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What’s Up in the Clouds?

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November 01, 2009
Cloud Computing
Ashok Kumar - akumar@ieee.org

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© 2009 Hospitality Upgrade. No reproduction without written permission.

Cloud computing is a form of resources virtualization wherein the services are delivered through the Web. The cloud part comes from the traditional representation of the network with the Internet depicted as a cloud pictorially. In a recent survey of North American Information Technology managers by Applied Research, more than 80 percent of large enterprises are at least in trial stage on a cloud computing initiative. This article discusses what cloud computing is, who provides services, what’s in it for hotels, implementation challenges and finally provides some advice for hoteliers. 

Clearing the Fog on Cloud Computing
In good jest, some people liken the cloud to something that nobody knows what is inside of it. In all earnestness, the cloud depicts a complex infrastructure that a typical user does not need to have the knowledge or the expertise nor the control of the parts within that cloud. All they would care about is that a particular service be accessed and delivered to their location in timely manner with quality of service and on a scalable basis.  A hotel would consume resources as a service and pay only for the resources that they use.

The era of server consolidation and virtualization has contributed to the growth in cloud computing. With cloud computing, applications are provided online and accessed through a Web browser with servers, software, databases located remotely. The three main ones are infrastructure as a service (IaaS), platform as a service (PaaS) and software as a service (SaaS). There also can be two different forms of cloud computing services namely public and private. A public cloud offers services in open manner to anyone over the Internet. A private cloud is a closed and proprietary network providing services for a group of users. A hybrid form is virtual private cloud, wherein a private partition is carved out of a public cloud infrastructure.

Cloud computing is not to be confused with other terms used in IT industry such as grid computing and utility computing, which are considered different. Much of the distinction is based on the business models for pricing and specific environment where the servers are located. Sometime in the future all these forms might fall under the umbrella of cloud computing.

Where are the Clouds?
In the recent survey of enterprise IT managers, half of the survey respondents said that they have already deployed public cloud computing applications from a service provider. In addition, 45 percent said they have deployed private clouds where the IT department manages the applications infrastructure and services across the enterprise. The commercial service offerings typically meet customer quality of service (QoS) requirements and offer service level agreements (SLAs). These cloud computing implementations have been facilitated with the advent of open standards and open source software platforms.

What’s in it for Hotels?
Cloud computing could have a major impact on hotel operations in the future. Not having to invest heavily for IT infrastructure onsite is a key benefit, as well as space and energy savings associated with hardware and the efficiency for software and applications upgrade roll-outs. Cloud computing in hotel back-office applications include hosting of reservations, property management and point-of-sale systems applications, key card and lock systems, e-mail communications/collaborative tools, hotel portals and staff scheduling.
With the dynamic nature of work-shift changes within the hospitality environment it can be a boon in communicating with part-time and temporary employees. The ability to scale with on-demand capacity for customer service at time of peak demands and disaster recovery during emergencies can be advantageous. Timely updates to employees on their personal devices and home PCs can be beneficial for smooth and cost-effective hotel operations during times of need.

Guest-facing applications might include information and entertainment. Information apps include digital signage, hotel portal and concierge services/ Guest entertainment applications include video, music, data apps, and photos. As more and more guests now carry their entertainment with them, a hosted applications model where in guests’ entertainment content is stored and accessed from the cloud can be a powerful paradigm shift in the making.

Challenges in Implementation
Any new technology or service carries with it some challenges in its initial implementations and cloud computing is no exception. Understanding the challenges and providing for risk mitigation are crucial to successful experience. The cloud could span international borders and as such as a myriad of regulatory environments might need to be accommodated. To address this, it is best to implement clouds by regions.     
In cloud computing the hotel data would be stored at the provider’s location. Responsibility for the data storage and control lies with the service provider. If the computing service provider is experiencing problems, hotel staff might not be able to access critical guest data.  Vendors must be willing to undergo external audits and security certifications, provide segregation of data from other clients and use  strong encryption methods, allow for control of the data location, provide for restoration and recovery during disaster for data availability with minimal interruption times. Such issues must be discussed with the cloud computing service provider upfront.

Another critical factor in implementing cloud computing is the amount of WAN bandwidth available to and from the hotel. Adequate bandwidth connection is needed to the Internet for most applications and services to perform without any latency issues. Such bandwidth must be dedicated, reliable and have fail-over protection with alternate routing facilities from the ISP or multiple service providers.       
Ashok Kumar is an independent technology advisor with extensive experience in the justifiable implementations of emerging technologies such as Wi-Fi, IP networks, voice and video communications. He can be reached at (404)626-0227 or e-mail akumar@ieee.org.

Advice for Hotel Operators
Cloud computing services are forecasted to increase in their deployments with major technology industry players investing in the infrastructure. During tough economic times, the pay-per-use model works well for the hospitality industry. Here is some advice for hotels considering the use of cloud computing services. 

Evaluate the hotel bandwidth connection requirements to and from Internet, and ensure that it is sufficient for the applications and services to be deployed. Recommend redundant network facilities with alternate routes and vendors. 

A good back-up plan working with the service provider should mitigate the risk of data loss at hosted location. Clear expectations on data availability and restoration in the event of disasters must be included in vendor contracts.

There might be an opportunity for franchisors to offer cloud computing services to their brands hotel owners and operators, as part of their differentiated franchise services.

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