BY PETER WANYONYI Cloud services and similar virtualised offerings have taken over the world of information and communications technology in much of the developed world. Few, if any, corporation in the West and Asia still maintain server rooms and vast installations of software and platforms on their premises – a wasteful and error-prone undertaking that is difficult to justify in the presence of lower-cost cloud alternatives. But, as with any other IT subject, cloud services are overflowing with acronyms, combinations and opt-outs that can be mind-boggling. And although Kenya appears ready for cloud services at last, it is vital to know what is what in the often-ethereal world of cloud offerings. In a traditional organisation – say, a Kenyan insurance company – the IT setup is quite predictable. For the business to run, it needs specialist software applications that handle underwriting for the different lines of insurance the company offers, premium payments acceptance, claims management, accounting, and customer management, as well as software to handle more routine tasks like delivering and managing email, storing and managing all the insurance and other data, and securing all that data and software against viruses. This plethora of software is all hosted on servers – hardware – usually housed within a server room at the company’s premises, supported by an extensive computer network that handles data flow and data load balancing, among other duties. The company has to buy and install all these infrastructure and software, and then hire people to manage it and keep the lights on. It is an expensive and, until now, inescapable undertaking: companies just had to guess at what sorts of resources they needed, and then had to invest in those resources and personnel. It’s one of the reasons IT managers are some of the wealthiest employees in Kenya: the vast budgets common in IT departments, coupled with Kenyans’ infamous love for the backhander, make for very well-off IT bosses. That world is ebbing away now, for within the impressive world of cloud services exist all manner of offerings – the sort that every corporation must consider in its planning, and which will in 2017 make an increasingly significant foray into Kenyan companies’ IT portfolios. The great equaliser has been the availability of broadband Internet. Having access to super-fast Internet has opened up opportunities not previously present to Kenyan companies. As the year rolls on and data competition between telcos hots up, broadband will get even faster than it is now, and this will force Kenyan companies to rethink their entire IT strategies. Take the insurance company cited earlier – and there are a few vital conversations the wealthy IT manager will suddenly need to have with the COO or CIO of the company. First, infrastructure – servers, storage, networking, and the server room or data centre. Why should our insurance pay for all these expensive components to have them on site, when alternatives exist in the cloud? Infrastructure As A Service (IAAS) is an offering that is now common across the Internet. Rather than invest in expensive servers, operating systems, storage and networking – why not lease these from someone else? Large cloud companies lease out access to their vast storage and processing server farms via high speed Internet, with users logging in using custom portals. Instead of buying a massive server in anticipation of growing data demands, the client purchases a subscription that allows them to expand their resource allocation as demand grows. This is a super-efficient approach that ensures resources are acquired only as and when they are needed, thus avoiding wastage and saving the company money. Having thus done away with on-premise infrastructure, why stop there? The servers and storage being leased from a cloud services provider will be used to install operating systems and database management systems that will host the application software needed to run the business. But the clever corporate will go one step further: lease these components from the cloud provider. That way, the virtual servers leased from the cloud provider come preinstalled with the operating system of choice for the company, as well as with any required database management software and security tools. The addition of this component creates a full leased platform – servers, data centre, network, storage, operating systems, databases, and security – and is called Platform As A Service (PAAS). It would be a bit incongruous to have a PAAS service implementation and still insist on purchasing installing applications. With the PAAS in place, our insurance company then approaches one of the many companies that offer various business software as a service online. The software is subscribed to in the same manner as the platform described above, with the existing PAAS as its underlying infrastructure and management setup. Instead of purchasing huge blocks of software licences from applications vendors, clients can subscribe to a service that increases or decreases their licences depending upon demand, while simultaneously ensuring that application access is granted when needed. This level of service offering is Software As A Service, and it is becoming more and more popular across the world. Cloud service offerings significantly reduce the capital expenditure associated with setting up an IT department from scratch, while simultaneously cutting down operating costs as well. Kenya has been slow to catch up to this change in IT offerings and cloud services. This will not be for long: the cost of purchasing and maintaining hardware and software is increasing by the year, and not many corporations will be able to justify large capital outlays for hardware, infrastructure. These companies will turn to the many cloud service offerings for a combination of IAAS, PAAS, and IAAS. For Kenya, market and technology trends indicate that this is the direction in which the IT sector will head, a conclusion helped by the cost of on-premise computing.