When a weatherman says, “Cloudy today — chance of storms,” he could be talking about hosted cloud services. As businesses look to manage their workflows more efficiently, it seems as if everyone is jumping into the cloud with their eyes closed and fingers crossed. The monetary savings are attractive, and even the city of Los Angeles is saving tons of money by using Gmail cloud hosting for e-mail, but at what other costs?

Promises such as cost savings, “fair” usage based billing, and unlimited scalability have created a great deal of interest, but the fact remains there is no solid definition or clear-cut use case for cloud hosting.

Despite this, companies of all sizes are starting to use cloud-hosting technologies for critical services such as e-mail and website hosting. While cloud hosting for e-mail and Web applications provides some interesting benefits, it isn’t well suited for all business. Here are some realities about cloud hosting:

E-mail downtime
The term “Gmail is down” is searched more than 50,000 times a month using Google Search. Similar phrases for Yahoo and other free or low-cost cloud hosting services are searched tens of thousands of times every month, as well. That’s a real problem.

These outages are widespread and well-documented. Imagine if you had a customer who needs something immediately — something you just can’t fax — and your e-mail is down because your cloud server is having “issues that will be resolved shortly.” That’s the reality of the cloud itself, in many cases. Some companies don’t require that their e-mail function reliably during working hours every day of the year, but most can’t handle any downtime well.

Website downtime
Websites hosted on cloud services face space limitations and are susceptible to this kind of downtime — there’s just no way around it. In a shared/cloud environment, all sites are competing for a limited amount of bandwidth or processing resources. And these resources are truly limited in the cloud, despite the perception of the cloud being “infinite.” If multiple websites spike coincidentally, it can result in everyone going offline at once or having extremely slow response times.

When the cloud is slow or goes down, everyone is impacted. What if you need to e-mail a newsletter that drives people to your website? What if your website is unavailable during a peak traffic time such as Cyber Monday for e-commerce stores? For some businesses, having their websites offline or slow isn’t a big deal. For others, it’s a deal breaker.

Security holes
In addition to reliability problems, cloud hosting also has security issues that are not trivial. You shouldn’t use cloud services to process important confidential data, such as credit card information, patient records or legal documents. In fact, companies governed by regulatory mandates like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) or Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI) cannot achieve compliance when hosting in the cloud.

Going back to the city of Los Angeles, security was a major concern when it decided to go with a cloud hosting service. It wasn’t until Google agreed to compensate the city in the event the system was breached and data exposed or stolen, that the e-mail hosting contract received approval from Los Angeles officials. But Gmail isn’t the only e-mail service in the cloud. Yahoo, Microsoft and Doteasy all claim to provide cloud-based e-mail and website-hosting solutions adequate for the needs of business. But if security is your organization’s primary concern, you need secure hosting that can deliver the reliability and protection you require.

The city of Los Angeles may have settled for after-the-fact, reactive, financial retribution in the event Google can’t maintain privacy, reliability and stability for e-mail hosted in the cloud, but you don’t have to settle. More secure options exist. Companies that have been drawn in by the low cost of entry and fast implementation provided by cloud hosting understand first-hand that you really DO get what you pay for.

Arizona Business Magazine June 2010