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Multi-tenancy leads to risky development on cloud platforms

Why buy when you can rent?

It’s the new credo among savvy spenders everywhere — IT shops included. More and more companies are renting space on a cloud (Infrastructure as a Service) or paying for what they use of applications hosted on one (Software as a Service). In either situation, one provider serves multiple customers simultaneously, a concept known as multi-tenancy.

I recently read an article about how people in cities are using the cloud to share goods, from tools to tripods. There’s a movement toward owning less and sharing more, the article said, that’s spurred no doubt by the unemployment that 20% of college graduates are facing. The surprise is that this act of sharing — or perhaps its inherent thrift — produces a shot of happy chemicals in the brain.

The world is mad about multi-tenancy, not just because it’s less expensive — or at least appears to be more equitable in the pay-as-you-go model; and not because it’s better for the Earth — one consumes only what one needs; but because it feels good.

Ever see an unhappy Zipcar driver? Not likely. The Cambridge, Mass., company has spawned a passion worldwide for sharing cars to save the environment. It accomplishes this through the use of innovative technology that gives members 24×7 access to thousands of cars around the globe. It’s a jolt for the green economy, almost as good as walking to the train.

In the IT world, the concept of multi-tenancy is transforming data centers, saving both money and emissions through the consolidation of virtualized servers. A cloud, whether public, private or hybrid, is similar to a hotel, with each customer inhabiting a room that uses the same electricity and plumbing infrastructure. The bigger the hotel, the more service providers there are to supply such things as linens and food., for example, one of the first SaaS providers, is surrounded by an ecosphere of developers adding value in vertical industries. Microsoft, likewise, is luring a bevy of developers to its Windows Azure platform.

The security risk, to extend the hotel analogy, is whether your company’s data goes out with the sheets.

“I wonder whether customers understand those risks,” said Julie Smith David, director at the Center for Advancing Business through IT, and associate professor at the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. “If Platform as a Service ends up the winner, it may provide a single-source comfort to the customer, but there is still this world of developers innovating.”

Within the platforms, developer apps are housed on the developer’s hardware, David explained. “I may trust and set up an app exchange, but if I don’t recognize that a piece of my data ends up at the third-party developer,” there could be a shot of unhappy chemicals in the brain. “I don’t want my trusted data too many hands away in the cloud,” she said. Even though uses stars, reviews and other assurances that third-party developers are dependable, “my guess is those risks are being underestimated.”

Stay tuned to next week to hear more from David about a report she co-authored for the Society of Information Management’s Advanced Practices Council on integrating SaaS with legacy systems.

Have a SaaS best practice to share? Email me at Laura Smith, Features Writer.

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