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Understanding cloud computing

Dr Neil Paul explains pros and cons of accessing software and data held on remote servers via the internet.

Cloud computing can potentially free IT funding that would have been spent on high-end computers in every consultation room (Photograph: Istock)
Cloud computing can potentially free IT funding that would have been spent on high-end computers in every consultation room (Photograph: Istock)

Cloud computing is an example of something called 'software as a service' (SaaS). This is a natural extension of the virtualisation of software where the actual programs you use are running on a server somewhere else in the world, rather than on a server sited at the surgery.

Software as a service
With SaaS the software you use and the data related to it are hosted centrally on servers you link to using a web browser via 'the cloud' (the internet).

If using cloud computing, a web browser is the only software that is required locally. If you have used Yahoo! Mail or Gmail, they are a form of SaaS. In many ways this is similar to the old-style 'dumb' terminals that some GPs might remember, where little of the actual processing was done locally.

One example often used to explain SaaS is electricity supply - you do not care where it was made, how it got to you or how it is measured. All you care about is whether the light works when you switch it on. Cloud computing also potentially cuts carbon emissions given that fewer servers, each needing electricity to operate, are required.

Seamless service
The best thing about using SaaS is that it is seamless for the end user with no more installing software, no more updating it or having to save and back up your work all the time.

Eventually, as more and more businesses switch to cloud computing, having someone on hand to look after everyone's computer hardware or to 'pop to the server room' will be unnecessary. Everything you need will be accessible via simple, cheap machines with few moving parts. All the hard work will be done far away by technicians from the service you are signed up with.

PROS AND CONS OF THE CLOUD

Advantages

  • Do not need expensive PCs on each desk - just a good monitor, a mouse and a keyboard.
  • Can use rental and leased models or even pay as you go.
  • No need to worry about where you store data. It is all automatically backed up.
  • It is easier to standardise software across an organisation and implement strict security policies.
  • The software is always kept up to date with everyone using the same version.

Disadvantages

  • Speed of your connection vitally important.
  • If you lose your connection, you cannot access your data.
  • Server downtime can affect your business so you need a strict service-level agreement.
  • There could be problems/extra cost to hang on your data if you terminate a contract or move supplier.
  • Big suppliers of software services might be targets for organised hackers.

In future
At our practice, which is large, there might be a different version of Internet Explorer depending on which machine you use because it is a chore keeping them all up to date.

In future if all GP practices replaced their PCs with cheap terminals, there is potential for large cost savings. Instead of having one or more servers per practice, a few very large servers could remotely host the software which we could pay for on an 'as used' basis. This would probably save money too.

You would become location-independent and everything would be backed up automatically, so reducing data loss.

  • Dr Paul is a GP in Cheshire
  • For more information do an internet search on 'the cloud' or 'cloud computing'

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