One of the main reasons that ‘the cloud’ is such a difficult term to get to grips with is that it actually covers a multitude of meanings. They all share one trait, however: if you are using the cloud, it means you are using the internet to access computing power that you are not hosting yourself.
Where is it? And can I touch it?
First let’s deal with the fact that ‘the cloud’ suggests a single entity. There isn’t just one cloud. We aren’t all plugging in to some great ethereal super computer. Rather there are lots of set-ups, containing servers, computing power and storage, each of which offers its services via the internet, and each of which is a cloud.
Each set-up doesn’t have to be in just the one location though. Some clouds are huge, like Amazon Web Services (AWS) and therefore have vast networks of servers, located in different places, which are all connected. Others are much smaller, like local IT providers who offer cloud services to local small businesses, and may have just one room of servers.
Often you will also see claims that ‘the cloud is not a physical thing’, which of course in reality doesn’t make sense. There are physical servers hosting your data and applications, however you never have to know where they are to be able to use them. For a user of cloud services, it is as if the cloud has no physical presence because you access your services via the internet: from your perspective your IT infrastructure is virtual. Hence the idea that the cloud is not physical.
How do I use the cloud?
Quick answer: you’re probably already using it. Many websites like Facebook or Instagram and email providers like Gmail or Hotmail are all powered by cloud computing. You upload a picture to Instagram, and can access it from any device, anywhere. It’s not stored on your hard drive or a USB stick. It’s stored by Instagram (who incidentally, in turn, use AWS to host their service). That is basic cloud computing.
A business guide to the cloud
Putting it into a business context there are three main types of cloud computing that you may encounter:
1. SaaS (Software as a Service). This is the most common commercial use of the cloud. It means there is an application that you want your employees to be able to use. Before the cloud you would have to buy a license, install the software on the company servers and then roll it out to everyone’s desktops. You would have to manage updates, and there would be no flexibility in how many seats were available.
With SaaS, all that hosting and management is taken care of by the service provider and you just pay for access to the software. Everyone then accesses the application via the internet. You only pay for what you need. So one month you can pay for 50 users, 75 the next as you take on some seasonal help during a peak period, then scale back down to 40 as you hit a slow month. Common examples of SaaS are Salesforce, GoogleApps and, of course, Turbine.
2. PaaS (Platform as a Service). This takes a step back and gives you some more control than SaaS. It’s primarily designed as a platform on which developers can build and deploy new and custom applications. Obviously developers will use this, but so will larger organisations who need very specific requirements from their applications, and therefore need to build their own. This is also ideal for companies with customer-facing applications, who need to be able to easily scale their infrastructure to support a growing customer base.
3. IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service). This is the most basic service – it means renting the hardware you need for your infrastructure and accessing it via the internet, rather than having to worry about having server rooms in your own offices. All the configuration, set up, management of software and applications is all up to you, the user. In other words, you need a lot of technical know-how to use IaaS. It’s not an off-the-shelf, ready to go service as such, but it is flexible and means you don’t have to worry about the upfront costs of setting up your own hardware.
Straightening out these blurred lines
SaaS is pretty simple to grasp. However, PaaS and Iaas are often a little harder to understand, especially as they seem quite similar. Apprenda explains it quite well (although not totally jargon-free):
With PaaS, security and all operating system updates, versions, and patches are controlled and implemented by the vendor. With IaaS, users select a configuration that defines their server size, operating system, application software, and more; they then maintain complete responsibility for the maintenance of the system…this translates into virtually zero administration costs for users of PaaS. IaaS, in contrast, has administration costs similar to those of a traditional computing infrastructure.
A slightly over-simplified, but useful and jargon-free way to think of it is like a restaurant.
- SaaS means you are a regular customer, walking in and paying for a dish off the preset menu, and having it delivered ready to eat.
- PaaS requires you to be the chef, but all the ingredients and recipes are there. You don’t have to worry about ordering supplies or maintaining the kitchen, you just have to cook.
- IaaS means you are owner and head chef. All you have is the kitchen. You have to set up your work stations, design the menus and manage all the sous-chefs to make sure they are delivering a high standard of dishes.
Business benefits of using the cloud
Of course, a guide to the cloud wouldn’t be much use if it didn’t explain why all this cloud computing functionality actually matters in a business context.
Reliability and security. With cloud computing, someone else has the headache of managing your infrastructure. It is the business of cloud providers to manage and maintain secure, reliable services for their customers. They have better resources and expertise than most companies can afford in-house. Of course, the quality of providers varies, so you should always do your homework to make sure you are staying safe in the cloud.
Lowered upfront costs. Cloud computing means no steep hardware costs to get up and running as a small business. If you want to introduce a new application into the business to increase efficiencies it’s often as simple as signing up. You do have to look ahead at the value of a long-term monthly outgoing, but the real value lies in the ability to vary what you pay month-on-month based on your needs. You can grow rapidly without needing more real estate.
Better collaboration. Since people can access cloud services from anywhere, as long as they have an internet connection, it allows for much easier remote and virtual working. It also helps to connect disparate offices so that there can be one central hub of files, or HR information or expenses claims, stored in the cloud. This makes management much easier.
Affordable applications. SaaS in particular has brought the functionality of enterprise-grade applications within the reach of small businesses. Because of the ease of access and set up, small businesses can now use CRM systems, project management tools and purchase order software. The cloud really does help to level the playing field and make rapid growth much more feasible.
So, you see, the cloud isn’t really so hard to grasp once you straighten out the multitude of abilities it encompasses. For advice on how to switch your business to the cloud, why not look at our 30-day guide to moving to the cloud.