The Cloud is a platform – the Internet platform. Traditionally, we would buy some hardware (like a standard PC, for example) and install some software on it (like an accounts package or an office suite like MS Office). So you have software that runs on your own machine in your own office or home.
With the Cloud, however, the software and hardware runs on the Internet. To put it simply, the cloud is the Internet. Therefore, you could refer to Cloud Computing as Internet Computing. So, in simple terms, we can say that any software or hardware running on the Internet is Cloud Computing.
Most people already use Cloud Computing without knowing. Think of Gmail and Hotmail: they are just email clients that run ‘in the Cloud’ (on the Internet).
We can learn more about how Cloud Computing developed by going back in time. The Internet was created to solve a problem: each institution and company had its own private network of computers and the Internet was created to connect the different networks together. In essence, the Internet is an infrastructure of hardware and software that provided connectivity between computers. So the Internet became a cloud around networks, hiding (clouding) the underlying technology.
Next came the world wide web. Many people don’t make a distinction between the WWW and the Internet. However, the two are not the same. Before the WWW, even though there was a way to reach a computer on a different network on the other side of the world, there was still no standard way of getting documents and information. Thus, in order to get a document from a computer on the Internet, you’d have to know all the different protocols (think of a protocol as a language) in order to communicate with each different computer (node) on the Internet until you finally reach the destination computer. Now this was clearly not a great solution!
And so came the world wide web. It was a standard way of getting a document from any server. Each document would have a unique ‘address’ by which anyone would be able to access that document. Thus, the world wide web is a system of interlinked documents accessed via the Internet. So, the world wide web became a cloud around documents: hiding the underlying technology.
Now we have a cloud around social computing. In other words, instead of using your own personal computer to carry out your work, you use the software on machines ‘in the cloud’. This is what we mean when we talk about Cloud Computing. You do your computing in the cloud. Instead of installing an email client on your local machine, you use a service like Gmail or Hotmail. Instead of installing a (rather expensive) word processor, you use Google Docs, for example. And the list goes on.
So the cloud is like one huge collective ‘computer’ (the internet) and everyone connects to it in order to get their work done.
But what’s the point of using Cloud Computing and what are its advantages over the traditional way of installing software on your own computer and using that?
You don’t have to worry about the technology
There’s no need to install any software on your own computer. All the software is installed on a remote machine somewhere on the Internet and you use it. There’s no need to install hardware or software. This means that you don’t have to worry about different versions of the software, compatibility (since everything runs from your browser), maintenance, etc.
Quick to get up and running
How long did it take you to get your Gmail account and send your first email? Now apply that concept to other software models. For example, to get up and running with Clutterpad – our online project management and collaboration tool – it only takes about 60 seconds to sign up. You can start creating todo lists, send messages, upload files, chat, and a whole lot more in a mere minute. Now, try doing that with MS Project; you’d have to buy (download?) the software, install it on your machine (and of course you better make sure you have the right hardware!) and then you get to use it. Enough said.
Instead of paying a crazy amount of money to buy a piece of software (not to mention the hardware that is required to run it), with Cloud Computing, you often only pay a small subscription fee. Sometimes (like Clutterpad) there are also free-for-life versions of the software. So you only pay for what you use in the Cloud (and sometimes that means you pay nothing). Instead of investing in a software program that does everything in the hope that one day you will need all the features, you can start off with the lowest plan and then upgrade when the need arises. Low investment means low risk. Imagine buying an expensive project management tool only to realize that you hate using it after a few days!
A comparison you will often find of Cloud Computing is that it is like plugging into an electricity grid. A century ago, companies stopped having to produce their own electricity and they could plug into the national grid. In the same way, individuals and organizations can now just connect to the Internet to use lots of applications without having to install their own software or hardware.
The low investment also applies to the computers that you use to connect to the Internet. Previously, you would need expensive PCs to be able to get your computation done. With Cloud Computing, since the bulk of the computation is done by the servers in the Cloud, you can get away with machines with lower specs. In fact, you can often use your laptop, netbook, or even mobile phone to connect to the software in the Cloud.
It shouldn’t be your job to have to maintain software. You shouldn’t need to worry about updates and versions and compatibility and so on. However, new versions of software often means you have to upgrade to get the latest features. Sometimes that means that all your other integrated software or hardware stops working (imagine that you needed a piece of software that only works on Vista so you upgraded from XP, then your accounts package stopped working!) Software that runs in the Cloud is updated by the vendors – that means that you won’t need to download and install every few months. When’s the last time you ‘updated’ your Gmail software? You just log in as before and see all the new and improved features automatically.
The same goes for hardware. What happens when the hard drive fails on your machine? You’d have to buy another drive, install the software all over again and then try to restore your data from your backups (you did backup, right?) With the Cloud, it is the vendor’s responsibility to backup your data. If something fails, they have to sort it out.
No specialist IT guy required
Since all the maintenance and updates, etc, are handled by the vendor, all you need is to be able to get online and use a browser like Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari or Chrome. Then, you hop over to the vendor’s site and away you go. Did you need an ‘IT guy’ to ‘install Gmail’ for you? OK, maybe some of you did! But did he have to continue ‘maintaining’ Gmail for you once you started using it? Or did you find you could use Gmail anywhere from any computer that is connected to the Internet without him having to install software or hardware?
Since the Cloud is ‘everywhere’, so is the software that runs in the Cloud. Just as you can access Gmail anywhere you have access to the Internet, most software in the Cloud is the same.
This means that you can work from the office yet have access to the same data and software when you’re at home.
Scaling on demand
One of the biggest reasons for companies to move to the Cloud is for scalability. Say your inbox reaches 50gb (OK, unlikely I know – but let’s say you’re Bill Gates and everyone wants to send you large zip files called ‘Click here to view my photo.zip’)? Then what? What if your hard drive is only 55gb? Uh oh, need to buy a new hard drive! And then all the hassle of installing it and making sure your email client uses the new hard drive and and and….
With Cloud Computing, the underlying hardware is not your problem – that’s the vendor’s problem. With Clutterpad you can upload your files so that they’re all in one place for all your team members to collaborate on. If you need more space, just upgrade for a small increase in the monthly fee, and voila. No upgrading, no restore.
What if the server goes down?
This is an age-old argument against Cloud Computing. Seriously, what’s more likely to go down? A server that is being maintained by the professionals or your own personal computer? Ever got a virus and had to reinstall? Ever had a hard drive failure or your mother board went kaput? Internet servers are, more often than not, much more secure than your personal computers. The data on them is usually backed up and there are often redundancy checks and failure mechanisms in place. If one server goes down, another takes over.
Is it safe?
It is known that employees often store company data on their private computers. Laptops may get stolen and data is often lost or can get in the hands of others. With Cloud Computing, as I said earlier, data is backed up. This also means that you can always delete data from your own machines (although it’s always good practice to have your own backups as well). What happens when one employee leaves? With Cloud Computing, her data would be online in one place so another employee can take off from where the first left.
So you can see how and why Cloud Computing is such a big thing. Do you have any other examples where Cloud Computing has helped you or your business? Do you have any other uses?