Cloud Computing….What’s it all about then?

I first wrote this article in 2013.  It's basically my take on the concept of cloud computing and what it actually is.  It's a bit long but I hope you enjoy it.

 

Are we witnessing a boom industry without realizing it?  Quite possibly.  Cloud computing has over recent years become the next big thing, not only within the commercial IT industry but also for individual home use.  So what is it?  In essence cloud computing is the evolution of how IT services such as email, online services, applications and actual data are stored and handled via the internet.  As opposed to traditional computing methods such as storing data on hard drives and managing it on the customer’s premises or at home.  Outsourcing your IT on a pay-as-you-go basis where you are only charged for what you use could also be a close definition. 

 

The term cloud in IT terminology derives from the internet and the analogy of a big fluffy entity somewhere out there.  In this case, the internet being a network of servers in data centres all over the world is the platform or road that takes us to a hosted cloud environment. Bringing efficiency, security, convenience and cost saving benefits to businesses and home users.  Previously only large businesses were adopting cloud but more recently mid- sized organisations are getting onboard.

 

Individual users (you and I) are probably using cloud computing without realizing it: Social networking, email, music and video streaming over the internet, storing documents online, online banking, gaming and shopping. It is predicted that by 2020, 92% of our everyday online services will have moved to cloud computing in one way or another.

 

Mobile phone technology is another example where the services and applications within a smart phone aren’t always stored within the device itself but are out in the cloud being securely managed by the mobile phone provider while the user goes about their business and sleeps at night. 

 

Multimedia entertainment such as television, films, music and online gaming are moving toward the cloud based world where these services are streamed into our homes over an internet connection and accessed wirelessly.  Physical media such as DVD and CD are becoming a thing of the past.  Digital television in its High Definition or Standard Definition formats could well be replaced in time by Internet Television.  These days, accessing films and music via the internet on a pay-per-view/listen basis seems more favourable than a house full of disks.

If there is a technology band wagon to climb onto, the consumer world will no doubt do so.  The cloud band wagon moves on with companies popping up everywhere offering cloud based services.  Those with a keen eye for investment and innovation could make a lot of money if they act quickly before market saturation sets in.  In the business world in a climate where cost savings and making use of utilities for a cheaper price is top of the list of priorities, cloud computing looks like a saving grace.

So how does it all work?  There are various types of cloud model and how they are deployed depending on the business or consumer/individual user need.  There are three primary deployment models - public cloud, private cloud and hybrid cloud; 

 

Public cloud

The larger IT companies or service providers (Google, Amazon and Microsoft among others) offer private cloud services to either the general public or to businesses.  These services include anything from personal data storage to a complete hosted IT solution in a shared cloud environment.  One of the key points here is the importance of the customer’s data being kept secure and protected from unauthorized access or loss.  Microsoft are investing 90% of their research and development budget ($8.6billion) into their cloud computing technology.  Other business sectors such as Professional Services, Insurance and Transportation are investing heavily in cloud technologies at the moment.

 

 

Private cloud

A dedicated cloud solution dedicated to one customer or organisation.  This approach in a way mirrors IT services as they are today since the customer still pays for dedicated infrastructure such as servers and network hardware.  

Scalability and flexibility mean the customer has more control of their own resources and less dependency on individual IT departments.

In similar fashion, personal online data storage services are used day to day by the consumer - Google Drive, Dropbox, Mega, Apple iCloud and Amazon Cloud Drive to name but a few.  In fact, 50 million people currently use Dropbox to save around 1 million files every minute as well as 150 Million people use Apple’s iCloud who receive around 47000 app downloads every minute.

 

 

Hybrid cloud

This is a combination of the other cloud deployment models.  Where businesses, depending on customer need, use different elements of a private and public cloud solution.  For example, a mobile phone provider using public cloud for data storage also using a private cloud solution in the same data centre environment for handling of sensitive information such as customer details or billing.

 

Within the deployment models, there are different types of service depending on the customer requirement.  The primary types of cloud service being Software as a Service (SaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS) and Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS).  There are more but we will just concentrate of these three for now;

 

Saas

Software as a Service (SaaS) is based on making applications available to the customer from within the cloud.  By just using the internet web browser and not having to install programs or applications onto the customer’s PC, SaaS is the simplest and most direct type of cloud computing.  Web based technologies are fast developing.  Which means common Internet browsers such as Internet Explorer, Firefox and Crome are enabled to deliver rich content or media rather than simply taking the user to a webpage.  In order to open a media file such as a film clip, the user would have previously had to install or run a particular video player application.  Most of the news based website’s pages for example are equipped to play media clips, display photos and graphics just by clicking on the page.  These are also called Rich internet applications and are a type of SaaS.

Online Gaming, Google Docs and Dropbox are again examples of Saas. Google Docs offers a suite of office applications including word processing and spreadsheets.

 

PaaS

Platform as a Service (PaaS) is the next level of cloud computing where operating systems are available to the customer and developers can create their own applications and manage them within their own environment or website.  Microsoft Windows Azure and Facebook are examples of PaaS.

 

IaaS

Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) used by the large IT services providers giving the customer the ability to develop, run and manage their own applications or store vast amounts of data within a cloud environment.  A method called server virtualization is used where hardware is replicated within software making it more cost effective and providing more virtual space or data capacity than physical servers could provide.  Amazon Web Services (AWS) is an example of Iaas where the provider offers the service of running vast amounts of data across vast virtual and physical servers on behalf of the customer.

The benefits of cloud computing are its main selling point and the fact it takes us into a new world in technology.  The main benefit is lower cost for the customer where the services are delivered cheaper compared to previous methods of storage and management.  The customer would have paid for the hardware and software up front in the old world to the point they own it regardless of how much they utilize it.  In the new cloud world, maintenance and running costs are reduced significantly as the provider only charges on a utility basis. In the same way we are charged for electricity to our homes paying only for what we use. 

 

The option of scalability is another benefit in that the customer can increase or decrease their use or the amount of space they need.  The hassle of physically hosting and running hardware is removed and passed onto the service provider who can manage the cloud environment in a centralized way within their premises rather than the customer’s environment.  Since cloud computing is delivered via the internet, as long as the customer has a connection, they will be able to access their services from wherever they are.  Cloud could be seen overall as a much more efficient, cost effective, easily accessible and secure method than traditional methods of IT hosting.

 

The Security aspect can be seen as an advantage in that the services provided by the cloud environment are more secure than they would be if hosted at the customer premises or at home.  Within the cloud the provider offers the facility to back-up the data and keep it safe.  The fact that the road leading to a cloud environment is via internet could bring this into question.

 

 There are disadvantages to cloud computing that could out weigh the advantages at this early stage in the game.  After being on the scene for around five or six years, cloud is still in its infancy.  The two biggest disadvantages are its dependency on an internet connection as well as security of the data.  Since cloud environments are reached via the internet, if the connection is lost or even suffering from performance issues, access to the services is either delayed or lost altogether.  Those services could be business critical data, email or applications.  Or personal data such as family photos, music files etc.

 

Cloud providers are fully aware of this and eventhough measures are put in place to prevent loss of service or outages, things can still go wrong at times.  That said, cloud environments are built as resilient solutions which means if a man in a digger in the next street road works accidentally cuts through some underground cables cutting off the local telecoms exchange, then a back-up (resilient) circuit should ensure the connection is not lost and the business critical application such as payroll at the end of the month is still processed or a home user can continue to stream data using BBC iPlayer and not miss a second of East Enders.

 

Security will always be a hot topic where cloud computing is concerned.  With the data being out on the internet, it raises the question of how safe data is against malicious attack or loss.  Businesses pay more money for additional security and protection of data e.g. Government related or sensitive data.  There are all manner of security methods that can be put in place – encryption of data, firewalls, intrusion detection - the list goes on.

 

There are other considerations that relate more to the internet connection dependency such as performance where peak times of day will affect the connection hence having an impact on the service e.g. email at 9am when large numbers of people are logging on at work or when people surf during their lunch hour.  Again, businesses can pay more for higher internet bandwidth in the same way we can at home to get around such issues but like most things, the cost then starts to increase.

 

 

Cloud computing is an evolution in IT and offers increased efficiency, capacity, security and cost effectiveness via access from the Internet.  It allows businesses or individual users to no longer worry about investing in or running their own IT infrastructure.

So in summary..

On a personal level, am I ready to move my data to the cloud?  I would say yes and not from a jumping on the band-wagon point of view but from the point of view of convenience, confidence in the concept and the idea that it’s the direction we are heading in.  My tip for the day – keep an eye on what the big hitters in technology are doing.  In other words providers such as Google, Microsoft and Amazon (all doing ok financially when I last checked) are all fully integrated and onboard with the cloud.

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