Choose the Cloud

By Richard Hughes on November 19, 2010

If your social network is to be truly social – enabling you to connect with anyone, anywhere, on any device – it needs to live in the cloud.

Before going any further, it’s worth defining what we mean by “the cloud”. The technology industry is notoriously bad at assuming everyone else understands the terminology it uses, but experience shows that this is often not the case.

Wikipedia defines Cloud Computing as:

Web-based processing, whereby shared resources, software, and information are provided to computers and other devices (such as smartphones) on demand over the Internet. ….. it typically involves over-the-Internet provision of dynamically scalable and often virtualized resources

Traditionally, an organisation’s IT systems are locked behind a corporate firewall, making it difficult for them to be accessed externally. For ERP, CRM, HR and other systems of record, this is often perfectly OK. But for a social network, it represents an obstacle to engaging members of the network. Mobile access has grown massively over the last few years, and it would feel bizarre to only allow employees to connect to their enterprise social network while inside the firewall or from a VPN-enabled device.

And it is also wrong to think of enterprise social networks as being purely for collaboration between employees. External communities where customers and partners interact with employees need to live outside the firewall in order to be accessible to all.

Of course, self-hosted external-facing systems are possible. But these typically lack the on-demand dynamic scalability that a social network requires. It is often difficult to predict exactly how much usage such a network will receive initially, or the rate at which it will grow. Limiting this growth with the need for IT departments to acquire and install new servers is clearly not acceptable to a dynamically-growing community.

But the benefits of cloud computing are not purely infrastructural. Applications delivered via the cloud as Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) have significant advantages over traditional on-premise installations. The most notable of these is the upgrade cycle. Whereas enterprise software installations typically have upgrade cycles of a year or more due to the IT effort and cost associated, SaaS installations usually have a much more rapid cycle, often as little as one month. This is possible because the software installation is typically managed by the vendor themselves, and therefore has fewer unexpected customizations and configurations than an on-premise installation would typically have. This makes the upgrade process far safer, and therefore more practical to perform frequently. In an emerging area such as enterprise social networking, this rapid rate of application upgrade is essential; waiting a year between updates would simply be unacceptable.

However, not all SaaS installations are equal. We must distinguish between “single-tenant” and “multi-tenant” architectures. In a single-tenant architecture, each customer has their own dedicated infrastructure, whereas in multi-tenant, many customers share the same infrastructure. It could be argued therefore that single-tenant applications are not true cloud solutions. Whether they are or not is merely a matter of terminology, but what does matter is that single-tenant solutions lack the benefits of scale that multi-tenant architectures offer. Vendors need to dedicate separate infrastructure and software installations to each customer, and need to upgrade each customer independently. This inevitably is more expensive and time-consuming, and that cost is ultimately passed on to the customer. While a customer may not need to know or care about how an application is designed internally, they will certainly care if this causes the cost of the service to be higher than it should be, or if it means new features are delayed.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to companies embracing cloud computing is fears about security. “How secure is our corporate data in the cloud?” is a frequently asked question. But it could be argued that data is far more secure in the hands of cloud providers who employ full-time security professionals, rather than internal IT departments who sometimes lack the same experience and procedures. Because of the scrutiny that cloud infrastructure providers face from their customers, it is essential that they provide excellent procedures and policies for security, privacy and backup. Despite the understandable concerns about trusting corporate data to a third party, the reality is that many companies will find their data security is actually enhanced by moving it to the cloud.

So cloud-based social networking services offer wide range of benefits over traditional on-premise installations, better accessibility, better functionality and lower cost.