Clouds Are on the Rise

Cloud computing has been variously described as utility computing, hosting applications off-premises, on-demand computing, Web-based computing, software-as-a-service, and in many other ways. No matter the description, its implementation generally takes some of the on-premise burden of holding or processing data and puts it to off-premise servers “in the cloud.” 

 

The big attraction of cloud computing has been lowered cost. A business that outsources its server services to the cloud might reduce costs by getting them on-demand and paying for them only when needed. Economies of scale give cloud computing an attractive advantage. Costs are kept down through usage of common hardware and increased rack density.  Organizations can simply pay for virtual machines when needed, and shut them down when not needed. Undoubtedly the cost advantage will continue to drive adoption of cloud computing. 

 

With a world-wide economic downturn, the prospects for low-cost overcast [SW1] skies of cloud computing are increasing. Small and medium-size businesses might especially feel the crunch and look for ways to reduce costs, such as by sourcing some or all of their computing services in the cloud.

 

Clouds Must be Reasonably Available

Clouds are subject to regulations. The low costs of cloud services help them work well for garden-variety commoditizable [SW2] IT functional areas such as e-mail, data storage, backup, and CRM[SW3] . These areas are core to many regulatory compliance controls. As these functions go into the cloud, so does regulatory responsibility. Regulations, risk, and governance principles aren’t eliminated when enterprise servers are turned off and services move to the clouds. In a globalized economy we might see increasing regulation and risk reduction of cloud computing.

 

Among cloud computing, regulations, risk, and governance concerns (such as security, privacy, backup and recovery, monitoring, reporting, and auditing to name a few) is cloud availability. The low-cost advantage of cloud computing is outweighed when and if unavailable clouds put an organization's business in jeopardy of being shut down or fined by regulators, successfully sued by litigants, or shunned by disgruntled customers. Many regulations allow governments to shut down businesses or levy large fines by government order if businesses fail to comply with regulations that require records to be available. Litigation rules allow unfavorable inferences to be made when records cannot be provided. Customers can quickly become angry when their records are not made available to them. The bottom line is that clouds must be reasonably available.

 

Servers Are Not Always Available

Cloud servers might not always be available, and there might be instances when we know there will be a drought.

 

In-house (non-cloud) infrastructure is not immune from outages, either. E-mail outages, for example, do occur in organizations that use internal enterprise servers. Servers do go down from time to time, whether they are in house or in the cloud. The question is not whether clouds will always be available, but instead whether or not organizations can continue in a compliant manner when the cloud is not available. 

The best IT operations actually plan for downtime. Software maintenance, new software releases, software upgrades, andr scheduled equipment repairs all can be part of planned downtime during periods of low usage to avoid unplanned downtime during periods of high usage. Downtime can be a good thing. It is ironic that the forecast can call for clear skies and not be a bad forecast. 

 

Still, the business cloud will have to be reasonably available and accountable. Let’s take a look at some specific examples.

 

Cloud Regulatory Availability Examples

Cloud financial records must be easily readable from a non-rewritable, non-erasable, and duplicated source. Electronics records under SOX must be provided to regulators with “facilities for immediate, easily readable projection or production of electronic storage media images and for producing easily readable images.” Records must be stored on non-rewritable and non-erasable media, and a duplicate copy of records must be stored separately from the original. So for purposes of SOX, the cloud needs to be easily readable, non-rewritable, non-erasable and duplicated. Ouch, that is a complicated cloud.

 

Cloud medical records must be reviewable and available for copying. Under HIPAA, patients have a right to obtain copies of their medical records within 30 days. That might seem like a long time to make copies available, but some state laws, such as that of California, shorten the time to 5 days for review and 15 days for a copy. Even if a physician has moved, retired, or died, his or her estate has an obligation to retain and make available medical records. Under state law this can be up to 10 years following a last patient visit. Disgruntled patients can file complaints. If a medical care provider decides to maintain medical data in the cloud, then the cloud better be available to provide medical data to patients when they demand it. Patients are also entitled to an accounting of disclosures of health information. That is, they are entitled to know who accessed their health records for a period of six years prior to the request. If medical records are kept in the cloud, accounting of cloud disclosures is required.

 

Microsoft Cloud Availability

With this big wind-up, let’s take a look at a sampling of what some Microsoft products and services offer in terms of cloud availability. Ultimately, the availability of records in the cloud for purposes of regulatory compliance can be greatly enhanced by the cloud software that houses the data, and Microsoft does a great job making the cloud available.

 

SharePoint

Microsoft SharePoint Online has a 99.99 percent scheduled uptime backed by a service level agreement. This means that it is down less than an hour per year. Nice! SharePoint is designed to work in conjunction with desktop software. In the event of network outage, critical information is still accessible. This is a big advantage of working with Office and SharePoint over other solutions.

 

Exchange

Microsoft Exchange Online has a 99.99 percent scheduled uptime backed by a service level agreement.

 

Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS)

The Microsoft Business Productivity Online Suite consists of Microsoft Exchange Online, Microsoft Office SharePoint Online, Microsoft Office Live Meeting, Microsoft Office Communications Online, and Microsoft Exchange Hosted Filtering. The suite provides “business-class reliability” to customers and a guaranteed 99.9% service level agreement.

 

SQL Server Data Services

SQL Server Data Services (SSDS) is built on time-tested and robust SQL Server technologies that help insure business-ready, high availability. SSDS data is provided “reliably virtually anywhere, anytime.” One way that SDSS ensures high availability is by managing multiple copies of data. It maintains a backup of data stored in each data cluster. Partitions are replicated. Copies of data are maintained on servers at different physical locations. Geo-redundancy of data helps ensure business continuity.

 

Virtual Server and Windows Server 2008 Hyper-V

Organizations can help ensure availability by maintaining master copies of virtual platform images that run on cloud infrastructures. Microsoft has enabled organizations to do this for free with Virtual Server, and now with Microsoft Hyper-V Server 2008 - the “next-generation hypervisor-based server virtualization technology” (also available as a free download). Take a snapshot of your virtual machine while it is running so it can easily revert back to its previous state. Should the cloud ever disappear, such as a vendor going out of business or exorbitantly raising its prices, an organization can simply and easily move the image to another host vendor or even in house. Physical machines can take hours or days to replace. Virtual machines can be replaced in minutes. This kind of increasingly common dynamic scaling is not possible without virtual machines in the cloud.

 

Hyper-V supports virtual switch capabilities so that the Windows Network Load Balancing (NLB) service can be used to balance loads across virtual machines on different servers.  And with Hyper-V, virtual machines can be rapidly migrated while they are running from one physical host machine to another. Now that is high availability!

 

Microsoft has also made licensing of virtual machines very straightforward. For Windows Server 2008, if you want to run a single virtual machine, choose Standard Edition. If you want to run four virtual machines or fewer, run Enterprise Edition. If you want unlimited virtual machines, run Datacenter Edition. Wow, simple!

 

Clouds are on the rise, together with regulation, risk, and governance concerns. Among those concerns, availability is critical. Yet cloud computing can be made reliably available. In a world that is increasingly looking to the clouds, several Microsoft technologies are helping make cloud reliably a reality.