What is the Cloud?

If you’ve spoken to another human being in a technologically advanced part of the world (and, let’s be honest, most parts are at this stage) about any kind of business, you have likely heard the phrase “We’re moving everything to the cloud” or a variant thereof.

Given that the weather has become less cloudy in the past decades, if anything, the fact that the search for the word “cloud” has steadily increased over the last 20 years tells us that the term probably does not refer to accumulated humidity in the sky.

So – what is the cloud everyone speaks about? 

The use of the word “cloud” usually refers to what’s commonly called cloud computing, which in term means on-demand computer system resources, usually accessible over the internet.

A short history lesson

Historically, computing power has been a local resource. From the first computer, which weighed an impressive 28 tons and cost today’s equivalent of over $10 million, to more recent models which provided large capacity in a smaller rack or even regular case, computing power was an on-site amenity for the better part of 4 decades. Even the hugely popular NAS’s, which stands for Network Attached Storage, were only connected to local networks to start out with, making them accessible for other computers on the premises but not to anyone outside that network.

A typical 6-harddrive NAS device

However great they were, any solution for local storage or computing power had inherent issues. Reliability and redundancy were hard to achieve while staying cost-efficient, and there were no economies of scale that could be tapped into.

Enter Cloud Computing – or on-demand computing, as that is what a cloud essentially provides: Computing power of any kind on-demand. When needed, where needed, in the quantity needed.

Building blocks of the cloud

Now, while cloud storage systems such as Dropbox and Box.com might come to mind first, virtually all aspects of computing can be run in a cloud. Fundamentally, cloud services can be defined in 3 areas:

Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IAAS): These are the basic building blocks of a computing system, such as the above mentioned storage, physical or virtual servers, and networks.

Platform-as-a-Service (PAAS): The layer above IAAS is the platforms, the systems that run on the infrastructure such as database management, operating systems and development tools.

Software-as-a-Service (SAAS): This is the layer most people have come in touch with – most apps used on a phones are SAAS based. Usually paid per user/seat, SAAS only provides the specifically required tool for a certain task, such as e-mail or instant communications.

What are advantages of cloud services? 

Given the enormous popularity of cloud services, it’s no surprise the list of advantages is significant:

  • Reliability and redundancy: Cloud service providers usually operate with strict uptime and redundancy regulations, ensuring availability of services.
  • Cost efficiency: You only pay for what you actually use.
  • Scalability: Whether your needs grow by 20% or 2000% – most cloud services will be able to accommodate (and in fact expect) increasing needs.
  • Less upfront cost: No need to buy expensive equipment upfront (CapEx), usually paid for on a monthly basis (OpEx)
  • Build-in upgrades: No need to upgrade hardware or update software (except the client end), it’s all done by the provider

Are there disadvantages to cloud services? 

However, there are some things to consider when moving to the cloud:

  • Less privacy: While many providers go the extra mile to provide privacy, you’re still hosting your data or sharing your services with a remote party unknown to you. Especially in a public cloud, that might not always be an ideal setting, particularly for sensitive information regarding your business.
  • You’re at the mercy of the provider: Although unlikely, if the provider of whatever service you’re using decides to shut down or even suffers a major outage, there’s nothing you can really do about it. Given how much damage an outage can cause, that’s something to keep in mind.
  • Security risks: Although usually designed with security in mind, a cloud service provider potentially hosting thousands of clients is a lucrative target for any kind of cyber attack. That’s a trillion-dollar-problem.
  • High data/bandwidth requirements: Opposed to a local solution, where all you use is local network bandwidth, any cloud service requires an internet connection. Especially large files can quickly add up to a lot of data and/or eat up all the bandwidth.

What’s the verdict?

In 2020, it’s safe to say that it’s virtually impossible to run a modern business without using at least some sort of cloud service, and the market is growing rapidly. Cloud-based services provide high-quality, scalable solutions with a low barrier to entry, at a fraction of the upfront cost which used to be normal. Make sure you know your requirements, then go and find a reliable provider of the service you need. Make sure you have or get a decent internet connection with unlimited data. And who knows – you might even get loyalty points for any monthly spend you incur…

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