As posted on WTF is cloud computing?

After more than a decade of being in the popular tech lexicon, people kind of get the idea of “the cloud,” but most probably only understand a bit of it. That’s because the cloud isn’t a single concrete thing so much as a concept that encompasses many technologies. Understanding those pieces and how they intertwine is the secret to fully grasping the ideas behind it.

At its most basic, the cloud is simply about taking all of the tech you used to have on your computer or, if you are a big corporation, in your data center, and letting someone else take care of it for you. The easiest way to understand this is to think of renting these resources (servers, hard drives, networking gear) from companies like Dropbox, Google, Amazon and Microsoft that maintain them in their own data centers, instead of owning them. In a way, this is akin to renting an apartment instead of owning your own home. In this case, however, you are renting computer resources instead of a roof over your head — and just like with the apartment you’re renting, your landlord is in charge of taking care of maintenance.

So instead of having to worry about dealing with all of the hardware and software that runs on it, you can just live your life, do your job and run your business.

Software at your service

Before smartphones, tablets, laptops and the cloud, we had a big beige box under our desks (or lots of them sitting in a data center). We bought software and installed it onto the hard drive, and often lived with the old version for years because upgrading was expensive, time-consuming and could cause compatibility issues. The cloud changed all that.


Photo: Ron Miller

Software as a Service — or SaaS — is the official name for software you access in the cloud. Salesforce. com (which launched in January, 1999) is perhaps the best-known example of this type of software because it came first. Just about every piece of software you touch these days has a cloud version. Pure cloud companies include Zendesk, Box, Slack, Docusign, AppDynamics (which was acquired by Cisco last week) — and the list goes on and on. For consumers, cloud service examples include Gmail (and indeed Google Calendar, Drive, etc), Dropbox, Spotify and Apple iCloud (which backs up all of your Apple devices to the cloud automatically.

The beauty of software as a service, whether for the consumer or business, is that you never have to manually update it because the cloud vendor is managing all of that for you. And instead of waiting years for the next update, the cloud company updates it on a regular (sometimes daily) basis for you automatically.

What’s more, instead of paying for an expensive, one-version license, you buy a subscription — a monthly or yearly fee (or it’s free in some cases). The seller deals with all of the maintenance and upkeep for you. It’s available anywhere, anytime, from any computer or device — always with the latest version.

That does compute

Suppose you do just want to rent software but want to write and run your own programs in the cloud? In fact, many businesses, especially startups want to do just that, but they need computer/CPU power, storage and memory — the guts of that old beige box — to run that software. That’s where Infrastructure as a Service or IaaS comes in. It enables you to dial up as much computer power as you need, only pay for what you use, and shut it off when you’re done using it.

On an individual level, that infrastructure could be as basic as using Dropbox to store your files. In this case, Dropbox is acting as an online hard drive. When files are stored in the cloud, you can access them from any device, as opposed to back in the day, when you needed to email yourself files or use a USB drive to move your files around. Now your files are always available from any computer, phone or tablet because the storage is online, not on your device.

Perhaps the best-known vendor for business in this space and the first to market the idea of cloud infrastructure for the masses is Amazon Web Services. Today, Google, Microsoft, IBM and many others have joined the fray in a fiercely competitive market, where AWS dominates, at least for now.

Before the cloud, if a business needed to gear up for a big usage surge such as Black Friday, and knew it was going to require more servers than the company owned, they were limited by these resources. There was no way IT was investing in new servers for a short-term need, then boxing them up and putting them into storage until the next time. The cloud lets you buy as many computer resources as you require and shut them down when you’re done.

That allows companies to take a much more flexible approach to their compute requirements. This should help for those short-term needs, but also drive experimentation and innovation, something every company is looking to do. If you needed to go through a formal procurement process every time you wanted to try something, chances are it wouldn’t happen. IaaS gives you the freedom to experiment without incurring a significant cost.

What’s more, having infrastructure available as a cloud service gives startups the ability to launch a a new business without having to make an enormous investment in hardware and building a data center to make it happen. That has enabled many of today’s startups to get off the ground.