What do I need to know about The Cloud?

the cloud, cloud basics

If you’ve heard of  The Cloud, that it’s the next big thing in computing; if you think you should be “using The Cloud” or “in The Cloud” but you’re not sure you know what that means… then read on!

Cumulonimbus
Cumulonimbus, the original cloud (Photo credit: Serge Melki)

What is The Cloud?

In it’s most basic terms, The Cloud  is a new way to describe The Internet.  Except,  instead of just being a way to send email, surf the web, share photos etc. it has evolved into an extension of (or a replacement for) a lot of what your PC does.

If you use Facebook, LinkedIn or any other social media sites; if you download app’s to your smartphone, share photos with family and friends, in fact do much at all on the internet – you are already using The Cloud.

Where did The Cloud come from?

Lets take a simple example like creating a report.

In the old, old days you used a computer which connected to a “mainframe”. Mainframes are huge hard drives, big enough to fill a room and far too expensive for anyone but governments and big companies to own.

Early mainframe computers with women operators...
Early mainframe computers with women operators (colour illustration) – 1962 (Photo credit: HSBC UK Press Office)

Each company had its own set of mainframes locked inside their company network. Only certain employees called “Computer Operators” were qualified to use them –  it was an actual job to be someone who used a computer back then.

The software to create the report ran on the mainframe and the computer operator used a computer known as a “dumb terminal” – “dumb” because it didn’t do much apart from connect to the mainframe.  Your report was saved somewhere in the mainframe.

The rise of the Personal Computer

Then along came the Personal Computer in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  They were small enough to fit on a desk and eventually cheap enough for the average household to own. These PCs could run software applications  and store files without the need for mainframes.

The first developers of IBM PC computers negle...
The first developers of IBM PC computers neglected audio capabilities (first IBM model, 1981). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Everyone could now write reports on their own computer at home or at work using software like MS Office.

Enter the Internet

The Internet started as a way of sharing information with anyone and everyone. There was no wireless or 3g/4g, you simply plugged your phone line into your computer.

At first it was slow, unreliable and only good for emailing or browsing websites.  As technology evolved and connection speeds improved  it became possible to do more “online” – like shop, bank and store small amounts of data like photos to share with family and friends.

How The Cloud Evolved

Computers became cheaper, it was common to have more than one at home and another at work; but if you wanted the same software on all your PC’s you needed to pay for multiple licences, which got expensive.

It was painful to move files between computers. You had to copy them to a disk/CD/DVD/thumb drive and physically bring them to another PC where you then copied them onto that PC.  These devices were prone to failure, could get lost and were yet another thing you had a remember to bring with you.

The Cloud – a place to store files

Then the cost of storing files (hard drives) got a whole lot cheaper and the ability to move large files over the internet improved dramatically. It starting making financial sense to set up big warehouse style data centres (The Cloud) where anyone can store their documents, photos and music etc. for a small fee.

The beauty of this is that you can access these files from any of your computers.  Instead of copying files to CD/DVD/thumb drive you can now access them at home, at work, from your tablet and even your phone because the actual file is on a hard drive in a warehouse in the US, Singapore, wherever.  No more accidentally leaving your report at home.

You can even share your files with friends and family.  This is where companies like Dropbox came in.  Their software made it incredibly easy for the average person to start using The Cloud.

The Cloud – a place to run your software

Since your files are now in The Cloud, why not save time and money by installing your reporting software on a rented server in The Cloud too?

There’s no need now to install and maintain the software on each of your PC’s. You don’t need a really powerful PC either because it’s just connecting to the cloud server – just like the dumb terminal connected to the mainframe in the old days.  It’s also way more convenient because you can create your reports from any of your PC’s.  This is known as “Infrastructure as a Service ” (IAAS).

The Cloud – a place to rent/use software

Why go to the trouble of installing your reporting software at all?  Why not just sign up for Google docs or Office365 and create any reports you need, from any PC or device (tablet, smartphone), whenever and wherever you want?

You can create it using your laptop at home, update it on the train using your phone, present it at a meeting at work, and even share it with colleagues and allow them to make changes. This is known as “Software as a service” (SAAS).

Why are some companies moving to The Cloud while others don’t want to know about it?

The big advantages of using The Cloud are benefits of scale (which means it’s cheaper) and the ability to scale up and down on demand.  Traditionally businesses have had to make huge investments in computer infrastructure (servers and the like) and it tends to take a long time to scale up or down or even to upgrade outdated hardware.  Companies also have to worry about having multiple servers available for peak times, extra servers available in case a server breaks, a disaster recovery plan in case the whole building goes down etc. etc.  This can all be taken care of by The Cloud.

The biggest barrier to The Cloud for companies with sensitive data is that these Cloud data warehouses could be anywhere.  Their data may actually be held in a number of locations/countries, some of which could be outside the jurisdictions the company operates in.  This issue alone can raise a big fat red flag for risk averse companies such as financial institutions.

So there you have it – a very brief overview of the evolution of The Cloud.  If you find any inaccuracies please let me know!

If you’d like to know more, try these links:

http://www.ibm.com/developerworks/training/kp/cl-kp-cloudfundamentals/

http://www.andyharjanto.com/2009/11/wanted-cloud-computing-explained-in.html

http://www.smh.com.au/it-pro/cloud/cloud-computing-blasts-off–finally-20120702-21cfs.html

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Update Jan 2013: This post was originally written in June 2012 and was one of my earliest posts, I have updated it to make it clearer – I hope….

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Published in Technology Tidbits..for the time poor

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Author: Sue @ Oysterfruit

Owner at Oysterfruit.com.au.

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