Cloud computing as a concept is around five years old. For much of this time it has managed to be, simultaneously, the next big thing, the new big thing, or yesterday’s marketing buzz word that has run its course.

Confusion reigns, not helped by the fact that the term ‘cloud’ covers a range of different platforms and services, including public and private clouds, and approaches such as virtualisation, managed hosting and simple internet-based applications.

None of this helps businesses trying to get to grips with the cloud, understand what the options are and choose the solution that is right for their business.

Cloud computing offers many proven benefits: it provides a cost-effective, flexible and scalable route for managing IT infrastructure, software platforms and applications. It can store vast amounts of data. In today’s increasingly mobile and international business environment it offers seamless and universal access to a central depository of information and applications.

But there are many providers out there, offering many different services, and concerns around security and data privacy remains a significant obstacle for firms looking to implement a cloud-based IT system.

The first question an organisation should ask itself is, do I go for public or private cloud and what is the difference between them?

A public cloud is one where an organisation’s information and applications are hosted on the internet and accessed and charged for on a pay-as-you-use basis. Their flexibility and scalability, largely unlimited data storage and universal access makes them an ideal option for many businesses, such as those with offices at more than one location, a mobile workforce, limited IT resources or rapidly evolving IT requirements. Firms can increase or decrease capacity as they need, and only pay for what they use.

Private clouds tend to be an optimised and virtualised version of a business’ existing network. The company acquires and controls its own hardware and software, but this is integrated into a single, centralised hub of computing power that can be distributed across the business as required.

It offers benefits in terms of IT efficiency and economies of scale, but lacks the responsiveness of a public cloud; and any extension or adaptation will invariably require additional IT spend. For companies with recent investments in IT hardware and software a private cloud can help to extend the lifespan of this investment.

The concept of a private cloud can reassure firms concerned about the security of data and applications hosted in a public cloud, however these fears are unfounded when choosing a reputable public cloud supplier, with a proven track record in security and a solid commercial and financial footing.

Every business is different, with different IT needs, priorities and resources. What is right for one firm will not be right for another, and it is vital that companies do their research and look for advice before investing in a solution. The fact remains that cloud computing is here to stay, and will become increasingly embedded in business IT. The decision is no longer ‘should we move to the cloud’, but ‘how should we move to the cloud?