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Seven uses for the cloud you might not have considered

While cloud computing may still feel like a future technology to some, several services are already primed to make an impact on Windows shops right now.

My previous article introduced the notion that a distrust of cloud services might stem from a fear that they could take your job. They absolutely can, but only if you’re not prepared for how cloud computing is already changing our industry.

Plenty of that change is happening (invisibly) due to the nature of the term “cloud” itself. What does it really define? What exactly represents a cloud service? How are the cloud and virtualization interrelated? Don’t worry if you’re confused; most of us still are, but that trend is slowly changing.

To help clear things up, let’s ponder seven different uses for the cloud that you can purchase today. While these services may use virtualization within their boundaries, none of them represent the idea of moving entire computers onto the Internet. Instead, each leverages the ubiquity of the Internet combined with business economies of scale to create a saleable service you simply purchase. Once subscribed, those services integrate with others you already have inside your own data center. You might find that the combination of external cloud services along with those you already provide is a much more tolerable fit for your environment … and your job.

Here are seven cloud services you can purchase today:

  1. Backups in the cloud. If the very first cloud service that comes to mind is email, then the second must be backups. Organizations have begun to recognize the value of migrating their tape-based backups to disk. Disk-based backups significantly improve recovery times and restore success. They also enable very fast and granular restores that you simply can’t get with tape.

    Those disk backups still need an offsite location, however, and while many who have moved to disk-based backups use tapes for secondary archival, others find value in offloading archival to the cloud. With backups in the cloud, a secondary (or tertiary, if you still want local tapes) copy of all backed up data is copied to some location on the Internet. By doing so, your secondary copies are automatically available anywhere with a network connection, which can be far superior to tapes when it comes to disaster recovery.

  2. SharePoint in the cloud. Many companies jumped on the “hosted email services” bandwagon as soon as those services became economically feasible to offer. Microsoft Exchange itself can be a challenging service to keep operational, particularly as the demands for its uptime grow more stringent every year. That said, you can find the same complexities in managing SharePoint.

    Bluntly put, managing a SharePoint instance is hard. It’s an activity that’s ripe for offloading to experts for a lower cost of ownership. That’s why more than a few of those “hosted email services” companies now offer SharePoint as an add-on. If your business is distributed across multiple locations, you can imagine how a cloud-based approach to SharePoint automatically does wonders for access.

  3. Monitoring in the cloud. Server monitoring is another data center activity that many organizations don’t do a good job with. That’s because monitoring is challenging and requires real experience to even know what to monitor. Offloading that responsibility to external experts can quickly speed up a move from unmonitored to monitored servers.

    Further, monitoring in the cloud has a special benefit to externally-facing services. A service company in the cloud can monitor your external services from multiple locations within the cloud simultaneously. If your external services need to be accessed around the globe, knowing that the user experience is good from those global locations is an absolute must if you’re going to maintain service levels.

  4. Exchange federation in the cloud. Businesses today are constantly merging, acquiring and partnering. In many cases, the communication infrastructures within those businesses need to be combined -- but not fully. Should your business want to share calendaring information or other rich Microsoft Exchange objects, you don’t want to create an entirely new infrastructure for a short-lived partnership.

    This and other reasons are why Exchange federation with the Microsoft Federation Gateway is a smart idea. Using the cloud-based federation gateway, you and your partner companies can trade just the data you need, without the complex interconnections required by other solutions. Let Microsoft handle the connection for you.

  5. Technical support in the cloud. Even your on-the-road workers can benefit from cloud services. These services -- many of which have grown exceptionally mature -- provide a mechanism to support workers in the field without requiring an on-the-LAN infrastructure. Considering the realities of network connections (and restrictions) in hotels, airports and partner companies, these Internet-friendly technical support options mean always being able to assist travelling employees whenever they need help -- as long as they can find an Internet connection.
  6. Service replication to the cloud. While virtualization has nothing to do with the above services, it still plays a key part in most data center environments. Yet the problem with virtualization and high availability can involve finding a secondary site for hosting replicated virtual machines. Some smart businesses today will sell you an in-the-cloud location for hosting replicated services. You won’t necessarily be using that in-the-cloud partner in production much, but having it does mean keeping services alive when they go down.
  7. Internal application access in the cloud. This last use has less to do with external service providers selling you something and more to do with extending your own services into the cloud.

    A few years ago, extending application access in the cloud wasn’t easy. It required expensive software and (occasionally) additional hardware to accomplish it securely. Today, expanding your own services to the cloud takes little more than a couple of Windows servers, a certificate or two and Remote Desktop Services. With little cost and effort you can become your own cloud service provider for your internal business applications -- with the guarantee of high security that authentication and encryption bring.

So while my first article in this three-part cloud series was a bit edgy, I hope this second part will instill some rationality into the cloud controversy. The cloud, as it were, is already around you. Businesses are selling services that you can subscribe to today, and doing so will offload many of your most challenging tasks to a team of experts (that you’ll pay on a month-to-month basis).

If the cost model makes sense for your business, it’s worth exploring the options. You might find that you never really enjoyed the day-to-day administration of those services anyway!

You can follow on Twitter @WindowsTT.

Greg Shields, Microsoft MVP, is a partner at Concentrated Technology. Get more of Greg's Jack-of-all-Trades tips and tricks at

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