What is the Cloud?
The concept of cloud computing is growing quickly, but many that are not directly involved with technology on a day to day basis may still be wondering what this ‘cloud’ thing is. The simplest answer to this question is: “Other people’s computers”, but it’s so much more than that. Here are some examples of cloud computing.
A very simple example of using the cloud is the way in which many of us manage all of the photos on an iPhone. We take so many pictures and we don’t want to lose any of them. ( Where is that photo of me next to the Elvis impersonator? ) To protect against this catastrophe you might get an Apple iCloud subscription to store and backup your photos. Now when you lose, submerge, destroy or upgrade your phone, the photos are safe from harm.
Another simple way to use the cloud is a subscription to an application such as an office tool like Office 365. The user pays a monthly subscription fee and has access to the software for the agreed upon time period. This is commonly referred to as Software As A Service or SaaS. In most cases the user may never need to install the software on their own computer. They can conveniently login to a website to use the application that is completely maintained by the software vendor.
A common small business example is the website. Almost every business has a website but very few small businesses want to deal with a computer to host it on or the additional IT nerds in the office to maintain it. The solution to this problem is to use a web hosting service (think GoDaddy) and effectively outsource the maintenance of a web server. Now the small business can just focus on the messaging and content for the website instead of the complicated technical details. This type of cloud implementation is known as Platform As a Service or PaaS. The vendor (like Godaddy) maintains some tools for serving web pages and the user subscribes to this platform and just uploads the files necessary for the website. No need to know the ugly details of the web server.
A more sophisticated example of computing in the cloud is when a company has all of their servers, networking infrastructure, databases and file storage managed within the cloud. In the old days a company would have a server room with special air conditioning, raised floors, and backup power units with rows of computers with lots of cool blinky lights. Or a small business with fewer resources might have the server in their basement or behind the couch at their house. Yikes! With the maturity of modern cloud computing platforms a small business or even a single entrepreneur can provision and start a server ( or lots of servers) with a few mouse clicks in the cloud vendors web portal. No need for a dedicated server room, or even the servers in your location. You don’t get the cool blinky lights but the advantages (see the next section) more than make up for this. This type of solution is known as Infrastructure As A Service or IaaS. The subscriber can configure the infrastructure to suit their needs but there is no hassle of having the hardware in the office(or in a basement, or behind the couch). You probably need some of those pesky IT nerds in your office to help with this setup, but not too many.
Why use the cloud?
Let’s now take a look at the major advantages of using a cloud computing platform. They fall into three major categories: cost, convenience and flexibility & scalability. Let’s use your hypothetical small business to demonstrate these advantages
Your small business needs some servers and a network and some internet security appliances. Your budget is low and you can’t afford the big multi thousand dollar expense of a new server. Enter the cloud computing advantage. For a small amount of money (a few dollars a day depending on the size) you can login to your favorite cloud provider and provision your server and access it from anywhere. The pricing model can be based on multiple factors including the amount of CPU and memory, the guaranteed uptime, and sometimes the actual compute power that you consume. If you have multiple servers you can network them to communicate with each other. You can create firewalls to protect your servers from unwanted intrusions. You have done this all for a fraction of the costs of purchasing and you have done it without needing direct access to any physical hardware.
Congratulations on getting your small business off the ground with the help of cloud computing. Your business is doing so well that you have another service offering that you are rolling out. If your business was tied to physical computing hardware, you would need to get more space to house the new servers for the new offering. But since you are computing in the cloud, you just provision some new server hardware from your home office (or the beach) and roll out your new service offering to a slew of happy new customers.
Flexibility & Scalability
Great job getting that second service offering out so quickly. Orders are rolling in on your website but you are really going to see a huge wave of new customers when that Groundhog Day promotion you announced hits. Luckily you are using cloud computing and you have set up rules to scale up your web server for greater capacity if the traffic starts to get too high. When the sale is over and the demand goes back down your web server will scale back to its original size. You have protected yourself from an outage, and only paid for the extra server capacity when it was needed. Great business sense!
Which Cloud Platform is the right one?
The major players in the cloud computing game are Microsoft with their Azure offering, Amazon which offers their suite of Amazon Web Services(AWS) and Google which has the Google Cloud Platform(GCP). In general they all have similar tools to offer but it is certainly worth some time and due diligence when making your selection. Each provider makes it easy to take it for a test drive with some form of initial free access to their platform. You may also want to look at items within each platform like their published uptimes, security, support and costs for the specific services that you know you will be using. Each vendor has an online calculator that helps to see what your monthly bill might be based on the resources used.
Maybe you are ready to jump in with both feet and use a bunch of IaaS (you know what this is now) offerings to start that new business. Maybe you want to tiptoe into the cloud with a SaaS offering like Office365. In either case the cloud should make your work life a little bit easier and let your business grow with speed that was not possible only a few years ago.