What is cloud computing and why are cloud services important?
No doubt you’ve heard the term cloud computing or cloud services everywhere in technology news and wondered what it was, and what it means, big picture.
First some history: The term itself stems from a software application that network engineers use to visually map the logical flow of network information. Visio from Microsoft has been the defacto standard in computer network mind mapping since before “mind mapping” was a thing.
Now, think of the cloud, as the internet. What the internet is in essence is millions of disparate connections that form an invisible or phantom network.
Here is where it gets awesome: That cloud has enveloped and absorbed your network (maybe not yours yet, but soon), and you no longer need your own server(s) or even computers in some cases.
The server that used to sit in the back closet in your office is almost obsolete. You dont need to listen to the whirr of those fans anymore. For almost every application that used to sit on your server, there is a new breed of hosted applications that replace the functions your server used to provide, and they do it more securely, more efficiently and, most important, with more redundancy (safety) than you could ever hope to achieve with your own network server.
In the above scenario, your applications are now accessible from any location with any internet connected device. The uninformed sometimes argue that this makes their critical data less secure, but in fact the opposite is true. No matter how secure you think your in-house network is, if it is targeted by a talented hacker, they will breach your defences. If your data is in the cloud, there are corporate grade firewalls and multiple layers of security protecting it 24/7.
One concern people bring up is that of connectivity i.e. what if my internet connection goes down? Am I out of business until it is fixed? I usually counter with: you spend thousands per year on backup tapes for your server, use a fraction of that expense for a redundant internet connection instead! Even the most basic failover net connection will double your level of redundancy (safety in backing up your data).
Another objection is “I like knowing where my data is. I like to know that it is sitting inside a box on my property.” Oh? Can you touch the 1′s and 0′s that represent your data? This one requires a bit more abstraction in your thought processes. The transition from a paper based business model where you licked stamps to send one another information to the digital where you now have icons that represent your data files and folders that contain docs, pics, music, etc, required significant effort to effect. You went from things that you could touch to objects that you could relate and conceptualize as being representative of the things they used to be in the old model (a word document represents writing paper, etc).. However they are nothing like what they used to be, they are flowing binary information. Your word doc is no more “inside” your computer than an actual filing cabinet is. All the cloud does is relocate the flow of some on or off electrons from point A to point B.
OK, so what can I do with the cloud? Well chances are you’ve been using it for years without even knowing it. Have a Gmail account? Or Hotmail? Or Yahoo? This will likely be your first exposure to cloud computing. Ten years ago, you had a program on your computer (probably Outlook), that would receive your email from a server out in the cloud. Now, the gmail web interface has replaced Outlook as the “application” used to view your email. Gmail exists nowhere on your computer, and yet you trust it to always be there with your mail.
Lets evolve this concept to the next level: Google docs. Just like with Gmail, they are replacements for Word, Excel and Powerpoint and exist nowhere on your computer. You see an interface through your web browser, but it is transient. As soon as you close your browser, that program is deconstructed only to be reconstructed later when you go there again with your browser. OK, with that in mind, the next logical step will be to move more traditional applications to the cloud.
A big component of what a server used to do was share files between users on your network. There are now file synchronization services from companies like Dropbox or Sugarsync that provide exactly these functions today. Or you can move your group collaboration software (shared contacts, calendars etc) to the cloud with Microsoft Office 365. You no longer need an exchange server. Do you use custom database software? Look at podio.com or Sharepoint online.
Chances are that there exists a cloud alternative for any program that used to run on your server in its silo. There are even virtual servers, which are the soltuion if there is simply no alterative to running your particular software on a traditional server. With a virtual server, you create a server in the cloud to take advantage of the added reliability and capital cost savings. Think of this like digitizing the whole server and relocating it “out there” in the cloud. Still secure, still available, just not touchable.