What precisely is ‘the cloud’ – and how can it be used effectively in shipping and marine? By Joseph Blass, CEO, WorkPlaceLive

With the phrase ‘cloud computing’ becoming common currency, and most businesses expected to have outsourced their IT to the cloud by 2020, this article looks at the technology – and associated security – that forms the bedrock of what is proving to be a revolution in IT in SMEs and larger companies.

Explained at its simplest, cloud computing is web enablement of computer networks, or IT that’s outsourced to a cloud service provider, whose IT is based in a secured data centre and accessed via a browser. A cloud computing user has a choice of sharing the hardware, software and security in the data centre, or having its own private cloud there, with no sharing except for the physical security of the building itself.

Whatever choice a business makes, the benefits are similar and the technology and security much the same. Costs are understandably higher with a private cloud than the shared option but the benefits of it still outweigh that consideration.

The cloud and SMEs
For SMEs in shipping and marine there is a strong business case for using a shared solution. That’s partly because it allows them to take full advantage of enterprise-grade application software and online security without paying anywhere near the full price for it, making it affordable and creating a more level playing field in the marketplace.

In the shared cloud option, the cost of using the hardware [servers, backups etc] and software is spread across a number of SMEs. Having access to secure, powerful, productivity-boosting enterprise-grade software can be a revelation. What an SME could formerly only dream of, unless it had deep pockets, is now possible.

For the shipping and marine sector in particular there is the added attraction that employees anywhere in the world – on land or sea – can access their work wherever they are. All they require is an internet connection and an access device.

After logging on via a laptop, tablet, desktop, smartphone or thin client, they’ll see the same ‘desktop’ screen they were familiar with before their employer’s IT was migrated to the cloud, if they are using a ‘hosted desktops’ cloud computing solution, available in the shared or private cloud.

The private cloud
A private cloud holds a particular appeal to the larger business, primarily because it provides an even higher level of privacy and control that suits the enterprise’s size and requirements. All software and employee work files are kept on servers that are reserved for the private cloud user’s exclusive use. But, as with the shared cloud, staff access their work via any device, whenever they want [or are required to] and from anywhere.

Whether the choice is a shared or private platform, business performance will be given a boost, and I’m not just talking about the ability to cut the number of IT staff and improve cash flow because of that; and through no longer having to spend on in-house IT hardware, software and updates. I’m talking about the automation of manual processes including fuel purchase, real-time collaboration across the business and geographic boundaries; and, in vessel construction and maintenance, improved project management.

What goes on in the data centre?
At the high end of cloud computing the data centre comprises world class IT infrastructures including high performance server and data backup technology supported by strict maintenance, backup and data restoration practices.

The result is fast access to their work by employees and less likelihood of hardware downtime, which is reduced further by the use of a secondary, remote data centre that takes over from the primary data centre in the rare event of a technical or power failure that will require time to fix.

Technical experts with the skill and knowledge to resolve issues quickly are employed in the data centre 24/7 by the cloud [shared or private] services provider.

Data centres [again at the high end] place a high priority on two aspects of security: the physical security of the building and the security of all online activity. Physical security is ensured through a combination of perimeter fence, security guards, access control and fire and forced entry alarms.

Online security comprises an array of tools that build enterprise-level resilience into the IT. Included are highly secure firewalls, web filtering, optional encryption of sent emails, management of access devices – and dual factor authentication [2FA] where required. 2FA allows for the identification of individuals through a combination of user name and password and information known only to them.

Other security tools monitor, control and enforce acceptable use policies, and block access to inappropriate websites and other sites the user organisation wants to exclude. These tools can reduce web misuse by staff.

There is a security advantage in using a hosted desktop at a wi-fi hotspot, for example such as those found at hotels and bars, because with the hosted desktop the computing power and data remain in the secure datacentre.

Thin clients and security
Security is further enhanced where thin clients are used. Comprising a ‘plug and play’ keyboard and screen – and little else – a thin client is inherently more secure to use than a computing device. For the security-conscious business, a thin client should therefore be the cloud computing access device of choice.

In conclusion…
Cloud computing helps a business to upgrade its processes and manage its global or regional operation more efficiently and cost effectively. It has the inherent ability to store and access [from anywhere] massive amounts of data without the need for the in-house purchase of additional hardware to handle it.

The cloud services provider looks after that requirement and charges on a usage basis, not the upfront costs. It carries those costs itself, just as it manages software licences and upgrades and all the other things that have traditionally gone on inhouse IT, including data and information security.

Joseph BlassJoseph Blass is CEO, WorkPlaceLive. With roots going back to 1996, WorkPlaceLive was founded in 2006 as a provider of cloud computing services. One of the first UK providers of hosted desktop services, its hosted desktops allow customers and their employees the freedom to work from anywhere in the world, from any device, as easily as they would in their office.