What is the Cloud?
If you have done any prior research, you may already know that there are numerous definitions for the cloud. Like any high level concept that has multiple definitions floating around the Internet and print publications, the cloud can be confusing to understand. So first, let’s define what it isn’t. For the purposes of computing, the cloud is not a physical place in the sky – nor is cloud computing a singular method or service.
Not a single method or service: check. So what is it, then? The simplest of all definitions of the cloud is this: The cloud is a metaphor for the Internet. Of course, some call that characterization too simplistic – but given the title of this book, oversimplifying it is called for here. Additionally, many credentialed experts concur with the metaphorical definition. You may have noticed that in many diagrams of the network, the Internet is often represented as an actual cloud with its puffy outline connecting little pictures of servers to little pictures of desktops. That’s no coincidence!
So with that, we will acknowledge that the cloud is a metaphor for the Internet – meaning that when you are in the cloud, you are doing some or all of your computing functions on the Internet. For a business, which is the audience this book is written for, using Web-based functions is really what it means to be in the cloud.
But cloud computing is not necessarily a computing model at all. The way it should be viewed is as a business and economic model that is made possible by a set of computing concepts. What are they? I call them the “3 I’s of the Cloud.” At its core, a cloud exists so that every company in its network can add and subtract their desired business processes on a pay-as-you-go basis, which makes doing business in the cloud a very manageable expense that is appealing to many types of organizations.
That pay-as-you-go business model is possible by the 3 I’s of the Cloud:
With the cloud, many computers, also known as the “network,” are connected to one another via the Internet. You can picture the network connecting to the cloud, as per the network diagram illustration mentioned above – or being surrounded by a cloud, if you prefer to visualize the network as an enclosed space. But this cloud must be powered by licensed technology, and in most cloud models, that technology is delivered by a third party cloud services provider (a.k.a. the “host”).
Using its own servers, the host manages the computers in its cloud from a remote data center. This data center is what facilitates all the cloud-based services its customers need; one common example, because it is such a widely used service, is the offsite backup of data. Let’s examine that service a little more closely, before we list other cloud-based services a business can take advantage of.
For companies that use the cloud, backing up data offsite (away from their location) eliminates the worry of losing important company data in the event of a system failure, power outage or weather disaster. The data is not lost to the business, because it can be retrieved out of the cloud. Another name for this is disaster recovery. If you have ever heard a television or radio advertisement for a cloud services provider, you know that the #1 selling point these providers emphasize is their ability to offer companies disaster recovery solutions. That isn’t mere hype; disaster recovery is a valuable service that the cloud makes possible.
Of course, disaster recovery is just one of many business processes that the cloud can offer an enterprise. Other cloud-based services facilitated by this interconnectivity include:
• Web-based email: The company email service is powered by the cloud.
• Comprehensive office suites: A virtual desktop or other cloud-based office suite provides everything the employees need to perform their daily work functions.
• Document collaboration: Also known as file sharing, this enables employees to share documents in a secure cloud environment.
• Database processing: A customer database, employee database or other source of sensitive data can be securely stored and updated in the cloud.
• Managed support: Using proprietary software, some cloud service providers may offer customer service and technical service applications.
• Retail checkout functions: e-Commerce sites can leverage checkout platforms that facilitate secure customer transactions in the cloud.
In any event, the interconnectivity of the network is what keeps cloud services providers on their toes, maintaining the uptime of the network and allowing services like those listed here to be offered. Because a cloud services provider will work hard to make sure his network doesn’t go down, the interconnectivity of the cloud should be viewed as one of its strongest assets.
In order to maintain a manageable IT budget, members of the host’s network rely on the cloud to provide the IT infrastructure for their respective companies. The next set of questions and answers can further break down and simplify the concept of a cloud services provider delivering infrastructure to its customers.
How do we define infrastructure? Infrastructure is everything a system needs to function. For the purposes of cloud computing, look at infrastructure as a way to deliver virtualization to an organization’s cloud computing solution.
How do we define virtualization? Virtualization is the act of creating a virtual computing resource that mimics an actual one: a virtual server, a virtual storage device, a virtual network, a virtual operating system. Because the resource is Web-based, it is virtual rather than tangible.
Why do we need virtualization? If a business is moving to the cloud, it needs virtualization because virtualizing the important resources mentioned here is the only way to create the necessary IT infrastructure from an offsite location.
Why do we want infrastructure to be offsite? Security is one reason; in other chapters, we will more carefully examine the security advantages of cloud infrastructure. Cost is another frequently cited reason. It’s just a fact: Building infrastructure onsite and hosting it in an onsite data center is an expensive endeavor that many companies don’t have the IT budget for. Rather than breaking the bank building an onsite data center, those companies can rely on the cloud to provide the raw computing capacity needed to create, store and share data internally, in addition to performing their most critical business functions.
There are numbers to support the assertion that building physical infrastructure is more costly than budgeting for cloud services; according to Amazon Web Services economic center, the cost of depending on a cloud services provider for infrastructure is, on average, 74% less than the cost of developing the infrastructure and operations force in-house. Even for a large business that has the budget for complex in-house infrastructure, that is one clear cost comparison that makes the cloud worth exploring.
When we talk about intangibles, we are referring to software applications that support business functions. The cloud can be used to deliver one or more software applications for companies to effectively manage their workforces: email, calendars, data and document sharing, spreadsheets, online shopping carts, onsite credit processing, etc. Because of these software applications, nearly any IT service a company needs to manage itself can be delivered in the cloud – and new applications are being developed all the time.
When a cloud host provides these software-based intangibles to a business, that is defined as Software-as-a-Service (SaaS). SaaS is categorized as one of the three core models, a.k.a. layers or “elements” of the cloud (for more on the elements of the cloud, see Chapter 4). Without software applications, there is no email to communicate with clients, no file sharing to collaborate with colleagues, and no credit card processing to facilitate payment transactions from a mobile device. That may have been acceptable in 1980, or even 1990 – but imagine a world without those functions today.
Basically, the absence of cloud computing would result in a massive reduction in essential business functions, to the point that the enterprise would be set back a good 30 years. Cloud computing makes the most critical, intangible business functions possible for enterprises of all types: small offices, mid-sized companies and large corporations.
The 3 I’s of the Cloud show us that cloud computing can fill almost any gap in business functions. That alone is highly valuable. But to truly understand the role that the cloud now plays in the computing landscape – not just for business, but for the entire computing industry, including the Internet and everything it depends on – you need an abbreviated history of cloud computing that exemplifies the cloud’s fascinating evolution, but that is for another post.