What the Heck is “The Cloud”

We get this question a lot. Though most people don’t say “heck”.

When trying to answer it, we realized that this is a deceptive question. Simple answers don’t actually give you enough information to gain even the basic knowledge you need to understand the concept, and more advanced answers require an understanding of complex network functions. Since we want to explain it in a way that everyone can understand, we’re going to break “The Cloud” down to discuss both what it means and how it works, and then a little about the kinds of cloud services available.

Seriously, What Is It?

The simple answer – it’s a computer that belongs to someone else that is accessed over the internet and designed to securely store software and information.

As we mentioned, the simple answer doesn’t really give you enough information, but it’s a good place to start. One of the few things that people don’t realize is that when we’re talking about “The Cloud”, we are talking about a physical computer. The cloud is not some ephemeral digital place, it’s one or more powerful computers or servers that are housed in a data center somewhere in the world. They provide individuals and companies with the ability to securely store data and/or run programs without having to manage the hardware themselves. In addition, the files and applications can be run from a variety of devices and locations, allowing more flexibility in use and collaboration.

Still seem a little daunting? Think about this, Facebook is a cloud based program, in fact, all social media is cloud based. At their core, they are programs that exist on a computer belonging to someone else to which you login to share pictures and stories and to argue with strangers.

Personal email? Almost certainly cloud based. Does your Doctor have a portal that allows you to log in to view your medical records, schedule appointments, etc. Probably cloud based. Amazon? Yep, cloud based. Netflix? You guessed it, cloud based. If you use the internet, you are doing cloud computing.

If you’re wondering why it’s called “The Cloud”, it started off as a slang term. A lot of the early technical infrastructure diagrams were of self-contained networks with multiple workstation computers connected to one or more servers. When you look at a group of these segregated networks, it’s easy to imagine them as individual clouds. That became kind of a short-hand way of describing where specific processes were taking place. The term has evolved since then, but the base concept is still the same.

How Does It Work?

So, now we have a better understanding of what “The Cloud” means, but that doesn’t really fill in all the details. Knowing that it is a remote computer that runs programs and stores information is great and all, but understanding “The Cloud” requires a basic knowledge of how it works.

The entire concept of “The Cloud” is made possible because of virtualization – a technology that allows a remote computer to appear and behave like a physical computer.

What this means is that when you are running programs or accessing data stored on cloud computers, it all behaves as if it were on your local computer. In truth though, the cloud computer and local computer are not interacting at all. Nothing is being installed or saved on your computer. Aside from the flexibility and collaboration advantages we discussed earlier, this virtualization tends to be more cost effective than running and maintaining a server, and because they are designed with redundancies even if an individual server goes down, cloud vendors typically have hardware in multiple regions.

Cloud services are always online, connected over the internet and accessed through a web browser or an app, allowing for an unprecedented amount of working flexibility.

Different Kinds of Cloud

With this type of technology it should be no surprise that there are a variety of ways that it can be deployed. The different models and types vary depending on customer needs and capabilities.

Software-as-a-Service (SaaS)
Rather than installing software on individual devices, SaaS applications run on cloud servers allowing the users to access programs over the internet. Having this type of service is like renting instead of owning, the landlord takes care of maintenance while the tenants use it.

Platform as a Service (PaaS)
With this model, companies pay for the operating systems, development tools, and infrastructure needed to build their own applications over the internet. This type of service allows for easy collaborating and is like renting the tools needed to build a house rather than renting a house.

Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)
Growing popular among small businesses, in this model both the servers to run programs and space needed to store data is rented from the cloud provider. Companies are able to build or provide their own software to run their business. It’s sort of like renting a plot of land and putting up your own structure.

Function as a Service (FaaS)
A new model of cloud computing, FaaS is also referred to as sever-less computing. In it, specific cloud applications are run only as needed, with the capability to scale up or down on demand. Technically, it all still runs on servers, just not on dedicated machines, allowing the cloud companies to manage their resources based on their customers needs. It’s like renting a room, and then renting a dining room or living room only when having guests over.

Private Cloud
This type of cloud service is a single server, data center, or network that is dedicated to one organization. Much more common in enterprise or corporate environments, these are scaled up or down as needed, hosting services and data.

Public Cloud
By far the most common type of cloud service, this is run by a vendor and can include servers in multiple data centers across various regions. Shared by multiple individuals or organizations, they do everything from handling personal storage and backups to running a variety of hosted programs.

Hybrid Cloud
As the name implies, this is a combination of public and private cloud services. Organizations opting for this type of service typically have an internal private cloud and external public cloud, often utilizing portals to provide customers or clients with personal information.

Most common in the arena of social media, this type of cloud service utilizes multiple public clouds to cover service from several external vendors across a wide number of regions.