Cloud Simplified: What is the Cloud?

The cloud is a pretty nebulous (excuse the pun!) concept which is difficult to sum up in a short blog post such as this. For the purpose of this overview, we’ll be talking about the ‘Infrastructure-as-a-Service‘ (IAAS) type of cloud offerings (e.g. Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure) rather than ‘Software-as-a-Service’ (SAAS) products, such as Salesforce.

The modern public cloud then is essentially internet based, on-demand computing. Traditionally, if you needed a new server to run some software, you would need to go through the process of ordering one, waiting for it to arrive, configuring it and then housing, and maintaining it. This would typically take weeks and involve a significant amount of up-front capital expenditure as well as on-going running costs.

With the cloud you can instead log into a website and start up a virtual server (this concept will be covered in a future blog post as part of this series) in a matter of a few minutes. You would only pay for this server whilst it is being used with no up-front cost at all. Virtual servers are just the tip of the iceberg however, with cloud providers offering a massive variety of services including file storage, databases and virtual networking.

This means that the cloud has transformed IT infrastructure from an expensive burden into a utility that can be consumed like electricity or gas. In the early days of the cloud (Amazon launched its cloud services in 2006) this kind of service was perhaps most useful to start-up type companies who were able to take advantage of the low initial cost, combined with the ability to scale out their cloud based infrastructures at the click of a button. Now however, as the cloud providers’ services have expanded and matured, companies of all shapes and sizes can, and do, make use of cloud based services.

Although the concepts touched upon here will be expanded upon in future posts it might be useful to consider the core services offered by Amazon Web Services to give some concrete examples of what is on offer.

Amazon’s virtual server service is called Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2). This service allows virtual servers to be created on an “as-needed” basis with a flexible about of memory and CPU capacity, running operating systems such as Linux and Windows. For storage Amazon offers its Simple Storage Service (S3). This service provides highly durable and cost-effective file storage that is easy to access and use. In terms of databases, Amazon has its Relational Database Service (RDS). This allows the creating of managed database services based upon common technologies such as Microsoft SQL Server, MySQL, Oracle and PostgreSQL.

The “cloud” used to be a buzzword that many people found very easy to dismiss as a fad but it is instead growing at an amazingly rapid rate and will soon become so ubiquitous that people will struggle to remember a time without it.

This article is part of our ongoing cloud simplified series where we seek to delve into the meaning behind widely used, but little understood concepts in cloud computing.

Cloud is about how you do computing, not where you do computing.

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