What is the cloud?

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

What is cloud computing, and how does it work?

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 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 does this on a much larger scale.

First off, it’s important to clarify that the cloud still requires physical components. While you may not save your files 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 is 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,” located in data centers around the world.

So, at its most simplified level, the cloud is a collection of servers and data centers scattered across the globe that store data. Essentially, it’s a digital storage unit where you can keep all your files. With the cloud, you can access your data from any device so long as it has an internet connection.

When you save a file to 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.

Let’s use electricity as an example. It’d cost a whole lot and require a ton of maintenance to keep a private generator in your home. Instead, we have energy providers who essentially operate one big generator that anybody can access, and we all 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

At its simplest level, the cloud is a digital storage solution, but there are many more services based on the cloud. You can break cloud computation 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 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. 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, giving programmers a virtual framework to develop software online, with all the servers and storage still handled by the provider. So, rather than risk a loss by developing and testing on-premises, PaaS models offer a virtual solution for devops.
  • Software as a Service (SaaS) refers to any software that runs via the cloud. Take Hellosign, for example. With this cloud application, you can sign legally binding documents online instead of using pen and paper. You can access the application on-demand from any device. Another example of SaaS would be a web application 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 provide less control and cater to developers for building. SaaS models offer the least control and cater to everyday users.

What are the different types of clouds?

There are four basic cloud environments that can comprise any IT infrastructure.

The public cloud refers to cloud services that anybody can utilize. Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud & Google Drive, iCloud, and Dropbox are all public cloud services. Anybody using Dropbox is renting a share of its server space. The public cloud is a shared environment, similar to a big office but every end-user has their own secure desk and cabinet. This secure dedicated space is also called a virtual machine. Virtualization allows for each end-user to have their own virtual machine in a separate secure space on the same physical server. Beyond virtual machines and there can be virtual servers. Virtualization thus makes the best use of the physical hardware in a server. This efficiency is why cloud services can be used on-demand by anyone at a low cost. 

The private cloud is very different, as the virtual machine and all cloud infrastructure are 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.

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

Multicloud is when a business uses multiple public cloud platforms, as opposed to using a combination of private and public like a hybrid. Multicloud solutions generally occur because various cloud service providers will offer different functionality, and one business may need all of them.

How do businesses use the cloud?

When it comes to businesses, cloud computing benefits go far beyond its role as a simple storage solution. Cloud computing has become an essential driver for the productivity, efficiency, growth, and organization of modern workplaces. Here are some of the ways business benefit from using cloud computing:

  • Cost savings: Doing everything on-premises 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 hardware, staffing, and energy consumption costs. 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 significant risk to keep everything stored in only 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.
  • Protect and secure data: 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 like a bank vault. Cloud service providers will prioritize the safety and protection of your data, which will all be encrypted. 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 even shrink in some cases. The bigger your business, the more space, time, and money required to operate it. Being able to use the cloud as 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. 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 workplace concept continues to evolve, cloud computing plays a fundamental role in allowing companies to function virtually. Cloud computing also facilitates connectivity, giving access to files and data from mobile devices.
  • Collaboration: In the same sense, being able to not only save your files, 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. This makes organization 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 utilizing cloud solutions at home. The clearest advantage is, of course, the space you’ll save. If you don’t currently use 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 take up any of your personal space, will help you keep everything organized and under control, while saving you money on buying hardware. It’ll also help improve your operating system's computing power as you migrate a bulk of your files to the cloud.

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

That’s why Dropbox is building the world's first smart workspace. By connecting all the content and tools you use, everything is easily accessible. No more switching between platforms, apps, and content types—a smart workspace lets you use them in one place. 

The benefits of cloud computing are evident whether you’re using it at home or work. The cloud increases productivity, improves organization, enhances collaboration, and reduces costs—while keeping your data secure and protected.

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