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Understanding cloud computing and what it means to you and your patients

You've probably heard the term "cloud computing" and you may even be using "the cloud". But what exactly does cloud computing mean, and why is it important?

First, let's deal with the term itself. Cloud computing doesn't mean all your information is stored somewhere bright and shiny, up in the sky. Instead, cloud computing providers operate enormous physical data centers, often the size of football fields or larger. The term "cloud" derives from the way techies used to illustrate the Internet (as an amorphous cloud) when creating network diagrams.

Back in the day, there were many companies that sold outsourced IT services. In this case, outsourcing means "outside of your office" rather than "sent to a foreign country". You'd often connect to those services over phone lines, leased network lines, or just by having a messenger pick up a bunch of forms each week.

Today, there are still many companies selling IT services, but you can easily connect to them over the Internet. Whether it's Google providing mail services, Intuit providing accounting services, or a specialized medical record keeping system provided by your favorite EHR vendor, today we call it cloud computing.

To make matters more fun, you may also hear the terms "private cloud" and "public cloud". A private cloud is a data center operation that you own, but where your IT people can spin up applications on demand, and where your users can login remotely. A public cloud is a multi-tenant facility, where many users from many organizations use the cloud services. Google and Amazon's Web Services are ideal examples of public clouds.

Public clouds are definitely an excellent solution for many facilities and practices. While there have been some well-known security breaches, if you work with a well-respected vendor, they stand a better chance of putting in solid cybersecurity, because their primary business is protecting their network.

One thing you should check into before adopting any cloud supplier is how to get data into and out of their system. Let's say you want to move to a new vendor in a few years. Can you export all your data into a portable interchange format? If a prospective vendor is open and forthcoming about data portability, that's a good sign. If they avoid the issue or appear offended that you're asking, consider looking for a new vendor.

Public clouds are far cheaper and easier to get involved with, but you rely on the security of the vendor. You may also need to take into account various HIPAA and HITECH compliance issues when your data is on a shared service. You'll need to look at your service level agreement very carefully to make sure you're providing appropriate security and staying in compliance.

Depending on the service, you can also grant your patients access to their own cloud data. This gives them easy access to their own information and helps empower them to take a more active role in their own health.

David Gewirtz is IT advisor to the FPHA. He is Director of the U.S. Strategic Perspective Institute, Distinguished Lecturer for CBS Interactive, and one of the nation's foremost cybersecurity experts. He also writes the ZDNet Government column for CBS Interactive's ZDNet, the leading online source for IT professionals. Feel free to write in with questions or suggestions for future IT healthcare columns.

David Gewirtz
Distinguished Lecturer, CBS Interactive
Director, U.S. Strategic Perspective Institute
Founder, ZATZ Publishing

Author of How To Save Jobs and Where Have All The Emails Gone?
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