The Cloud`s the Limit With Anything as a Service

Last September, Shepherd Data Services, a Minneapolis-based provider of discovery services for law firms, was asked to convert 14GB worth of Lotus Notes data into TIFF files in just four days. It was an imposing task that was critical to a client’s civil litigation case.

Wade Peterson, Shepherd Data’s director of IT, mobilized a few of his staff and used the firm’s internal electronic discovery software to sift through the data. But it soon became apparent that the scope of the project was more than 10 times what was expected—a whopping 160GB comprising 3.2 million pages—and would require 20 people to work on it around the clock.

Earlier in the year, Peterson had signed the company up for a subscription to IPro Tech’s eCapture Web-based discovery software, and he and Christine Chalstrom, Shepherd Data’s founder and president, agreed that this assignment was the perfect test for this service. Peterson and a small team uploaded the data into eCapture, and the software began churning through the data much faster than the in-house system could—and with far fewer employee resources needed. When the deadline arrived four days later, the discovery effort was complete, and the resulting TIFF files could be retrieved online with a simple log-in.

“It felt like a whole data center was at our disposal,” says Chalstrom. “This allows us to send information to the cloud, get it processed and have our customers access it there. Before, we’d get data in, we’d process it, shove it into an external hard drive, take it to our customer’s data center and then upload it there.”

Ah, the cloud. It’s almost impossible to have a conversation with any business or IT decision maker without the topic of cloud computing surfacing. Cloud computing comes in an assortment of flavors, all of them labeled with a clunky acronym. There’s software as a service (SaaS), platform as a service (PaaS), infrastructure as a service (IaaS) and communication as a service (CaaS). It’s easy to see this trend expanding beyond the capabilities of the alphabet as companies avail themselves of ever more specialized services, such as discovery as a service or video as a service, which haven’t been labeled with acronyms—yet.

All together, the market for cloud services totaled $46.4 billion in 2008, and that figure is expected to grow to $56.3 billion in 2009, predicts IT research firm Gartner. Such growth, especially in this slow economy, would seem to indicate that any business function that’s technology-enabled is a candidate to be offered as a service. Hence, the all-consuming moniker, XaaS, or anything as a service. What started with the migrations of early adopters toward SaaS applications offered by, NetSuite and the like has become a fast-maturing IT strategy that has IT and business leaders considering any potential service offerings when evaluating new technologies.

And while cloud computing’s bread and butter has been small companies, that’s been changing. “All these systems appeal very much to the small to midsize companies, where you don’t have a mature IT organization,” says Anne Thomas Manes, vice president and research director for IT advisory firm Burton Group, based in Midvale, Utah. “But large organizations also are very interested in the potential of the cloud.”

In some cases, things have moved well past the interest stage. “Cloud computing has changed the way I—and my peers—think about hosting decisions,” says Mike McGarry, CTO for $9.9 billion financial services giant Genworth Financial, based in Richmond, Va. “In the past, our bias was to buy a package first, and if we couldn’t find the package, then we’d build it in-house. Now, our first choice is, hey, can we do it in the cloud?”