What is a "Cloud?"

    By way of defining the modern
    concept of cloud computing, it is useful to note that in computer parlance, "cloud"
    is a synonym for "domain." Indeed, it is both relevant and enlightening to know
    that research reveals the term was first introduced circa 1965 by Mick Jagger
    as a synonym for "domain" in the popular song by The Rolling Stones, "Get Off
    My Cloud."

    Today, the term
    "cloud" is used as a metaphor for the Internet, based upon the
    cloud drawing used in the past to represent the telephone network, and later to
    depict the Internet in computer network diagrams as an abstraction of the
    underlying infrastructure it represents. Accessible via Internet, cloud
    computing is similar to time-sharing and service bureau services from the
    mainframe days, or ASPs from the 90s.

    Many pundits maintain that cloud
    computing is a paradigm shift following the transition from mainframe to client-server
    in the early 1980s, in that it comprises a new consumption and delivery model
    for IT services over the Internet. This viewpoint, however, has its dissenters
    from opposite corners of the computing world. For example, Richard Stallman,
    founder of GNU Project and Free Software Foundation
    guru, has opined that "somebody
    is saying this [paradigm] is inevitable — and whenever you hear somebody saying
    that, it's very likely to be a set of businesses campaigning to make it
    true." From the conservative sector of the software industry, Larry
    Ellison, CEO of Oracle, voiced similar sentiments when he said, "cloud
    computing is everything that we already do... it will have no effect [on Oracle] except to change the
    wording on some of our ads." The odds are that Mr. Ellison's remarks were
    uttered somewhat tongue-in-cheek because Oracle Corporation has since launched
    a cloud computing center and world-wide tour.

    Whether we know it or not, most
    of us are already using cloud technology. For example, Internet search is a cloud
    application. Gmail and other Internet-based email services likewise are cloud
    applications, and social networking sites like Facebook also reside in a cloud.
    This means that, like it or not, most users already trust cloud computing apps.
    Yet despite the cloud's widespread use, many remain confused about the
    technology. In fact, the findings of a survey by VersionOne, a document
    management software company, have revealed that 41% of senior IT professionals
    admit that they "don't know" what cloud computing is and two-thirds
    of senior finance professionals (finance directors and managers) are confused
    about cloud computing.

    Advantages, features and

    In reality, cloud computing is no
    mystery. It is Internet-based computing, in which shared resources, software
    and information are provided to PCs and other devices on demand, as
    with the electric grid. Like grid deployment, cloud computing is
    characterized by unlimited scalability, rapid elasticity and measured service,
    which yields easy tracking and control of service costs. Its cost-effectiveness
    and attractive ROI makes it particularly appealing to CFOs trying to rein in
    budget costs.

    An attractive payback is not the
    only advantage a cloud has to offer. Its speedy, out-of-the box implementation
    makes it a no-brainer to install with little need to reinforce the existing
    enterprise infrastructure. Internet deployment brings with it built-in
    collaboration and automatic remote user access. A cloud is user friendly — the
    system is high in flexibility and agility and easy to manage and maintain. Its
    reduced carbon footprint makes it popular with "green" companies that practice
    triple bottom line accounting.

    Cloud services can be set up in
    a number of client-server configurations. They can be deployed in the form of infrastructure
    as a service (IaaS), platform as a service (PaaS) and software as a service (SaaS).
    Vendors can install them in a variety of landlord-tenant relationships. A private
    cloud serves a single organization, whereas a public cloud serves its
    members in a full multi-tenant capacity. Hybrid clouds come in a number
    of flavors in between, comprised of any combination of public and private
    attributes, including the so-called community cloud, which hosts a
    single organization plus other closely aligned organizations.

    Meeting the records
    management challenge in a cloud

    Using a cloud to manage
    corporate records presents a significant challenge to today's records manager.
    A cloud-based records management (RM) solution must implement records disposition
    schedules, a requirement that includes the ability to transfer and permanently
    delete records and perform other RM life cycle functions. Specific service and
    deployment models may not meet all of a company's RM needs. Depending on the
    application, the vendor of a public cloud or the manager of a private cloud may
    not be able to ensure complete deletion, which of course is a records
    management mandate.

    Nevertheless, the responsible
    party must establish best practices that govern compliance procedures regarding
    records capture, management and retention. In their capacity as records
    managers, they must ascertain which copies of records shall be declared as the
    record copy and manage them in accordance with juridical records management
    content. They must determine how to
    migrate records data to new formats and operating systems. They must decide how to transfer
    permanent records in the cloud to the records authority, and they should create
    a framework for portability and accessibility issues. Incidentally, the value
    of records in the cloud may be greater than the value of the original set
    because of indexing or other reasons.

    Caveat emptor

    Cloud computing carries with it
    the caveats typically attached to new technology adoption. Cloud industry is
    immature and growing rapidly. It can be very disruptive to existing business models
    and IT practices, so users who are considering buying into it may not be
    comfortable with the new entity. Disruptive technologies invariably attract vendors
    that may not be around for the long-term; accordingly, new players will rapidly
    emerge to fill new niches. Big players will respond to the cry for component
    uniformity and system interchangeability by creating standards for security and
    governance. Somewhere along the technology adoption curve, consolidation of the
    industry at some point is inevitable. Witness Google, Amazon, IBM and

    Meanwhile, a Loudhouse Research
    survey of 500 IT decision makers at US and UK firms, commissioned by Mimecast,
    found that the majority of organizations are now using some form of cloud
    computing service and that levels of satisfaction among those companies are
    high across the board. For example, among cloud users, 74% said that the
    cloud had alleviated internal resource pressures, and 72% reported an improved
    end user experience. Along those lines, 73% of users managed to reduce
    their infrastructure costs, while 57% said the cloud had improved their data
    security. However, companies not yet using cloud services cited concerns
    around cost and security. Of the
    IT departments surveyed, 74% reported they still believe that there is always a
    trade-off between cost and IT security, while 62% believe that storing data on
    servers outside of the business is always a risk.

     Editor's Note:Read the second installment of this article on cloud computing, discussing the risks of the cloud and the ultimate checklist for this technology, by clicking here.

    ARTHUR GINGRANDE [ arthur@imergeconsult.com], ICP, is co-founder and partner of IMERGE Consulting, a document-centric management consulting firm. Mr. Gingrande holds a Juris Doctor degree from the Massachusetts School of Law.