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What is the Cloud?
We repeatedly hear the phrase “we’re on the cloud.” It is used as if its some magical place where miracles happen. Never once have I heard a simple explanation of exactly what is the cloud or any questions about its risks.
I wrote this for the non-computer nerds who’d like a clear — non-marketing-fueled — explanation of what the cloud is, what it does, how it is paid for and the risks associated with using it.
In essence, the cloud is computer processing power off the premises of the end user. It can be either processing or data storage. As a user, you do not control it and you normally pay a fee as you use it as a service. A good example is Apple’s iCloud or an off-line computer backup service like Backblaze.
Small cloud operations can be located at a single remote location. Large “clouds” can be huge data farms distributed over multiple locations. All this of this is tied together by…you guessed it…the internet.
Fast internet-based networks made cloud computing possible. The whole idea is to lower the amount of computer processing power each user must on have their own site versus renting what they actually need.
The touted benefits of the cloud is to allow users to minimize their up-front capital expenses; lower operating costs; use only the technology they need on demand; have fewer staff engineers; and get new ventures up to speed much faster.
Cloud computing has taken over almost everywhere. Virtually every computer-related product is now operating to some degree in the cloud. It has allowed people to work from anywhere. Television can be made a various places at once. A director can call the shots made elsewhere from his or her living room couch.
The International Data Corporation (IDC) reports that global spending on cloud computing services is now at $706 billion and expected to reach a whopping $1.3 trillion by 2025. The rapid growth of the concept is undisputed.
The term “cloud” was first used in 1993 to refer to distributed computing platforms. General Magic, an Apple spin-off, and AT&T used the word, “cloud,” in describing their paired Telescript and Personal Link technologies.
Andy Hertzfield, a member of Apple’s original Macintosh development team, made a comment to Wired magazine in 1994 using the term: “The beauty of Telescript is that now, instead of just having a device to program, we now have the entire Cloud out there, where a single program can go and travel to many different sources of information and create a sort of a virtual service.”
The original concept of cloud computing dates back to the 1960s when time-sharing became popular with companies such as IBM and DEC. It would take the development of dedicated point-to-point networks in the 1990s for the concept to begin to catch on.
Over the years, cloud computing has rapidly developed. Algorithms were developed to optimize the infrastructure, platform, applications and to increase efficiency for customers.
Years of refinement has made cloud computing so easy and convenient it is quickly becoming the de facto workflow for a growing number of workers in virtually ever field.
The cloud has also enabled the concept of virtualization — the act of creating a virtual (rather than actual) hardware, storage and network resources. Most of the time that control panel on your desk is acting like a big computer mouse.
Though cloud computing is now a service for hire, there are tradeoffs that come with it. Cloud vendors often limit what a customer can do with it. The user must adjust to those limitations.
Using a cloud provider means you also must trust your business to someone you don’t know. Are they ethical? Do they engage in honest business practices? Can and will they deliver what they promise? Do they meet your legal needs? Do they impose data caps in allocating bandwidth among all their customers?
In cloud computing, control of the back-end infrastructure is THEIR responsibility — not yours. What about technical outages? Don’t believe they aren’t inevitable. What happens with technical failure and you can no longer operate? Since cloud systems rely on the internet, users cannot access their applications, server or data from the cloud during an outage. Never forget that.
As with all human endeavors, new technology always cuts two ways. Yes, cloud computing opens new doors to technological economies and ease, but also has limitations that must be seriously addressed. The “gotchas” are many.
Whenever someone sings the praises of “the cloud,” take a harder look of the way it really works. The devil is in the details.