What the Heck is the Cloud Anyway?

Why Understanding the Cloud Matters

You may have seen headlines in the past few months announcing that 51% of Americans believe stormy weather will interfere with “the Cloud.” A study of more than 1,000 Americans conducted in 2012 by Wakefield research, and commissioned by Citrix, showed that for the most part people are still very confused by the Cloud, even though they’re using it.

According to the study, “Nearly 33% see the Cloud as a thing of the future, yet 97 percent are actually using Cloud services today via online shopping, banking, social networking and file sharing."

22% of respondents admitted to pretending to know what the Cloud is when asked. Only 16% said they think of a “computer network to store, access and share data from internet-connected devices.”

So, since most of us using it, we should probably understand what it is.

Defining the Cloud

While it’s nice to imagine the Cloud as a magical space floating above us, storing critical information in a downy, cumulous state…that is sadly not the case.

Instead, the information stored in the cloud is actually hosted on servers in enormous, highly secure data centers right here on earth.

We can define the Cloud many different ways, but at its simplest, it's just a euphemism for the Internet. It really isn’t any more complex than that.

Plenty of services advertise themselves as "Cloud based.” This could mean a few things:

  1. A computer that is not yours is driving your interactions with the service.
  2. Your data is held on a computer that is not yours.
  3. It could be both.
So in the loosest definition of the Cloud, basically everything you do on the Internet could be "in the Cloud."

When you use a more strict definition, you see a handful of big-name providers like Microsoft Azure, Amazon Cloud, and Google Cloud. These providers have massive data centers that are essentially glorified hosting services with some extra perks.

The scope of services these big providers offer is flexible, because essentially you pay for the opportunity to rent out someone else’s computer.


Why Would You Use the Cloud?

So why pay to use a computer lurking somewhere unknown in the bowels of a data center instead of your own?

Let’s say you want to host a web application and you'll lose money if it is unavailable. If you lose power, your site will likely go down. If your site gets slashdotted, your server could choke. If you don’t keep on top of updates, your server can quickly become vulnerable to the latest attacks.

The Cloud isn’t invincible to these and other threats, but there are a few comforts that come when you’re not the one responsible for dealing with these issues as they arise.

That sounds a lot like regular hosting. What is different about hosting a site on a big-name Cloud provider? 

The Cloud has the potential to provide endless flexibility. Using the Cloud, you can:

  • Build a fully functional network of virtual machines from the ground up.
  • Host a web application.
  • Increase the amount of resources dedicated to your machine or site to better serve your content if your site gets super popular.
  • Pay only for the CPU-time you consume and automatically boost power during high demand (a benefit if you have sporadic demand for your application).
  • Migrate things to another location to improve performance on the other side of the world.

So, the Cloud offers a way to avoid large initial capital costs, peace of mind from having to maintain and manage details that you don’t want or need, and the flexibility to expand as required.

It's easy to jump to the conclusion that everything should be in the Cloud, but it is certainly possible to find cases in which the Cloud is not the answer. For example, if you have an internal application with highly sensitive data or need incredibly fast response time (say something related to medicine like real-time vitals) then hosting on-site might be the best choice.

And even giants like Amazon and Google are not infallible. Amazon Cloud has failed more than once, bringing down highly trafficked sites like Instagram, Vine, Reddit, and AirBnB. Google faced three outages in one week. These kind of failures illustrate that even though today it seems like everyone is talking about the Cloud, it's not a perfect system. Some of the biggest names can have outages that bring down huge companies. 

Ultimately, the Cloud is another concept in the ever-evolving mix of technologies.

As with all technologies, there are numerous costs and benefits. Only when you understand and weigh all the factors can you make an informed decision about what actually makes sense in any particular case. 

Photo Credit: Tim Bates


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