What is Cloud?

By Matt Tank

This is about Cloud Technology. To learn about the meteorological version, see the article “What are Clouds?”, coming soon*
(*not coming soon)

How does it work?

A simple definition of Cloud Technology is hard to pin down. In general terms, it refers to a system that is more or less amorphous, where, unlike traditional systems, you don’t need to understand the individual components it’s made of. Kind of like the difference between having “12 ice cubes”, or having “water”. Cloud technologies are suited to delivering services over the Internet, but there are also cloud solutions that can be deployed in-house.

There are 3 major types of cloud service, each having their advantages and disadvantages:

Software as a Service (SaaS) – The most recognisable type of cloud service, you are provided with fully-formed software, and need no knowledge of the technical components underneath. GMail and Dropbox are examples of consumer-focused SaaS solutions.

Platform as a Service (PaaS) – Consists of cloud-based tools that allow you to build your own software. There’s not too many well-publicised examples of this, but you may have heard of Akamai, whose content delivery platform has been used to provide many services, such as Microsoft’s Windows Update. PaaS services usually require some expertise to actually build your solution on top of them.

Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) – This is how traditional IT systems (such as computers and servers) can be moved to the cloud. It involves taking a device such as a computer, making virtual replicas of its hardware (in a similar way you can take a DVD and turn it into an ISO disc image), then moving the virtualised device onto a cloud platform. This is often used as a first step when companies move services to the cloud, but doesn’t take full advantage of cloud features.

You may hear other “?aaS” acronyms thrown around, but for the most part, they are simply a variation or specialisation of one of the above.

Why Cloud?

There are still some circumstances where it is better to buy your own IT equipment. However, there are a number of advantages that cloud solutions have over traditional IT:

  • Lower up-front cost – Cloud technologies are usually subscription-based. Even for a small business, IT equipment can cost tens of thousands of dollars. For cloud, you pay as you’re using it.
  • Lower administration costs – Because you don’t need to manage your own hardware, supporting cloud solutions requires less technical skill. Especially in the case of SaaS, there is very little technical knowledge required, so long as you’re happy with the constraints this type of solution entails (usually a trade-off between simplicity and power/control).
  • Scalability – Cloud solutions use pooled resources behind the scenes, so they support rapidly changing needs. You can easily add or remove users, or increase performance during peak times. Sometimes this can even be taken care of automatically.
  • Connectivity – Because these services are delivered over the Internet, they can be accessed worldwide, without specialist firewalls or other technology, making them ideal for a mobile workforce.
  • Speed of deployment – Using cloud solutions, you can easily spin up a new instance. This means that you can try new things with less effort. For example, It is possible to set up a new Windows 10 (virtual) computer in an IaaS instance in about 5 minutes.
  • Resiliency – Some of the most important features in IT systems, such as Security, Backups and Redundancy, are among the hardest and most expensive to set up properly. Particularly when using large cloud solution providers, these features are built into the system, and supported by their technical experts. With 1000s of customers, economy of scale means that the cost to you is minimal, and you can be sure your data is safe.
  • Awesomeness – Many interesting technologies require access to aggregated data, something that is really only practical if the solution is cloud-based. Think facial recognition, Artificial Intelligence, and other cutting-edge concepts.

And now a word from your sponsors…

Consulting firms, like the one I work for, sell hardware, software and IT services. For clients, cloud services simplify IT, but for us, this simplification can eat into our business. We can no longer be content to sell equipment and set it up, then move on, because that kind of service doesn’t fit the cloud model.

There is still value to be found in engaging with an IT services firm such as DWS, however. With cloud solutions, our focus is on strategic partnership. This process begins by looking at your business and determining what you need, which drives selection of cloud service providers and services. We then work with you to commission the services, customise them if required, and make them all work together. The rapid update cycle of these platforms means that regular re-evaluation is recommended to make sure you can take advantage of new features. Particularly for larger organisations, cloud solution design can still be a technically challenging process, requiring thorough planning and attention to detail.

If you’re responsible for IT at your company, or you run a business, and any of this interests you, feel free to drop me a line.

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