What is the cloud?

We’ve all heard of the 'cloud' but for some of us, it’s still kind of a mystery. Learn why the 'cloud' is so important for businesses and individuals alike.

What is cloud computing and how does it work?

You might have some idea of what the cloud is and the services it provides, but here we’ll take a closer look at precisely how it all works and why the cloud has become so important, and so quickly. Chances are, even if you don’t know a thing about cloud computing services, you’ve probably still used them at some point.

'Cloud' is short for 'cloud computing', and it refers to tasks and services that are provided or hosted via the Internet on a pay-as-you-go basis. People have been able to store, operate and manage data via the Internet for some time, but cloud computing describes paid services that do this on a much larger scale.

First of all, it’s important to clarify that the cloud is not all virtual, and while your files may not be saved directly to your computer, they still need to be attached to some piece of hardware, somewhere in the world. When you upload something to the cloud, via a service like Dropbox, the file will be sent via the Internet to a server – a real, tangible server. Cloud service providers will have hundreds and thousands of physical servers, collectively known as 'server farms', that are located in data centres around the world.

So, at its most simplified level, the cloud is a collection of servers and data centres scattered across the globe that we can store data on.

Essentially, it’s a digital storage unit where you can keep all your files; the big difference is that with a storage unit, you have to physically go there to access your stuff, whereas with the cloud, you can access it from any device as long as it has internet connection.

To be clear, 'the cloud' is not one single, tangible entity. It’s a little more abstract. The 'cloud' is essentially a metaphor for the Internet itself. When you store a file the cloud, you’re storing it online. Anybody with the right resources and infrastructure can host their own cloud, but it’s no easy task, and it’s certainly not cheap, so when we talk about using a cloud service, we’re talking about high level services offered by a provider like Dropbox.

To put it into perspective, let’s use electricity as an example. It would cost a whole lot and require a ton of maintenance to keep a private generator in your home. So instead, we have energy providers who essentially operate one big generator that anybody can access, and we all just pay for what we use. In the same sense, it’s far more efficient and cost-effective to allow a cloud service provider to host and store your data, rather than building your own infrastructure.

Other functions outside of cloud storage services

While at its simplest level, the cloud is a digital storage solution, cloud computation can actually be broken down into three different core functions: Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS) and Software as a Service (SaaS) models.

  • Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) refers to cloud providers offering their server space for anything from data storage to web hosting. In this case, you’d still manage and maintain the data, website or application, while the cloud provider simply rents you the computing resources to do so.

    Using Dropbox for file storage is an example of an IaaS. You can access, alter and add data as you please, while Dropbox provides the servers to host it.

    Another example would be Netflix, which uses IaaS models to efficiently manage the enormous piles of data constantly being accessed by customers from across the globe, allowing us to access content quickly, without having to download any files ourselves, and without Netflix needing to construct its own massive data centre to store its endlessly growing catalogue of content.

    Meanwhile, almost every website you visit is hosted through the cloud thanks to IaaS models.

  • Platform as a Service (PaaS) is similar to IaaS, but it gives a little more control to the cloud provider. In the past, developing software and testing it locally was a costly task, in terms of time, money and space. PaaS provides a virtual platform for backend development and testing, providing programmers with a virtual framework that can be used to develop software online, with all of the servers and storage still handled by the provider. So, rather than risk a loss by developing and testing on-premise, PaaS models offer a virtual solution.

  • Software as a Service (SaaS) refers to any software that is run via the cloud. Take Dropbox Paper, for example. With this application, you can create, edit, share and collaborate on text files online, and you don’t need to worry about installation and set up or the application taking up any space on your machine – the cloud provider takes care of all of that. You can simply access the application on-demand and work on files from any device. Another example of SaaS would be an extension like Grammarly, which runs online directly through your web browser.

To put it very simply, IaaS models offer the most control over your resources and cater to admins for hosting and storage, PaaS models offer less control and cater to developers for building, and SaaS models offer the least control and cater to end users for consuming.

What is the hybrid cloud?

To get a little more technical, there are public clouds, private clouds, hybrid clouds and multiclouds.

The public cloud refers to cloud services that anybody can utilise. Dropbox’s services, for example, are all public cloud services. Anybody using Dropbox is renting a share of its server space, so the public cloud can be seen as a shared environment, kind of like a big office but everyone has their own secure desk and cabinet.

The private cloud is very different, as the virtual machine and all of the cloud infrastructure will be dedicated to a sole customer. You’ll still be hosting everything through the Internet, but the server that hosts your data will be yours and only yours. Some may opt to use a private cloud for a bit of added security, while others may need to use the private cloud for performance; because the server your data is hosted on won’t be divided across multiple customers, it can put all of its processing power into your needs.

Private clouds also give the customer complete control over how the server is managed, secured and backed up, unlike public clouds. While most people would be most likely to use the public cloud, the private cloud certainly favours those handling big data, in the petabyte region.

Hybrid clouds make use of both in-house servers and public cloud servers, so you can keep bigger or more private documents in the private cloud, but keep everything else on the public cloud.

A multicloud is when a business makes use of multiple different public clouds, as opposed to using a combination of private and public, like a hybrid. This generally occurs because different cloud service providers will offer different services and one business may need all of them.

The benefits of the cloud for businesses

When it comes to businesses, the benefits of cloud computing go far beyond its role as a simple storage solution. Cloud computing has become an essential driver for the productivity, efficiency, growth and organisation of modern workplaces. Some of the main benefits of cloud computing for businesses are:

  • Costs: Doing everything on-premise can be extremely costly. Maintaining IT systems and equipment on-site is an unnecessary expense with the cloud. As a pay-as-you-go service, cloud computing will significantly reduce the costs of not just hardware, but staffing and energy consumption too. Plus, less time spent handling IT issues means more time focused on your goals.
  • Disaster recovery: Backing up all your important files and data to the cloud provides a crucial bit of extra protection. You’d be taking a big risk to keep everything stored in just one place – anything from a natural disaster to sudden power outages to a malware attack could leave you empty handed at any given moment. As such, the cloud provides a hugely important service by backing up your data on multiple servers in multiple locations.
  • Data protection and security: Similarly, and despite what some may believe, cloud computing services provide excellent cloud security for your private data. You may assume it’s safer to keep everything where you can see it, but you can think of the cloud as a bank vault. Cloud service providers will prioritise the safety and protection of your data, which will all be encrypted, and in most cases, you will be able to set your own cloud security settings. Just like a bank vault is designed to be the most secure way to store valuables, the cloud is designed to be the most secure way to store data.
  • Scalability: Cloud computing offers businesses a bit of extra flexibility to grow, or in some cases, shrink. The bigger your business, the more space, time and money required to operate it, and being able to use the cloud as and when needed provides a virtual environment to facilitate this growth. On the other hand, if the business does decline, you know that you won’t be paying for equipment or resources that you no longer need, as with cloud computing services, you only pay for what you use.
  • Flexibility: With everything stored and operated via the cloud, you’ve got the flexibility to work from absolutely anywhere in the world. As the traditional concept of the workplace continues to rapidly evolve, cloud computing plays a fundamental role in allowing companies to function virtually. Cloud computing also facilitates the ability to access and work on files and data from mobile devices, which is increasingly important.
  • Collaboration: In the same sense, being able to not only save your files on the cloud, but also create and edit them on the cloud encourages more efficient collaboration. With cloud computing, you can have a team of ten all working from different locations on the same document, making organisation and resource management within a team simpler than ever.

Advantages of cloud computing for personal use

Outside of the office, there are plenty of ways you can benefit from utilising cloud solutions at home. The clearest advantage is of course the space you’ll save. If you don’t currently make use of cloud storage, then most of your files are probably saved on your computer or smartphone. If you run out of space on that device, you might opt for an external hard drive, and if that gets filled up, you’ll get a second external hard drive, and so on. Suddenly, it becomes a whole lot trickier to find that old document you urgently need.

Having all your files saved in one virtual place, that doesn’t actually take up any of your personal space, will help you keep everything organised and under control, while saving you money on buying hardware. It’ll also help improve the performance of your device as you migrate a bulk of your files to the cloud.

Meanwhile, user-friendly, cloud-based software like Dropbox Paper – as opposed to using applications that require download and installation – will also save you a lot of space and help keep everything in order. Much of this software can be used as mobile apps or web applications, so using cloud-based software means you can work and create from any device – from anywhere.

Sharing with loved ones becomes a whole lot easier, too, so you can, for example, set up a collaborative photo album that anyone in your family can access.

The benefits of cloud computing are evident whether you’re using it at home or at work; the cloud can increase productivity, improve organisation, enhance collaboration and reduce costs – while keeping your data secure and protected.

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