"Cloud computing” is a hot commodity, though as its name suggests, the definition tends toward the nebulous. In its broadest sense, and most relevant to IT in business, the term refers to the use of web-based tools, applications, and solutions in place of physical equipment that could achieve a similar result.

“The cloud” is just another metaphor for the Internet, but one popular among the IT set. Like the heavens its name implies, working in the cloud offers visions of effortless transition between applications without any need to be grounded. Why, asks Joann Saitta, senior vice president of information technology and business operations at PDI Inc. in Saddle River, should a company shell out for costly hardware and infrastructure when, say, Google will do most of the grunt work for you?

Saitta will deliver the keynote address at the New Jersey Technology Council’s “IT Industry Forecast — Reducing Costs Now” on Thursday, May 14, at 3:30 p.m. at PSE&G Edison Training & Development Center in Edison. Cost: $50.

Joining Saitta will be Katia Passerini, associate professor of management information systems at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (where Saitta is working toward a Ph.D. in this subject) and several IT and networking professionals. Register at www.njtc.org or call 856-787-9700.

Holder of two bachelor’s degrees from Rutgers, one in political science and one in computer science, Saitta also has a masters in computer science from NJIT. She has served as director of relationship management at Prudential and held positions in E-business, client-server computing, and VM mainframe at IBM Global Services. She joined PDI in 2005 after building 20 years experience in IT management and planning.

What it is, what it was. In the old model businesses invested in copious machinery — printers for all, terminals, storage drives. These days, Saitta says, savvy businesspeople are turning to online applications, software, and systems that allow them to do all the same things without having an office full of equipment. By using Amazon, Google, or Microsoft, for example, businesses can tap into a wealth of general apps, from web services to tracking systems, and let the big guns handle the particulars of equipment storage and hardware investment. It is cheaper, poses less risk and upkeep, and keeps any company that uses it perpetually up to date.

The on-the-fly ability to upgrade is a major plus, Saitta says. Not only does hardware cost a lot and take up space — proprietary software, similarly, can be a pricey investment — it gets old fast. Every few months, she says, systems get more efficient, programs get tweaked, and older versions of equipment become obsolete. They then become what Saitta calls “legacy,” essentially stuff that stays in a company long past its optimum usefulness simply because it cost so much money and took so much time to learn that companies cannot let it go.

Saving money. Though Saitta cannot give specifics about her company’s savings she admits that PDI has saved a lot of money by rethinking its IT needs. Her company, which provides sales and marketing support to biopharma companies, has trimmed its budget by following a few steps, she says.

First there is the replacement and removal of hardware. A few printers, mice, and monitors “are little things but they really add up,” Saitta says. A wise step is for companies to take a good look at how much hardware is actually needed — will one central printer do, or does everyone need one? Can you use mobile technology rather than chaining people to a desk?

Speaking of printers, she says, PDI has been able to shed dollars by removing color printers and sticking with black-and-white.

Contracts. Budgets can drop considerably when companies rethink their contracts and obligations, Saitta says. If contracts are coming up for renewal, be aware of the old axiom about shopping around. Putting a contract out to bid can yield better deals and different terms.

Terms, of course, are meant to be negotiated. Like every business, including her own, Saitta says, contractors of all kinds are slogging through the economy too. Ergo, they are willing to bend in order to keep business. As contracts come up for renewal, she says, examine what you really need and what you actually are paying for. “You might say, ‘Gee, I don’t need 24-hour service on X, Y, and Z,” Saitta says. “I only need service Monday to Friday during business hours.”

Outsourcing. Saitta admits that if there is a dirty word in business these days it is “outsourcing.” Much of the problem stems from the word being confused with “off-shoring,” which is when jobs physically leave the country.

But outsourcing, Saitta says, simply means using someone else (even if that someone else is the cloud) to do jobs that could get done just as easily without the full-time headcount — remote monitoring and data storage are prime examples. And just because IT departments might shrink it does not mean that IT itself is any less important. “IT isn’t just about hardware,” Saitta says. “It’s about applying knowledge to a problem. That business intelligence isn’t going anywhere.”

The kids will be all right. The shift from accumulating the biggest toys to the more virtual outlook turns much of the focus onto entrepreneurial intelligence, Saitta says. Companies are less worried about controlling every single thing and starting to concentrate more on overall trends and follow more creative paths, now that they’ve been set free from the old ways of thinking.

As younger people, born in the Internet Age and reared on ever-advancing technologies, enter the business world, Saitta believes they will not even consider hardware unless they cannot find it in the cloud. “Businesses will not invest in what’s called ‘basic infrastructure services,’” she says. They will instead be looking for hosting through Microsoft, apps through Google, and tracking programs through Amazon.

And this is a good thing. “I’ve always seen the need for staying current with technology,” Saitta says. “We need to have it aligned with knowledge.”

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