By James Turnbull, managing director of infrastructure solutions, Northgate Managed Services

It’s becoming increasingly difficult for those in business to avoid the debate about cloud computing.

We hear a lot about cloud, but do we really know what it’s all about and more importantly what we should be doing about it? Is it just the latest fad that our IT teams are getting very excited about, or does it have more substance?

Just like the real thing, there are different types of cloud which fall broadly into public or private headings.

Global names like Google and Facebook have helped to create awareness of the public cloud, with such as Google mail, documents and apps being examples of widely adopted public cloud services. Initially these were for use at home, but more and more business organisations are taking advantage of them.

So what has charged business interest in cloud computing?

The economic storm that continues to roll across the country is certainly driving us to look at each and every option for reducing our costs, regardless of whether we are running a private or public organisation. To weather the storm we need to be more agile and better able to respond to opportunities or threats by scaling up or down — and fast.

To react to changing market opportunities, developing and taking new products to a world marketplace has to happen faster than ever. We need to constantly improve the quality of our services and products, and strive to improve our customer experience.

With IT at the heart of the organisation this means more and more pressure on our resources. We require reliable systems, accessible from wherever and whenever we need them - and most of all we need them to be secure.

Restrictions on access to capital to invest in our organisations is also encouraging us to look for rental or leasing models. We’ve done it for everything from cars to buildings, so why not also our IT assets?

So the question then becomes - can cloud computing deliver any or all of these business needs? It almost seems too good to be true.

The sceptic asks - if moving your infrastructure and software to the cloud reduces operational costs and improves business agility, why haven’t more of us already taken the plunge?

The need for security is certainly one reason. We like to know exactly where our data is, who has access to it and if we want to, how we can retrieve it.

This need to ensure security of our data, systems and people has held us back from widely adopting some of the public cloud services. For many organisations the cost advantages of the public cloud haven’t been enough to satisfy our concerns over security and privacy.

However, the emergence of private clouds may well be the answer - particularly if we have previously utilised and understood the benefits of traditional outsourcing models.

Unlike the public cloud, with a private cloud you can see and touch the datacentre that hosts your services and build in the levels of security that you need to help you sleep soundly at night.

If you need more resources, these are available within minutes, not weeks or months as we’ve grown used to. All of this comes at a cost, but the cost is a monthly charge based on what you’ve used — releasing you from the pressure of investing based on what you might need in two or three years time.

So how do you get from where you are now to the cloud? There are few of us who have the luxury of starting with a blank page and completely redesigning our infrastructure. We need to take time to really understand what we have in place and focus on the parts that we need to fix now.

An email system which is no longer stable, or has grown out of all proportion and is costing you time and money just to keep it alive, might be a good place to start.

Many of us still haven’t taken advantage of convergence technologies which help us reduce our network costs and improve staff abilities to collaborate with colleagues regardless of location. The reason — a large upfront investment. A private cloud could bring this all within your reach.

Each organisation is different, so plotting your individual path to the cloud is vital. Leaping into a great unknown isn’t what we are comfortable with, so a good cloud roadmap is the sensible approach. A roadmap will be unique to your organisation as it aligns with your company strategy to bring real business benefits.

Widespread adoption of private clouds isn’t going to happen overnight, but as we see our competitors reaping the benefits from the clouds, we’ll all be looking to the skies to ensure we are maximising the potential of these flexible technical and commercial models to help us build solid sustainable organisations.