What’s a Cloud?

Article Written by: Michael RosengartenSubmitted by: CALBO Innovative Practices Committee

Cloud is a term used widely today to mean “Internet hosted.” Cloud hosting is a kind of Internet-based hosting where the delivery of application and data comes from a cloud computing environment, or a cluster of computers together that represent a “cloud.” In a funny way, it means you don’t need to think about where the application or data lives — it’s up in the clouds. Underneath this word, there is a stronger implication for the kind of infrastructure (grid computing) that is often used to provide Clouds as a service provider. It’s worth noting that a “desktop application” can still be “in the Cloud,” as not all desktop applications connect to on-premise data sources.

Technical specifics aside, cloud generally means a more widely available and accessible application. Here are some bullet points on the Cloud:

  1. Cloud is not a single server in a datacenter or closet. Cloud means a cluster of computers (servers) that operate together in a semi transparent way such that you don’t know if you’re using one or ten servers (the capacity of a cloud should scale without pain).
  2. Cloud is the predominant delivery mechanism of Software as a Service (SaaS) vendors.
  3. A Cloud can be hosted on-premise. A cloud can be managed by another vendor (Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud).
  4. A cloud can be hosted on-premise (often called a “Private Cloud”) or off-premise (the standard “Cloud”).
  5. Cloud-hosted products are no more or less secure than an on-premise or non-Cloud Internet-enabled solution. Security is another layer of configuration that affects all Internet-connected applications.
  6. Cloud-hosted applications and products can be delivered to clients via web browsers or desktop applications. Contrary to what is heard often, “Desktop” does not mean the software works in offline mode. More and more, applications will have Windows and Mac clients but still be 100% reliant on a database up in the Cloud.
  7. Cloud-based products can be priced on resource utilization, fixed monthly rates, or however the vendor and buyer come to agree.
  8. Does hosting in the Cloud mean your applications or data are public? Not necessarily. You can use a Virtual Price Cloud (VPC) to create an isolated network in a public Cloud which is very similar to a firewall and a local network, limiting Internet traffic to only those permitted in your rules of your VPC.
  9. Is a Cloud-hosted product faster or slower than a desktop or on-premise software? It depends on your computer, your office network connection, and how your IT group has set up your intranet. Typically, with fast internet and modern computers, a well architected Cloud-hosted product should be faster because it has access to far more resources than your agency will have and can scale up in minutes not hours or days when more computing power is required for the action you’re trying to do.
  10. Cloud-hosted vs on-premise do not have an obvious pro/con to accessing your data. Some Cloud-hosted solutions will give you access to your data directly at a database level. However, as many Cloud-based providers offer SaaS and SaaS often implies multi-tenant (sharing databases with other customers), having direct access to a database can be more difficult. On-premise, where you manage your own database, will give you more capabilities to rely on your own engineering and IT teams to generate reports and get direct access to data.
  11. Similarly, customizing the workflows of SaaS is difficult if even possible when compared to more traditional on-premise software. However in a practical world for building officials, even for on-premise solutions it’s rare to have access to the underlying programming source code to modify an application as a customer.

More and more software makers are moving to the cloud as there are immense benefits to maintainability and scalability for them. Here’s a small preview of some of the software providers looking towards the cloud:

  • Many GIS systems run on the cloud, including ESRI’s ArcGIS Online which is a fully managed
  • As of now, there are very few permitting systems that are Cloud-hosted but many claim to be including Accela, Tyler, SunGard (Superion), Camino, Infor, and others. While some offer on-premise solutions, others like Accela and Trakit are moving away from these offerings. You may still be able to pay a premium to get on-premise but as time goes on this premium will increase as vendors reap the benefits of multi-tenant application architectures.
  • Electronic plan review software examples include ePlanSoft which has a 100% cloud-hosted option
  • Many ERPs like NetSuite are native in the cloud
  • Digital queues, customer service, email platforms all have cloud offerings (Redwood City, CA for example uses Enjoy to manage customer queues at their permit counter – this is a cloud-hosted, iPad delivered SaaS application)
  • Digital access to your ICC and other codes can be found via MADCAD’s Library of Codes and standards

For any questions regarding this article, please contact the Innovative Practices Committee