What the Cloud Really Means for Publishers

Cloud computing refers to the delivery of applications, data storage and other computing resources over a network. In other words, the applications and data are sitting on a server somewhere, not on your desktop. This is the polar opposite of the “personal computer” model that most are familiar with, in which everything is sitting right there on your PC: the operating system, the applications, the data—the whole kit and caboodle.

In the mid-Cretaceous computing period, everything was in the cloud. All data and applications resided and ran on mainframe computers in some far-off data center, managed by “those IT people.” “End users” (often at the end of their ropes) toiled at “dumb terminals”—workstations with a screen and keyboard, but no processing power. The cloud is as old as the hills.

A half-century later, it’s déjà vu all over again. Almost every type of computing resource can be found in the cloud. Big enterprise software that typically ran in a data center now all can be sourced from hosted cloud services and delivered over the Web—financial software, customer relationship management (CRM), and enterprise resource planning, to name a few. Even productivity software like word processing that used to run only on the desktop also now can be found as a network service. All you need for access is an Internet connection and a browser.

A few differences exist between today’s cloud and the cloud of old. Some terminology has changed: “End users” are now just “users,” and “dumb terminal” has been given the far sexier rubric of “thin client” that makes one imagine attorneys at poolside.

More significantly, we now connect to these networked services via established Web standards like TCP/IP, XML and SOAP—common protocols that allow computers to connect to remote services that have enabled this “cloud ecosystem” to take shape. Prior to these standards, a cacophony of conflicting networking protocols existed, and it was hard to get systems to “talk” to one another.

The Cloud’s Impact on Publishing

Cloud computing impacts us in two fundamental ways: how we create and deliver digital offerings.

Pre-cloud, when a publisher wanted to get serious about digital media creation, they went shopping. First up was a digital asset management (DAM) system to store and manage digital content. This often was an expensive piece of kit, requiring a lengthy implementation. Next was a workflow system to support the publishing process. And let’s not forget the provisioning of big disk storage resources for all of that digital media. All these components introduced big costs—purchase of hardware/software, and implementation and support costs.

This is changing. DAM and workflow solutions increasingly are being offered as hosted, cloud-based services. Networked data-storage services have been commoditized. Customization still is required to fit your organization’s needs, but far less than a traditional implementation phase—and no hardware/software purchase is required, and little in terms of support costs.

Contrarians among us may bristle at the notion of managing digital content on third-party services. Security, control and service levels, of course, are of the utmost importance. Having said that, if we can manage CRM data in the cloud and feel comfortable with online banking, why can’t we do the same with content?

Delivering Content in the Cloud

Digital delivery also will be cloud-based. In fact, it already is: For example, Amazon’s Kindle Store is a cloud service that manages content (e-books), performs transactions and has all the other services necessary to make an e-book marketplace tick. It would be cost-prohibitive for a publisher to attempt to create equivalent functionality on its own website.  The Kindle Store represents not just a place to download media, but an entire e-book ecosystem capable of managing the delivery and use of a single e-book purchase across multiple devices in use by the consumer.

Subscription-based-services delivery also will be most effective when deployed on cloud-based services, as publishers will be able to deploy subscription services more rapidly, with less financial risk.

Another factor supporting the migration to cloud-based services is the speed at which technology is changing. The technology cycle often is shorter than the amortization period required to pay off a capital investment. In other words, big software acquisitions may be obsolete or replaced by a much lower cost alternative before the capital investment is paid off. The result is a high chance of a negative return on investment (ROI).

The alternative is to have a cloud services provider take the economic risk, and for publishers to use cloud capabilities as a service—to pay as you go.

These economic factors make a cloud strategy an absolute requirement and may be the difference between profit and loss for digital media programs.

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