Finding the Elephant in the Cloud

I’m sure we’ve all heard the analogy of the group of blind men who were led to an elephant and asked to describe the thing that they were standing alongside. They were placed at various points around the elephant and asked to touch it. The one by the trunk said it was like a tree branch. The one by the leg indicated he was touching a pillar. Next to the tail, that blind man said he was touching a rope. And the one by the ear said he was touching a leather cloak. The one who brought them all together indicated that every one of them was correct. Because they each touched different features of the elephant, their experiences were each different. But they were all touching the same thing.

Now, I’m not normally filled with Zen such as this, but the analogy seems appropriate given any discussion of cloud computing. My initial blog post indicated different perspectives on the definition of the cloud.

A recent email comment in response to that initial post took objection to my definition of the cloud and placed a more technical spin on it. Since the comment was from a developer it didn’t surprise me that he had a different perspective. It all depends on where you’re touching the elephant…or the cloud.

The US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) defines cloud computing as three service models: software as a service (SaaS), infrastructure as a service (IaaS) and platform as a service (PaaS). Again, a technical view from a technical organization. But the people who pay for our services and software—our customers and clients, have also latched on to the cloud and made it a core part of their business operations. And their view is a bit different from ours.

Clouds Aren’t Just for Techies

Business stakeholders utilizing the services and software you provide see the cloud as something more nebulous. They aren’t technical like you and can’t see the code behind the API giving them access to their data via the cloud. They don’t know where their data is physically stored. They simply view data from their browser wherever they go. Think about that for a moment from their perspective—wherever they go. Is that mobile? Or is that the cloud? Both?

A business user’s definition of the cloud takes the perspective that they access your applications and their data somewhere from physically outside their organization. They don’t need the server in-house and don’t need a technical team to support their operations. They have YOU taking care of their needs. They have YOU making sure the servers are up and all software patches and updates are made. They have YOU making sure their mobile browser shows the same thing as their laptop browser. Your application provides them the service they need to get their job done. At its heart, they’ve outsourced the service and data management to YOU. Outsourcing is what our business customers think of when they think of the cloud.

As you build any cloud solution, remember the perspective your customers have of your service or software. They don’t see the entire elephant. They only see the part they’re touching. It’s up to you to bring them to the elephant and place them around it touching the parts they need to touch. In the event you leave them holding the tail, be careful they don’t lift it too high.

Grabbing the Opportunities

Another reader of my initial post had a different takeaway and asked how he could take advantage of cloud computing opportunities. He was like me, a “seasoned” developer who still wanted to write great software and provide services for clients. But he didn’t know where to start.

I think I can confidently say that it’s simply never been easier than today for a one-person business or any small organization to get off the ground. And the cloud is one of the phenomena that makes it that easy.

Rather than going into too many details about the steps involved in starting a business, I’ll focus on some of the cloud services that facilitate startups and make the startup phase easier. In this sense, regardless if you’re a developer, designer or simply someone with a great idea, you’re a business user starting a business. That’s the perspective you need. You’re subscribing to a service provided by someone else and without regard to where the work is actually done.

One thing to note is that, being in the US, my perspective is skewed towards US requirements. I’m sure you have your own laws and regulations to abide by if you’re in another country. Regardless, seek an attorney for advice before doing anything I mention below.

Organizational Startup Tasks

In the spirit of full disclosure and counter to what some cloud service providers targeting this activity may say here, a specific startup task I would keep “old school” is the formal establishment of your business organization. By that I mean choosing whether you incorporate or go with a limited liability corporation or whatever structure you choose.

There are many Internet services and websites that assist you with structuring your business. But my experience and those of others with whom I’ve spoken are similar. The Internet sites can file your paperwork as needed to legally organize your business, but they often miss unique forms or fees that are specific to certain states. Some states have very unique requirements and they change annually. Find a local accountant or attorney to file your legal organizational paperwork and let those professionals use the cloud to process it. They can also advise you on which structure is best for your specific situation. Accounting (for tax purposes) and legal services are the two services I prefer to keep local so they’re always accessible to me.

Administrative Services

There are a multitude of cloud-based service providers willing to provide accounting, bookkeeping and payroll services to your organization. My local accountant recommended several I could utilize for normal bookkeeping and then I need only to forward him the results for him to do his work at tax time.

This is a critical area where I don’t know why anyone would want to do it himself. There are too many and too frequent changes to tax and business legislation. Outsourcing it to the cloud not only assures you someone else is taking care of you when changes to tax and payroll laws are made, but it frees you up to focus on your core competency.

I use CompuPay, a payroll service provider, who takes care of my payroll and local taxes every time I process payroll. I also use Intuit Quicken to track my bookkeeping activities and document the information my accountant needs every year. Both services cost a fraction of what I would pay to have someone do it internally and allow me to pay only for the services I use.

Building Your Cloud Service

Jeff Barr, another CloudSpring blogger and Amazon Web Services evangelist, already laid out several excellent examples in his recent blogs of how to use Amazon’s cloud services to support software development. Doing a Google search on “cloud based development tools” returns more than 32 million results. Open source software and development tools, whether they’re hosted in the cloud or on your own server, basically eliminate the startup costs you once had when you were forced to purchase proprietary tools for software development.

Cloud computing introduces you to many new technologies and tools. No single person can keep up with all of the latest tools so you’re constantly learning or hiring outside developers to complete your work. Training for nearly any development tool can be found by simply accessing YouTube for how-to videos. And several services and sites exist to help you find good people to deliver your solution.

Would your normal definition of cloud computing include the use of YouTube as a training resource or Elance for hiring? Probably not, but remember the context in which you’re using it in this case. You’re running a business and don’t want to bring those services in house. Using external resources to accomplish a task is the way your clients view the cloud.

It’s easier than ever to start a business thanks to cloud services. The mundane tasks associated with startup activities can be outsourced to someone who specializes in that and you can focus on building your service and getting your first customer.

What tasks do you outsource for your business that fall under this broader definition of the cloud? Whether you agree or disagree with my perspective, please let me know how you focus on your core competency and are able to shove those other tasks to others outside your team. You may have found a service that others wish they knew about.

Thanks for your feedback!

Image via jadimages / Shutterstock

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