Since the term ‘cloud computing’ was first introduced in 2006, it’s become (albeit rather reluctantly) one of the buzzwords in technology.
For the consumer, the idea is that documents and photo albums can be stored online, or 'in the cloud', making them accessible from any machine or mobile. And anyone who accesses their work emails from home are regular users of the 'cloud', as they log into a web mail account remotely instead of having the email programme installed on the computer.
Google and Amazon were the two biggest companies behind the vision that computing will increasingly be delivered as a service over the internet, taking away the need for installing large amounts of software. The concept grew out of the idea of renting spare server capacity - which the the two internet giant's have in spades - and thus providing a useful service and generating some handy extra revenue.
But companies are sometimes accused of being reluctant to make cloud computing part of their core strategy, while executives are inclined to see cloud computing as an annoying piece of jargon. There are also lingering concerns that security in the cloud is harder to manage than it is using proprietary systems.
‘The problem is cloud still turns a lot of people off,’ Ian Vickerage, the chief executive of Imago, said at a breakfast briefing hosted by MT and Accenture at Cass Business School.
But such misgivings don't alter the fact that the cloud offers big opportunities for many businesses. 'Cloud is changing the game,' said Matthew Coates, Accenture's cloud strategy global lead. 'It's changing the relationships between your business and the wider industry; and it's changing businesses relationships with suppliers. Burberry is an example of a company that has really embraced digital through managing everyone from its customers all the way through to the supply chain.'
But should businesses see the cloud as such a game-changer? James Bellini, who advises businesses of future technological innovations, says it can sometimes be a red herring. ‘Cloud is very much one small part of the equation,’ he said. ‘Technology is going through a massive change. Mobile technology is far more revolutionary than the cloud – that is just an upmarket way of delivering services.’
Here are some of the panel’s thoughts on the challenges and benefits of using cloud technology:
‘I compare using cloud services to a making a hospital visit. The doctor takes charge of you whilst you’re in hospital - but you also have some responsibility to manage yourself or you might leave with something missing.’ Paul Clarke, technology director, Ocado.
‘Cloud needs to be a business service. We need to take it away from the technology departments and make it more central to the business strategy.’ Laura Gibbs, director of academic services and CIO of Royal Holloway University.
'At BUPA we see it as a business service. Not just an infrastructure issue.’ Andrew Easton, head of technology and architecture, BUPA.
‘There is still a long way to go in terms of maturity about coping with large amounts of data storage. Look at the big outages at Amazon recently.’ (Amazon's Cloud services were brought down by a storm last weekend, knocking out other businesses as Netflix and Pinterest who use the services.) ‘Many also worry slightly about the issue of security. Are executives holding back because there’s still a lot of ‘cloudiness’ about that issue?’ Andrew Hatton, head of information systems at Greenpeace.
‘Many companies want to distance themselves and say it is the host’s fault. They don’t want to the expense of having to deal with the problem internally.’ Matthew Norris, head of technology at Hiscox.
‘I see customers who have outsourced their technology all over the world. You need to start small, but once you start building them up across continents you’ll see the benefits. If you have a server in Africa, and the region is experiencing trouble, you can flick to another service in another country. For smaller companies it’s slightly different [to large corporates], but they still need to stay in control of the situation. I know of one client who had 240 Amazon accounts. You need to embrace it in a sensible manner or you become irrelevant.’ Neil Sutton, vice president, global portfolio, BT Global Services.
‘The CIO’s job is like navigating a ship. There’s great uncertainty about what technology will be used in five years’ time, and innovations don’t always go in a straight line.' Professor Clive Holtham, Professor of information management, Cass Business School.