Cloud computing is changing the world, but lots of people don’t yet know what exactly cloud computing is and how it might affect their business or personal decisions and goals. This guide will break down everything you need to know about cloud computing, what its benefits and disadvantages are, and how you’re likely already using cloud computing in your day-to-day life. Let’s get started.
What is Cloud Computing?
Let’s break down exactly what cloud computing is before we get into any more details.
In a nutshell, cloud computing means computing through the delivery of services and resources using the Internet as a medium. Where regular computing requires you to use programs, retrieve files, or store data with hardware or components connected to a primary computer, cloud computing allows one computer to benefit from the shared resources and databases of computers connected to a single network.
Basically, all the computation occurs through the cloud or the Internet.
Cloud computing is advantageous since you’re able to store all your files and data on remote databases instead of being limited to local hard drives or storage devices. This extends not only to single files but also to huge swaths of data, up to and including complex programs or software.
Many people are looking to cloud computing due to this benefit and many others, including cost savings, more speed and efficiency, and other advantages that we’ll cover below.
Why “cloud” computing? Because all the resources and processing power needed to complete computation is accessed in the cloud or virtual spaces. There are companies that can provide cloud services, which then enables users (who normally pay subscription fees) to access those servers for their needs.
Cloud computing only works because the Internet allows for near-light speed communication. It doesn’t matter if the computational resources for a company or business are located halfway around the world. If the company has access to those cloud servers, they should be able to complete all the same objectives they need without a significant delay.
As a bonus, cloud computing can be found in both private and public formats. Private cloud services must usually be rented and only provide servers and resources to certain people. Public cloud services are available to the general public for a small fee. Of course, some companies also provide hybrid options that blend both styles for their users.
Cloud Computing Examples
Most people likely utilize cloud computing in at least some way every day even if they don’t realize it. Here are a few basic but popular examples of cloud computing that demonstrate what it can bring to the table:
- Many people use Netflix or similar streaming services. Netflix and other companies rely on cloud computing to run video streaming and provide almost instantaneous video downloads to its customers. This is the only way Netflix can work – otherwise, the company would need a truly staggering amount of server space given all the content under the Netflix umbrella
- Many people also use cloud computing for their apps. Software as a Service is becoming more and more standard since it allows users to access applications through the cloud without having to physically download those apps to their computers. This allows software developers to push out patches or updates much more quickly and distribute them to their user base without anyone being left behind
- Lots of people also utilize cloud backups for important data or files, like photographs. Storing your photographs on the cloud allows them to be remotely stored on a database far from your physical computer’s location. This makes it more difficult for you to lose the photos by misplacing an external hard drive or something similar
What Defines Cloud Computing?
Although cloud computing is becoming more commonplace, lots of people think it’s essentially the same as downloading files or regular Internet activity. There are, in total, five primary characteristics that are common in all cloud computing services:
- Broad network access – this means that the user must be able to access the cloud servers from across the Internet using any device with Internet connectivity. This includes smartphones, tablets, and regular computers. The data or servers must be accessible through a standard web browser
- On-demand self-service – this means that the user must be able to use the servers whenever necessary and can pay for that usage. There should be no limits on accessibility at any time aside from payment depending on the agreement made between the user and the cloud service provider
- Elasticity – the nature of cloud computing means that the network and its processing or storage capabilities can grow or shrink rapidly and as much as possible. This should not affect the traffic or speed of the users since the cloud can harness more servers and storage space whenever necessary
- Resource pooling – of course, cloud computing demands that resource pooling be available. If a network can’t access more resources and pull them together for high-traffic events or big jobs, it’s not really cloud computing
- Measured service – lastly, cloud computing services usually measure how much their servers or resources are being used. In this way, cloud computing can be thought of as a kind of “utility” computing along the lines of electricity or heat. Indeed, cloud computing is the closest that the Internet has come to a public utility since its original inception
The History of Cloud Computing
While cloud computing is now commonplace, its concept was originally envisioned as far back as the 1960s. In those days, certain computer bureaus would let companies rent time on their server mainframes instead of having to buy a computer for themselves. This was originally a cost-effective measure since computers back then were quite costly, even for big businesses.
Due to the development of Apple and Microsoft as companies, and the rise of PCs, timesharing services were eventually shuttered and companies and individuals bought their own computers. Companies, in turn, then purchased their own hard server mainframes and storage locations so they could have all their data on hand at all times.
Only recently has the concept of shared and network-based computing returned to the public consciousness. Cloud computing really took hold when software as a service and hyperscale cloud computing providers came into profitability.
Since network architecture is so much more stable and responsive than it was before, it’s no longer difficult for cloud computing to compete with the raw abilities of on-site hardware and server farms.
Types of Cloud Computing
Cloud computing comes in a wide variety of types depending on the needs of the users and the goal of the cloud providers. Let’s break down the different types of cloud computing you can encounter or request for your company.
Software as a Service is one of the most common types of cloud computing available, in part due to the profitability and convenience it provides for developers and licensors. In a nutshell, SaaS forms a licensing and delivery model for software. Rather than customers buying a disk or the files for some software, that same software can be centrally hosted by the developer or licensor.
The software is then licensed on a subscription basis. This allows individuals or companies to request software on demand and benefit from much more rapid and up-to-date patches or extra services from the developers at the cost of never really “owning” the software.
Software as a Service is so prevalent that it’s the default for cornerstone software offerings like Microsoft Office. Many people and companies are turning to SaaS since it allows individuals and companies to acquire software more quickly, to benefit from patches more consistently, and to benefit from additional security measures that prevent the software from being altered or negatively affected.
Like software as a service, infrastructure as a service or IaaS is a type of cloud computing that provides high-level APIs from a centralized server location to various companies or clients (licensees). It offers instantaneous computing infrastructure that can be provisioned, managed, and updated exclusively over the Internet.
IaaS is advantageous for many of the same reasons as SaaS, including increased scalability up and down depending on your demand and helping companies and individuals only pay for what they use. It’s also particularly nice since it can help companies avoid the expense and complexity of having to buy or create and manage their own physical servers and data center infrastructure.
When used in combination with SaaS computing, IaaS can effectively allow companies to outsource or rely on cloud computing for all of their major processing or computing tasks, including storage and client services.
Most IaaS services allow users to rent every resource as separate service components, meaning that users only need to rent particular infrastructure components as long as absolutely necessary. Some IaaS providers will also offer to manage infrastructure in order to allow the company or user to focus on other aspects of cloud computing or their business.
Some great Infrastructure as a Service examples include ICM Cloud or Microsoft Azure.
Platform-as-a-Service or PaaS is very similar to the last two types of cloud computing. It offers a service or application platform from a centralized server location. It offers, in essence, a complete and thorough development and deployment environment exclusively on the cloud, plus the resources you need to deliver everything your business or endeavors require.
Like other cloud computing services, clients are allowed to pay for exactly what they need then access those resources and infrastructure right over the Internet without having to do a lot of downloading beforehand. PaaS includes many pieces of infrastructure in addition to “middleware”, development tools, database management systems, and much more.
Furthermore, many PaaS services can support complete web application development lifecycles, including all the major phases like building, testing, deploying, and managing a piece of software or a web application. This can be particularly useful for developers that don’t have the time or cash to create, buy, or manage their own development platforms but who still need those resources to complete their goals.
Users are allowed to manage the applications and services that they develop using the PaaS platform, although other aspects of the service are usually managed by the cloud provider itself. Platform as a Service examples include Heroku and Salesforce.com.
Alongside those “as a service” cloud computing types, there are three other major categories that cloud services fall into.
The first of these are public cloud services. Think of these as public digital spaces like parks or computer cafes where individuals can share computing resources with other tenants or renters. This is generally quite affordable and is a perfect choice for developing systems and Web servers or for those on tight budgets.
In many cases, public cloud computing is cost-efficient since most public cloud services provide pay-as-you-go models. Individuals can pay for the number of hours they need to utilize the cloud servers and exit whenever they are finished.
The downsides are similarly obvious. There isn’t any privacy and you will sometimes have to deal with other individuals who take up extra cloud server resources or space in the digital domain. This can sometimes make public cloud computing a little less consistent than the other computing types.
Private cloud computing is the counterpart to public cloud computing. It offers exactly what it says in the name: privacy. This means that the user doesn’t have to share the digital space or server resources with anyone else. Since most private cloud platforms are built in-house, this also means that most users physically own the cloud architecture, which can provide some legal or security benefits.
In fact, security is often the number one reason why big businesses will look to private cloud computing instead of public cloud computing. Private cloud networks, by their very nature, offer better security and defense, which can be vital for companies that handle a lot of sensitive customer or other information.
Private cloud networks also give administrators additional security tools, such as providing information about who accessed data, what changes were made, and additional emergency controls.
Last but not least is hybrid cloud computing. Hybrid cloud computing usually requires the primary client or user to control an internal database or private cloud network but also have access to public cloud computing when necessary.
For example, say that a company mostly used private cloud computing but realized that it needed additional server resources. That company could then move some of their data from the private cloud to the public cloud, especially for the purposes of receiving scheduled maintenance or in the event of an unexpected blackout.
Thus, hybrid cloud computing is popular and provides the best of both worlds. Users can benefit from the privacy and increased control of private cloud computing with the extra server resources and flexibility/cost efficiency of public cloud computing.
Benefits of Cloud Computing
Ultimately, cloud computing wouldn’t be so popular if there weren't significant advantages and benefits to using these types of services. This list breaks down covers most of the major benefits of cloud computing.
Software Can Be Used from Any Device
By far the most tangible benefit of cloud computing is that it allows users to utilize or enjoy software and other services from any device. With cloud computing, you don’t have to have a particular piece of software or program installed on a given device or hardware set.
You can use the same software or program from your mobile device, like a smartphone or tablet, your desktop, and your laptop without individually downloading and installing that program each time. This is invaluable for companies in particular that need all of their workplace computing devices to utilize the same programs consistently.
Doing things the old-fashioned way would likely take a much longer time and there would undoubtedly be instances where certain employees didn’t have access to programs or files they should have.
Easy File Retrieval
Similarly, cloud computing makes it trivially easy to retrieve files from anywhere in the world since the cloud network is maintained over the Internet. Companies and individuals can both benefit from this aspect since it allows users to retrieve files without having a physical data storage device on hand.
For instance, regular people can store private photos or other documents over the cloud in secure locations and retrieve that information whenever they like. This limits the likelihood of them accidentally misplacing prized photos or financial information and not being able to find it later.
Companies can benefit from easy and universal file retrieval, particularly if their employees constantly travel and are not always at their corporate offices. This allows anyone in the company to get access to sensitive company information they may need for business deals or other purposes anywhere they go in the entire world so long as they can connect to the Internet.
Easy Backup for Files/Data
In addition to those benefits, cloud computing allows companies and individuals to benefit from easy file or data backup. It’s one thing to have a physical backup of your favorite photos or your company employee information. It’s another thing to have both a physical backup and another digital backup stored somewhere else in the world far from the physical data centers or corporate offices of your company.
By storing your files and data far from home, users can ironically make that data more secure. That data becomes much harder or impossible to steal physically or to misplace.
This backup benefit is also important since it protects companies and users from accidentally erasing key information that can’t be retrieved otherwise. For instance, a blackout may affect an office building and white many of the computers contained within. But if key company information was instead stored in the cloud, that data can easily be retrieved since it was backed up ahead of time – it can be re-downloaded once the power grid is back to normal.
This has an ancillary benefit in that it allows individuals or companies to save storage space on their physical computers or servers. This can be particularly pertinent if you need to store lots of "big" data files, like images or videos, and don’t have the raw storage capacity on your home computer to do the job.
Big Savings for Companies
Cloud computing often results in fantastic savings for companies. Before cloud computing another “as a service” offerings were provided, companies had to purchase, construct and maintain their own IT management technology and digital infrastructure. They had to create their own server farms and computing centers or otherwise rent space on nearby IT computing centers built by other companies.
Naturally, this results in huge bills more often than not, both for the initial cost of construction and for the cost of maintaining the infrastructure physically, plus paying for employees (security, maintenance, management, and so on).
Cloud computing allows companies to cut many of those costs and enjoy fantastic savings across the board. Plus, it results in savings in other ways since it makes employees more flexible as they can retrieve information or access company programs from anywhere in the world instead of being tethered to an office.
Faster Patching for Software
Many developers and users appreciate cloud computing since it allows for faster and more regular software patching or updates. Say that a piece of software was recently discovered to have a critical security concern that could be exploited at any time.
Under a traditional software model, a patch would have to be rolled out and individually downloaded by every computer or user that wanted to close the security breach. But with cloud computing, the software can automatically be updated since the software is hosted from a centralized server location. Then everyone who uses the software in the future will automatically benefit from the security patch.
This is cost-effective and excellent for company/developer reputation. It’s also great for cloud security. Speaking of which…
Better Security in Some Ways
Cloud computing offers excellent security in many ways, though we’ll break down more about this aspect below. Since software is hosted on a centralized server network instead of on-site, security is often a little better for big companies that would be otherwise.
That’s because security can be handled by dedicated IT security teams and the aforementioned software patches can be rolled out a little more effectively and consistently. Furthermore, company information is not as vulnerable to physical theft or manipulation – there aren’t physical servers that can be breached or attacked by malicious or negligent employees on-site.
While cloud servers can still be physically attacked, it’s not as vulnerable as having company information physically stored in the same building.
Disadvantages of Cloud Computing
Although cloud computing has a lot to offer, there are some disadvantages that everyone should be aware of.
Sometimes Security is Still a Concern
Although security can sometimes be better through cloud computing, this type of service also comes with unique risks. For instance, many cloud computing services rely on encryption to protect vital information for consumers and companies. If the encryption key is ever lost through regular human error, this could cause a huge breach for all the users in the network.
Remember, cloud computing is still mostly as effective as the people using it.
Furthermore, cloud computing can also ironically open up users to geographical risks that they would otherwise be insulated from. Say that a company in California hired server space from a cloud computing firm in Texas. If Texas experienced a power outage, the company in California might see their cloud access disappear instantaneously, whereas they’d have been safe if their information was stored on servers on-site.
Mistakes Are Magnified
The big selling point for cloud computing – that everyone can draw from the same collective pool of server resources and storage space – is also something of an Achilles’ heel. That’s because any mistakes made by the cloud server management team or individual users can rapidly expand to affect everyone on the cloud server network.
Say that someone accidentally causes a security breach for a cloud network, giving total access to all the files and programs in all the companies tethered together through shared server resources. Employees from one company could easily access the information of another. This type of simple mistake may end up being much more serious due to the very nature of cloud computing.
Internet Connection Required
Lastly, all cloud computing requires that the user have access to an Internet connection. With traditional computing, and Internet connection isn’t required: all you need is a hardwired connection to the server or storage device holding the data or programs you want to use.
With cloud computing, you won’t field access any of your data or programs unless you can connect to the Internet. In certain areas, where Internet connectivity is spotty or difficult to maintain, this can make cloud computing a no-go for certain homes or companies.
This Internet connectivity also highlights another risk of cloud computing – if the Internet at large ever goes down due to some natural disaster (like a solar flare), then cloud computing will instantaneously go with it. Users’ data will likely still be fine and stored on physical servers, but no one will be able to access the cloud until the Internet is back up and running.
Cloud Computing Security
One of the biggest issues for cloud computing and its future by far is server security. There’s a lot to digest about this particular topic.
Cloud computing security is usually focused on a few key focuses or technologies:
- Lots of cloud computing services use firewalls as their primary security features. These can protect the perimeter of network security and any and users and safeguard traffic between apps that may be stored on the same cloud
- Access controls are also often utilized. This allows cloud services to set access lists for different assets or applications, preventing employees or users from other clients from interacting with one another. Or companies can use these tools to only give employees access to the tools necessary for their jobs, preventing in-company data breaches
- VPNs are sometimes used. Virtual private networks can allow remote employees to connect to corporate or private networks without leaving themselves as vulnerable to hacking
- Disaster recovery and data backups are often offered as standard inclusions for cloud services these days. This involves regularly backing up company or user data so that, in the event of an outage, short-term recovery is possible and the total damages suffered can be minimized
- Data masking is another type of cloud computing security tactic that involves encrypting identifiable information like employee company numbers or names. For example, medical companies can utilize data masking to share data without violating certain HIPAA laws
The good news is that cloud computing security is evolving, and rapidly. Since more and more companies are putting their eggs into the cloud computing basket, it’s of prime concern to find answers for many of the security questions that still remain.
While cloud computing offers unique solutions for data retrieval and backup, these servers are still vulnerable to hacking and management mistakes. Furthermore, cloud computing can potentially be even riskier than regular on-site server use and storage since one cloud network servicing multiple clients could potentially put them all at risk if they are breached in the course of an attack.
Overall, though, cloud computing is generally thought to be a little safer and more secure than “regular” computing due to all the advantages mentioned earlier. Since many data breaches or security problems are caused by employees rather than malicious hackers, taking away the opportunity for those security issues to occur in the first place can go a long way toward showing up a business’ security.
Ultimately, cloud computing is the way of the future since it provides so many fantastic benefits for individual users and big companies alike. Though there are some learning curves to tackle and some security questions to answer, it’s clear that cloud computing is set to evolve digital commerce and the world at large. Hopefully, you now understand more about cloud computing and what it can provide to your endeavors.