Keep It Smart – Basics #7: What is the Cloud?

July 26th, 2019

If you’re reading this article, chances are you’ve heard of the Cloud. You know, that ethereal place where we store stuff on the internet?

Need a clearer explanation? We’re here to help.

What Cloud? Please Explain

The simplest analogy for the Cloud is to imagine a chain of 24/7 warehouses. These warehouses (known as servers) receive, host and store goods (in this case, data). Customers can send or retrieve their goods at any time, either from a specific warehouse (a server within a Private Cloud) or a non-specific warehouse (a server within a Public Cloud). Similarly, users can choose to make their stored goods accessible to other users for purchase or forwarding.

Now think about this chain of warehouses as being one of many networks of warehouses used by millions of customers. Different companies manage each chain (e.g. Amazon AWS, Microsoft Azure, iCloud) but collectively all the chains are known as ‘the Cloud’.

A Brief History of the Cloud

Although we think of the Cloud as a recent phenomenon, the term ‘cloud computing’ was first coined in 1997 by Professor Ramnath Chellappa, University of Texas, while delivering a talk on a ‘new computer paradigm’.

Salesforce is credited as being the first company to actively deliver Cloud-based solutions back in 1999. The concept behind their start-up was to provide users access to software via the Cloud rather than installed on individual computers.

Salesforce started with Cloud-based customer relationship management (CRM) software. They went on to provide vertical-focused products such as Sales Cloud, Marketing Cloud, Community Cloud, Service Cloud and Commerce Cloud. The company is now worth around USD122 billion despite numerous big enterprise companies jumping on the bandwagon.

What’s Wrong with a Good Old-Fashioned Hard Disk?

Gone are the days of companies buying on-premises hardware that runs out of storage, breaks down, requires regular upgrades or takes up floor space. Now businesses pay for the infrastructure they need when they need it. It’s the service provider’s responsibility to keep that infrastructure humming along at optimal performance levels.

The bottom line for organisations is that using Cloud-based infrastructure and services is cheaper, scalable and more resource-efficient than buying hardware and locally installed software.

Cloud-based storage and apps are becoming the norm, accessible from any compatible device, e.g. Microsoft Office 365, Adobe Creative Cloud, G Suite (Google), Dropbox and OneDrive. As a business, it’s hard to ignore the flexibility, convenience and cost saving that 24/7 remote access offers.

Clouds and More Clouds

In our warehouse analogy, we mentioned the terms ‘Public Cloud’ and ‘Private Cloud’. These are two of the many types of Cloud out there in the IT stratosphere. Here we’ve listed the common types of Cloud you’re likely to encounter:

  • Public Cloud

The most popular choice of Cloud for personal and home devices. The entire Cloud infrastructure is stored off-premises and shared with other customers. As a user, you have no control over the infrastructure and method of deployment.

  • Private Cloud

A common choice for big business, especially organisations that handle sensitive information. The entire infrastructure is usually stored off-premises and is not shared with other customers. Because data is stored on a specific server or group of servers, the user benefits from increased security, flexibility and data loss protection.

  • Hybrid Cloud

A combination of Public Cloud and Private Cloud. Companies who invested heavily in on-premises hardware and software benefit from this option. A Hybrid Cloud provides the opportunity to extend their infrastructure into the Cloud while continuing to utilise local solutions. For example, they may opt to store back-up files and software in Cloud-based storage while storing the originals locally.

  • Community Cloud

A Cloud designed for a limited number of individuals or organisations. All Community Cloud participants are involved in governing, managing and securing their Cloud. Alternatively, the participants may collectively decide to transfer governance to a third-party service provider.

The ‘As A’ Revolution

Other services associated with Cloud-based delivery include a raft of ‘As A’ options. The clue lies in the name i.e. Infrastructure as a Service provides infrastructure via the Cloud. These services include but are not limited to:

  • SaaS – Software as a Service

A SaaS provider hosts applications on servers which the user can access remotely via the Cloud, avoiding the need for on-premises software installation. SaaS represents the largest Cloud market. Common examples are Salesforce, Microsoft Word 365 and Google Docs.

  • IaaS – Infrastructure as a Service

Rather than purchasing the infrastructure yourself, IaaS providers host it for you. Infrastructure covers hardware and software including servers and operating systems. This allows users to pay for the infrastructure they need only when required. Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services (AWS) are well-known IaaS providers.

  • PaaS – Platform as a Service

PaaS is an extension of SaaS. While SaaS providers host end product software, e.g. Workday and Gmail, PaaS providers host toolsets and platforms for you to develop, test and deploy your own custom-built applications. Popular SaaS examples are Jira and GitHub.

  • TaaS – Testing as a Service

TaaS providers offer a Cloud-based platform for on-demand testing of your software or IT product. For businesses, using TaaS is cost-efficient, fast and scalable, avoiding the need for the infrastructure and employees required for on-premises testing.

Black Cloud, Silver Lining

The path of technology never runs smooth and the Cloud is no exception. Spectacular service disruptions and data losses have shaken confidence at times. For example, Feb 2, 2018 saw Microsoft Office 365 users locked out of their email accounts globally. On July 16, 2018, Amazon experienced major technical glitches during Amazon Prime Day that massively impacted sales and angered customers. The list goes on: Google, Facebook/Instagram, Connectwise, Salesforce, Slack… No-one is immune.

Cloud computing failures happen daily, often minor, sometimes disastrous, but when Cloud-based servers go down, the fall-out potentially costs businesses millions. Then there’s the ever-present risk of cybercrime.

Despite the cyberattacks and outages experienced by Cloud computing providers and their customers, it seems the risks are worth taking. Gartner predicts that the global public cloud services market will grow to over $214.3 billion in 2019.

Given the rapid, continuing growth of Cloud-based services, technology users are proving they’ll weather the storm of potential disruption to benefit from the Cloud’s silver lining.