May We Introduce You to Cloud Computing

To those unfamiliar with the tech world, the idea of the cloud or cloud computing is truly mind boggling. In reality there isn’t anything particularly spectacular about the cloud, and in this addition to the Zircon blog we will try and bring the concept out of the homoshpere and a bit closer to earth.

So What is Cloud Computing?

In the simplest of terms, cloud computing is the delivery of computing services over the internet, typically on a pay for use basis. These services include access to servers, storage, databases, networking, software, analytics and intelligence. Of course the cloud doesn’t just exist, rather it is a large collection of connected hardware that works together to provide the online services that the consumer then gets to see. Unlike your laptop or PC sat at home, you don’t physically touch this hardware but control it remotely via a web interface. [1] [2]

Adding a Little Bit of History

Whilst it may seem like a modern idea, the concept of “modern” cloud computing actually dates back to the 1950’s. At this time large scale mainframes were made available to both schools and organisations, with whole rooms being dedicated to the rather large hardware infrastructure required. Users were able to gain access to this mainframe via stations where the sole function was to facilitate this transaction. The sheer cost of this buying and then maintaining this technology encouraged organisations to allow multiple users to share access to the same data storage from any data station. Of course thanks to changing technologies and the introduction of the internet, this process of data storage and access has evolved many times to become the cloud we know and recognise today. [3]

[photo courtesy of IBM]

Is There Really a Benefit to Cloud Computing?

With all the hype that surrounds cloud computing and related topics such as the Internet of Things, it is easy to get swept along with the tide of growing popularity without really knowing about the real and tangible pros and cons of this technology.

Perhaps the biggest draw of cloud is its scalability. Previously the need for infrastructure presented a major issue for many organisations. The intensive time and cost demands of initial set up made rapid expansion almost impossible in many cases. On top of this, organisations then ran the risk of dealing with the cost of maintaining unused equipment, should demand suddenly decrease. As cloud computing removes this requirement, scaling up and down to meet temporary spikes in demand or altering capacity to manage permanent changes in workload is a piece of cake. [4]

Cost is always a big factor in any kind of discussion, and compared to more traditional processes cloud is often much more cost effective. Working remotely over the internet cloud computing removes the need for costly hardware and software, and as a result the costs that come associated with them i.e. the running of on-site data centers, constant demand for electricity and ‘IT experts’ for management. Additionally as mentioned above, a lot of cloud services run on a pay-as-you-use basis, meaning there is a decreased chance for wasteful expenditure.

In terms of performance and security you can find yourself presented with a double edged sword. On the one hand many of the largest cloud computing services run on worldwide networks of data centers, where upgrades to the fastest and most efficient hardware and checks to security are made regularly. However on the other hand, even the best of providers can run into technical issues and there is a dependency on suitable connections to the internet in order to access the server. You also need to consider that you will be surrendering sensitive company information to a third-party and when it comes to the internet there can be no security guarantee, meaning no cloud service provider can safely offer 100% security. [5]

One final benefit to utilising cloud computing is its ability to improve reliability. Tasks such as data backup, disaster recovery and business continuity are made so much easier in the cloud, as data can quickly be mirrored across multiple sites on a providers network. [6]

In an era where data has become central to most technological advancement and interconnectivity has seemingly become a long term goal, the elasticity and efficiency of the cloud is certainly proving to be a benefit. Of course like most things the cloud has its downsides, however with companies such as IBM making predictions that 75% of non-cloud applications expected to join the cloud within the next three years, it seems that these downsides are inconsequential.

Which Service is Right for You?

Occasionally referred to as the cloud computing stack, as a direct result of how they build on top of on another, it is possible to define cloud computing services according to three key service areas; Infrastructure as a Service, Platform as a Service and Software as a Service.

  • Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) – this is cloud computing in its most bare bones form. As the name suggests with IaaS you are just paying for access to IT infrastructure i.e. servers, virtual machines, storage or networks, from a provider. Of all the services, IaaS allows for the most flexibility in terms of what can be achieved and allows for scalability without the need to invest in your own hardware, however you will be expected to set up the space to suit you from the ground up with very little pre-existing framework.
  • Platform as a Service (PaaS) – as the next rung up from IaaS, and favoured by cloud developers, Platform as a Service provides an environment capable of supporting the complete development lifecycle of web-based applications. By adding in more of a structure you loose some of the flexibility available with IaaS, but in return you remove the complexity of setting up and managing the underlying hardware, software, networks and databases needed for the development.
  • Software as a Service (SaaS) – by far the most rigid of all the cloud computing services, Software as a Service as you may have been able to gather already is the provision of a fully functional software application that can be accessed over the internet. All SaaS applications are accessible from any connected computer, and with data being stored in the cloud you reduce the risk of data loss. However you are often limited to the functionality of the software provided, and offered very little opportunity to alter the set up to create a perfect match to your needs.
Cloud Computing Stack

As you may have gathered from this article there is far more to the cloud than just being a dumping space for all the pictures off of your phone. For those who are considering the migration into the cloud it is worth taking the time to really weigh up the pros and cons, and how they could impact your organisation. There is also notable merit in gaining a crystal clear understanding of the three key cloud service areas, as selecting the right type for your organisations needs will help achieve a balance and allow you to avoid unnecessary ‘heavy lifting’.