Cloud computing, virtualisation and the associated trend towards software as a service (SaaS) has been called the next wave of corporate computing. Already the impact is being felt from the desktop to the data centre.

Within organisations, employees increasingly access corporate information technology resources and applications running in virtualised data centres that may be hundreds or thousands of miles away, rather than in the IT department in the same building.

Sometimes those data centres are internal resources operated by an individual company, but increasingly they are shared resources run by third-party providers such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft, Savvis or Verizon’s Terremark unit.

Using virtualisation techniques pioneered by VMware and others, these cloud computing providers can quickly and efficiently provide their customers with more computing power or access to additional software apps almost on demand.

Access to what Amazon terms “elastic” cloud computing resources can also enable company IT departments to keep up with rapidly changing business demands. For example, in 2008 when Swisstopo, the Swiss Federal Office of Topography responsible for the country’s geographical reference data and all associated products, needed to deliver a new web portal quickly for one of its key customers, it tapped Amazon’s EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud) service.

“We are managing many small to medium-sized web geographic information system (GIS) projects for our customers, which all require specific server infrastructure,” says Swisstopo. “Thanks to AWS, we can significantly shorten the time for the allocation of new servers and strengthen our focus on the real customer needs during a short project phase.”

Cloud computing is also proving very useful for employees when travelling - although issues remain about connectivity and access of service. Using wireless devices such as smartphones, PC tablets and laptops, they have access to the same applications and up-to-date information as they would at their desk.

Cloud-enabled mobile computing is making it possible for companies to offer a personalised service to customers. For example, British Airways cabin crews using cellular-enabled iPads now know before their passengers sit down who they are, whether they have any special requirements and if they have experienced any delays or problems with their travel plans.

Locating corporate apps and computing resources in the cloud has important benefits when people join or leave an organisation, or if the seasonal nature of a business requires computing resources to be expanded or contracted quickly.

Access to the resources needed by a new employee can be provided almost instantly by business managers or an IT department, underscoring the flexibility of cloud-based pay-per-use computing.

Similarly, if a line of business decides to adopt a software application, or add modules to an existing application, this can be accomplished with a phone call and without the need to have the IT department set up a server or install the application on each user’s desktop PC.

Some companies are going a step further and enabling employees to access and download approved apps from a corporate app store on to their company-issued or secure BYOD (bring your own device) hardware. Most larger companies have already adopted web-based employee-self-service portals for functions such as benefits, expenses and reporting requirements.

The advent of cloud computing and SaaS has breathed new life into desktop virtualisation and so-called “thin-client” computing (where a server performs the key computational functions). Not only do these techniques remove the need for frequent desktop upgrades and make it easy to ensure each employee is using the latest version of corporate apps, they can also improve security and, in some cases, allow employees to choose which type of device they want to use.

For example MokaFive, a Californian desktop virtualisation start-up, has won some big-name customers by enabling companies to allow employees to choose their hardware and customise their desktop, while significantly reducing their cost of desktop management.

The company cites the case of a large financial services firm that was able to allow its 1,500 globe-trotting executives to carry a single laptop of their choice, rather than one personal and one work machine because of security concerns. “It’s a lot easier getting through a trip,” says an executive in the BYOD programme who now carries a single Apple MacBook for work and personal use.

Among business users, financial services firms, healthcare providers and some government agencies have been cautious about adopting public cloud computing. Often they opt instead for hybrid public/private clouds, which, they say, provide them, their employees and customers with more control over their data.

Nevertheless, even those organisations that are sticking with in-house computing for their most sensitive applications or data are still adopting cloud computing models within their firewalls.

Despite the hype surrounding cloud computing, the impact of changes brought about by this shift in computing models is only beginning to be felt. It is company employees and IT departments that are at the eye of the storm.

“Cloud computing is big, risky and has already changed your world,” says Daryl Plummer, an analyst and cloud expert at Gartner, the IT consultancy. “You get on-demand movies from it, store your files in it and you meet friends and future partners (professional and personal) in it. Now, do you dare run your business in the cloud? The more pressing question is: do you dare not?”

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