There are several cloud computing services available today from a few vendors that can help you immediately take advantage of online collaboration using websites, email, spreadsheets, and word processing documents, as well as other capabilities. Fees usually range from little or no cost to about $50 per person per year, for simple hosted applications, depending on the type of organization and the total number of users. Below are some examples of the various services that are available, and which best serve a certain type of organization.
- You are an independent workplace learning and performance professional who needs to share documentation with your clients, often collaborating on revisions in real time. Rather than using email and conference calls, you could use cloud services to securely store and share documentation with each of your clients. Some of these services provide automatic versioning of documentation and "check out" capabilities that ensure that no one else may modify the file. You also could subscribe to cloud-based meeting space or "webinar" services that will allow you to collaborate with shared audio, video, documents, notes, handouts, and online chat.
- If you are a part of a new startup organization that has not invested in a computing infrastructure, your organization could procure most of the basic services from the cloud without the need to build up a large IT department or make capital investments in a private data center.
- Your learning organization is considering the implementation of an LMS but is wary of the costs and complexities that have historically accompanied such implementations. In this scenario, you could consider cloud-based alternatives to a full-blown LMS or lease an SaaS LMS.
- Nearly everyone can benefit from the added security and peace of mind derived from doing regular data backup. Even if you or your organization does back up your data fastidiously, if it isn't stored offsite, it is at risk in the case of a major disaster or something as common as a power outage. Restoring data that is lost is often difficult and time consuming. Today, there are multiple cloud-based backup solutions that will frequently copy the files that you specify to the cloud where they are encrypted for your security and allow you to recover them at will, if needed.
Potential Issues with Cloud Computing
Security. Data security is one of the biggest concerns about cloud computing. Many organizations believe that if they can "corral" under lock and key the servers in their own on-premises data centers, there will be less risk of leaking data outside of the organizations that they serve. Unfortunately, doing so effectively requires equipment and expertise that is up-to-date on the potential information security threats and, therefore, expensive to maintain.
In reality, many organizations either cannot afford the right personnel and equipment or cannot keep up with the pace of change. For these organizations, cloud computing might actually offer a more secure solution than they can support alone, because the cloud data centers are properly equipped to physically secure servers from theft, repel attacks over the network, and properly encrypt data.
Privacy. Some organizations, like our military, simply won't tolerate that their data reside on anonymous servers managed by others in multiple locations. In other cases, data storage compliance is regulated, as in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). In fact, there are actually thousands of regulations governing how long data should be retained, how often it should be backed up, and where it may physically reside (i.e., the location of the database servers).
For these organizations, a private cloud solution could be the answer to the impact of regulations, giving them more control over the implementation of compliance regulations by using standardized database servers, software, and data management applications. Your HR department might need to assess the impact of using cloud computing services to store confidential information and to comply with internal policies and applicable regulations.
Network and Internet Dependencies. The move to public clouds makes reliable access to your local and mobile networks, and then the Internet, absolutely crucial. Cloud computing services reside in the cloud at locations of which you are probably unaware, but your computer or mobile device needs good connectivity, because without it there is no service. Slow links will degrade the experience.
Within enterprises, networks will need to be tuned to prioritize the right data traffic depending on the cloud application, and the "pipes" to the Internet will have to grow. If you are a remote worker and know that you will access applications hosted in the cloud, you should probably be thinking about upgrading your service to the best that you can buy.
Like most other services, cloud computing services come with their own terms and conditions. Read the "Terms of Service" or licensing agreements to ensure that you aren't setting yourself up for potential future problems. For instance, the Google approach to providing no-cost or low-cost service is that most applications are in "beta," meaning that they haven't officially been launched. You basically use them at your own risk, and the company reserves the right to change how the applications work and the terms of service at any time. Although it is unlikely that you would lose your data, you might not have access to some of it, or of some applications, for short periods of time. (Just before going to press, Google admitted to the accidental deletion of 150,000 Gmail accounts from their systems.
Many of the cloud services are resold through the vendor's "partner channels." This means that any recourse for unacceptable service will be through that partner and not directly with the vendor. And "free" services are what they are: free. Don't expect a service level agreement (SLA) with the vendor or access to human technical support by phone. You'll have to figure out most things by yourself, using the (sometimes very good) online support and training tools that are available for each vendor's applications.
Also, free services might not be extendable to special cases - for example if you want to connect that Blackberry device to the cloud email service rather than accessing it through a browser. Free services are usually provided using "clear text" communication, meaning that communications from your computer over the Internet will not automatically be encrypted.
Free and Commercial Cloud Computing Services Available Today
Here are a few free or reasonably priced cloud-based computing services that are broadly available today to the public and should be of interest to workplace learning and performance professionals.
General purpose Productivity and Collaboration
Google Apps: Google Apps is a set of Software as a Service (SaaS) applications. Today, there are basically two levels of service - one at no cost that provides collaboration and a few other applications; and a full-service business offering that provides the basic components plus expanded storage, the ability to enforce some network security options, and support for mobile devices. The business offering costs $50 per user per year but may be procured by some K-12 educational institutions at no charge. The collaboration applications include email and calendar. Google Docs provides shared word processing, spreadsheets, and some presentation capabilities. Google Sites gives one the ability to easily create simple websites for collaboration and publishing. The applications just described require only a browser, but some of the extra or more advanced applications might require software installation on the end users' computers. A comparison of Google Apps offerings may be found at www.google.com/apps.
Microsoft Business Productivity Online Standard Suite: This online service, usually known just as BPOS ("bee-poz") is the online version of Microsoft Office suite tied together with the strong document management and publication features of the Microsoft SharePoint Server products. In addition, it includes two real-time collaboration services, Office Communications Online (an advanced instant messaging service with video and desktop sharing) and Office LiveMeeting, a "webinar" event application with its own storage, shared notes, whiteboard, and the like. At $10 per user per month, it is more expensive than other services, but users who have experience with the later versions of the Microsoft Office (2007 and 2010) suites will feel at home with this service. If you are interested in being on the cutting edge of cloud-based applications and collaboration services, watch for release of "candidate" versions of Microsoft's new additions to the online suite, Office 365 and Lync (both are Online now in beta versions). The former will eventually supersede the MS Office-like applications, and the later will provide the real-time collaboration capabilities now in Live Meeting and Office Communications Information on BPOS and the as yet unreleased services may be found at www.microsoft.com/online/default.aspx.
Hosted Learning Management Systems (LMS) and Virtual Classrooms
Blackboard Learn: Blackboard, best known for its virtual classroom learning environments, now has a commercially available cloud-based service offering of their Learning Management System, hosted on Force.com, the same SaaS platform used by Salesforce.com's Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and other applications. You can find out more about this and the virtual classroom services at www.blackboard.com/About-Bb/Media-Center/ Press-Releases.aspx?releaseid=1505723.
GeoLearning's GeoMaestro On-Demand Enterprise Performance & Learning Platform LMS: GeoLearning also has a hosted LMS similar to that of BlackBoard. You can find more information at www.geolearning.com/about/hosting.aspx.
Dell's Cloud-hosted Open Source Moodle LMS: Moodle is an Open Source LMS and virtual learning environment solution that is considered the gold standard in academia and has application in corporate and public sector organizations as well. Dell Computer has recently begun to offer the Moodle LMS as a hosted cloud-based service in partnership with a company called Moodlerooms.