This paper discusses the benefits and challenges of cloud computing to present a balanced view on which decisions regarding its use can be made.
An Examination of Cloud Computing Benefits and Challenges
Cloud computing is one of the more recent developments in the field of technology. There is some consensus in current literature as to what the term denotes: fundamentally, it is suggested that cloud computing is the realisation of the ability to provide computing as a service. Armbrust et al. (2009) suggest that it is the ability to provide computing as a utility, software as a service. Buyya et al. (2008) compare the provision of computer utilities with the electricity and telephone utilities that are available today. Buyya et al. (2010) define it as ‘on demand delivery of infrastructure, applications, and business processes in a security-rich, shared, scalable computer environment over the Internet for a fee’. Armbrust et al. (2009) suggest that there are three new hardware aspects in cloud computing, namely:
- The illusion that there are infinite computing resources available on demand, which removes the need for provisioning.
- The elimination of up-front costs by cloud users. This allows the cloud service providers to begin with a small amount of hardware and increase it only when there is a corresponding need.
- The ability to pay for use of computing resources on a short-term basis such as by the hour or by the day. This facilitates efficient use of resources.
The rapid adoption of cloud computing has been spurred on by the many benefits that it bestows on users. However, the technology is not without its unique drawbacks. We examine both the benefits and drawbacks in an attempt to present a balanced view.
Fig. 1 – Cloud Computing Architecture (Source: Zhang et al, 2010)
Benefits of Cloud Computing
Zhang et al. (2010) and Antonopoulos and Gillam (2010) list the following benefits of adopting cloud computing for business owners:
- No upfront investment cost – cloud service providers tend to use a pay-as-you-go pricing model, which means users can rent only what they need. The service providers themselves can add hardware as their demands increase.
- Lower operating cost – resources in the cloud can be allocated and reallocated on demand. This means that there is no need to provide for extra resources in anticipation of peak load.
- Scalable or elastic – the service providers are able to pool resources and expand their capacity to cater for surges in demand. Users are able to scale up on demand.
- Easy access – cloud services tend to be available over the Internet on a variety of devices, from desktop computers to mobile phones. This also has the added benefit of allowing the cloud users to be mobile. Cloud computing therefore is a practical solution for teleworkers and a mobile workforce.
- Reduced risk – business risks such as hardware failures are shifted to the service provider because the service infrastructure is outsourced. These service providers tend to be better at maintaining the service infrastructure on account of specialisation, which means costs and risks are reduced.
Mell and Grance (2011) explain that because cloud systems automatically control and optimise the resources that are used, resource usage is monitored, controlled and reported effectively. This helps to reduce costs as well as provide transparency to the user. They also explain that different types of clouds exist, such as private clouds (for the exclusive use of a single organisation), community clouds (used by a specific community of users), public clouds (open for use to the general public) and hybrid clouds. The availability of these different types gives users greater choice in choosing clouds that have the right level of access and security.
Mulesoft (n.d.) suggests that data and service integration is one of the main reasons people choose to adopt cloud computing. Cloud computing service providers are able to provide a range of software as a service (Saas) solution such that users may only need one login for all their software requirements.
Security is often considered to be one of the drawbacks in cloud computing; however, Chee and Franklin Jr (2010) point out that there are security benefits to the cloud computing architecture. For example, traffic can be stopped at the provider’s network, which prevents large amounts of bad data entering the enterprise network. Furthermore, they suggest that as security needs change, the cloud service provider is able to swap security services in and out, in response to happenings in real time, thus allowing for appropriate security services to be provided at all times.
The impressive list of benefits of cloud computing notwithstanding, there are still drawbacks associated with the use of cloud computing which adopters should be aware of. Cloud computing services are relatively easy to secure and this may lead to increased fragmentation of data. Reeve (2013) explains that as users have adopted more and more different cloud services, their data has become spread across these various repositories. However, data is more important than ever today with the advances in data mining. There is also the potential to gain knowledge from big data arising from more and more data routinely being collected in automated and other processes (Agrawal et al., 2011). However, integrating data across different cloud computing services is not an easy task; data integration itself is an additional cost and can lead to higher rates of data transmission, which can choke the network and slow down the entire service. Data integration could also slow down cloud computing services as the data would not be located near the place computation takes place (Dillon and Chang, 2010).
Security is a major problem in cloud computing. Cloud services mean that the users relinquish physical and logical control over the day-to-day operation of the infrastructure that provides for the computing services. Wang et al. (2010) are of the opinion that the loss of control means users now need additional audit processes to ensure the security and dependability of the data and services provided. The fact that there is an additional entity, the cloud service provider, that handles data in a cloud computing environment compared with a traditional in-house infrastructure can introduce additional vulnerabilities to data security. For example, confidential data may need additional handling measures such as ensuring anonymity which can increase overheads. Subashini and Kavitha (2011) provide a detailed overview of the various security issues in cloud computing.
Data lock-in is another problem that cloud users are likely to face; if they use the cloud computing services of one service provider their data is likely to be locked in the format of that vendor. This will create data migration problems if and when they decide to change their cloud service provider (Armbrust et al., 2009).
Armbrust et al. (2010) list the following main obstacles to the further growth of cloud computing:
- Availability/business continuity – there is a single point of failure, particularly in the case of infrastructure as a service (Iaas). This can be overcome by using multiple cloud service providers.
- Data transfer bottlenecks – the large amounts of data to be transferred can mean that the entire system is slowed down by data transfer bottlenecks.
- Performance unpredictability – in spite of the advances in cloud computing technology, performance is still not entirely predictable. This can mean outages at crucial periods.
- Bugs in large distribution systems – these can be difficult to identify and fix.
- Reputation fate sharing – if one of the users in the cloud environment is unscrupulous (for example a spammer), all the users sharing the same cloud can become tarred by the same brush. For example other servers could start blocking traffic from the shared IP addresses in the cloud with the spammer, which means legitimate users in the cloud may find their traffic blocked.
Overall, cloud computing currently has many benefits for its users. This is the main reason for its popularity. However it does have its drawbacks and therefore users will have to weigh up the benefits and drawbacks of adopting cloud computing in their specific situations in order to make a considered decision about using it. Armburst et al. (2009) suggest that for every obstacle in cloud computing there is an opportunity or solution. However, cloud users should be aware of changes that take place in the technology over time which can change the particular benefits and drawbacks that they enjoy.
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