Cloud control growing for more businesses

Every week Techvibes republishes an article from Business in Vancouver.

This article was originally published in issue #1067 – April 6 – 12, 2010.

It’s probably been four years since Troy Angrignon last had a conversation about building a desktop-based application, let alone built one.

At that time, he was an emerging technology strategist with Business Objects, where he helped build the company’s first Software-as-a-service (SaaS) unit and do market analysis for the unit’s first product.

That Angrignon’s title included the word “emerging” reflects that SaaS and “cloud computing” are relatively new concepts.

But while SaaS and cloud computing aren’t ubiquitous in business yet and while there’s still confusion about what the cloud is, Angrignon and other IT professionals agree that the cloud is growing.

“The future is here,” said Angrignon. “It just isn’t widely distributed yet. All software should be built as SaaS. There’s no reason to do it otherwise.”

Angrignon, who co-chaired a day-long cloud computing conference in Vancouver last month, is now an independent IT consultant.

In its simplest form, the cloud is a mish-mash of remote applications, platforms and infrastructure connected to their users by an Internet connection.

Whereas enterprise or desktop-based software is housed in its user’s local hardware and servers, cloud computing applications are typically based in data centres that can be hundreds of miles away from the user.

And the businesses that manage and maintain cloud software can be hundreds of miles away from the data centre and their clients.

Businesses on either side of the cloud computing model – the providers and their customers – are growing in step with the cloud, as providers advance cloud technologies and more businesses adopt such technologies.

Sarah Morton, president of Backbone Systems, likens cloud computing to a co-op program in which member benefits increase as the co-op grows.

While many of Backbone’s clients are small and medium-sized businesses, they’re part of a cloud computing co-op that’s powered by thousands of other organizations.

Backbone clients use the same programs and computing power as some of the largest international corporations.

Morton added that “business are sharing a large enterprise infrastructure and paying a smaller price for it.”

And as they scale up, businesses can access more services and computing strength in the cloud as needed.

Discovery Parks retired its desktop software and internal network and moved to a SaaS model largely because it didn’t want to have to hire a dedicated IT professional to manage its IT as its real estate portfolio grew.

Mark Betteridge, Discovery’s executive director and CEO, estimated that such a professional would command an annual salary of roughly $50,000.

Instead of updating and maintaining its software, licences and firewalls itself, Discovery pays a monthly fee to Backbone to manage those tasks.

Previously, if Discovery had network or software complications, it would have to hire an outside IT troubleshooter and suffer through what could be days of downtime.

“With Backbone, they can diagnose it almost immediately and fix it almost immediately,” said Betteridge.

Backbone houses its customers’ servers and networks in a Vancouver-based data centre.

The company, which bundles and manages products for clients, launched its first product, a remote e-mail and business application offered by Microsoft Corp., in 2006.

With 10 employees, Backbone now manages software and applications for more than 1,000 employees in numerous organizations.

In 2008, Mono County, California, and the Town of Mammoth, which is in the county, were using enterprise systems to manage land development and sustainable growth.

The two governments’ small and aging in-house systems had become increasingly dysfunctional as the resort community’s population grew.

“We were faced with significant growing pains,” said Nate Greenberg, GIS co-ordinator for the town and county.

Last year, the two governments switched to web-based permitting platforms managed by BasicGov Systems Inc. after being referred to the Vancouver company by another government.

Greenberg said BasicGov’s platform has reduced government infrastructure and the number of staff hires needed to handle increased pressure on their permitting systems.

He added that staff can access the web-based platform from any location that has an Internet application.

As well, the single systems replaced a patchwork of in-house systems that often couldn’t communicate well with each other.

“That allows for really smart decision-making ability because people in one department can see what people in another department are doing,” said Greenberg.

Like Morton, Greenberg pointed to the strength-in-numbers benefits of cloud computing.

“With the power of all those people buying into it, we can leverage much larger functionality than we could have locally.”