how much you can actually tolerate, not how much risk you’d be willing to trade for some nominal savings.
  • Look hard at your own organization and ask whether the security in-house is really a significant step up from what a provider has. Most companies skip this step assuming that no one knows their security needs better than they do.
  • Be a tough negotiator with providers. If there’s something you can’t live with in their contract, get it out or be prepared to move on.

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