Understanding the basics of cloud computing is going to set you in good stead for both the present and the future.
Even though cloud computing effectively started in 2006, and some services are now over 10 years old, it is likely you are using such services today and may not even be aware of it.
In this article we explore what cloud computing is and how it works. Knowing this is a great platform to understanding the cloud services you are using, or could be using.
We also explore some benefits of cloud computing, and some concerns. This will keep you vigilant and safe when using online services, and will enable you to make the best of those online services.
Cloud computing means different things to different people. In the business world this can mean a supplier hosting your system in their data centres, or a 'true cloud provider' hosting your system such as in Microsoft Azure.
For home users like us I think it means two main things. They are:-
The keywords here are anywhere and anytime. This is the flexibility that such services give you. The only caveat is you have access to the Internet, through a good fibre broadband service, or mobile signal.
Traditionally we would store our files on our local computer or laptop. We would (or should) take backup copies of our data so if our hard drive was faulty, or we accidentally deleted something, we could easily restore and retrieve our files.
In the early days backups were made to Floppy Disk, the CD, then DVD, then USB pens, then external hard drives. With storing your files in the cloud, your data is never lost, because the provider backs up your files multiple times in different locations. This is all done in the background.
Do you remember when we had to install an e-mail client in order to download and then read our e-mails? If not you missed the golden days of the computing in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Today you access e-mail over the Internet and through your web browser. This is cloud computing.
The video below is worth a watch. It describes the concept in easy to understand language
In the next section we take a look at the mechanics of how cloud computing exactly works.
There are lengthy books that are dedicated to describing how cloud computing works. However, as this is a computer help site, and this article is focusing on the basics of cloud computing, I've attempted to simplify the language and descriptions. Wish me luck!
Think about the cloud in two sections. The first section is the 'back-end'. This is all the hardware components, or 'infrastructure', including storage, and the associated software that is needed to provide the service to you at home or on the move. This is where your files, and the files you want to access, are 'hosted'.
Supporting all this hardware and software is security, to keep your data safe, and very large, high speed Internet links to manage all the requests from all over the world to access cloud services, made available through providers such as Microsoft, Google and Amazon.
The images below give you a glimpse of just how large the cloud Data Centres are (the one below is over 270 acres!), and what they actually look like inside.
As described in the first part of this article, your 'infrastructure' enables you to 'consume' cloud services (some business speak there), or in other words, using your web browser or cloud applications, like WhatsApp, to access your data stored on the 'back-end' infrastructure. See, that was easy to understand, wasn't it?
If you are still confused, don't worry. Take a look at the image below which will hopefully describe the setup better.
In the next section we take a look at some of the many cloud services that you potentially use every day, but may not realise it.
Every used a search engine? Well, then you've actually used a cloud service. Google, Bing and other search engines take your keyword request, process it using their own servers in their own data centres, which could be anywhere in the world, then send the results back to your device, in milliseconds. It's quite impressive.
We mentioned e-mail earlier, but there is also the possibility of writing documents, spreadsheet and even developing presentations using online applications such as Microsoft's Office 365 suite.
Traditionally you would have to install a word processing package or office suite on to your PC to do this. Today this is not really required.
Access to your files is easy through services such as Google Drive, and some providers even have downloadable applications, or clients, aimed at making access to your remotely hosted files more convenient from your personal device such as a laptop. Microsoft's One Drive is one such example.
We could talk about lots of different cloud services, from music apps to communications services such as Zoom, and streaming media services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime.
However, I hope you now have a better understanding of what the cloud is and how it works.
Whatever the service is that you are using (or consuming), the principle of how it works is just the same as described here.
Below is a montage of different cloud services and providers, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. In the next section we look at the benefits associated with cloud computing.
Large tech companies would not be pouring billions into cloud computing if there wasn't any benefits (and profit) in doing so.
You'll see benefits listed elsewhere online using words such as flexibility, scalability and cost effective. But what do words like this actually mean for us as everyday home computers users?
For us the cloud provides instant access on demand. If we want to watch that film (movie), or access that document, or listen to that song, we can do so, anytime and anywhere.
We become dependent on this convenience and rapid access, and expect it to be there all the time.
When you lose your signal, or home Internet access, for any length of time, we all realise just how dependent we are on cloud services.
Another benefit is free storage, and cheap pricing if you need to buy more. This is also flexible, so if you have a clear out and find you don't need the space any more, you can simply stop 'renting' it.
Remote storage is also resilient. This simply means that if the hard disk fails, you won't lose your data like you could potentially on your home computer.
Your data is also backed up regularly in the cloud, saving you money on USB pens or external hard drives. In addition, new files are saved almost instantaneously after every keystroke, so there is less chance of losing work because you forgot to click the save button.
Security is an additional benefit in that you don't have to worry about your files being hacked, stolen or held to ransom. This is the responsibility of the large service providers. However, cybersecurity is a double-edged sword, as you will see in the next section.
We've mention in the previous sections about the necessity to have a good, fast broadband or Internet connection, otherwise your cloud services, and data files, are inaccessible. This is one of the main concerns with cloud computing
In addition, people can be nervous about how safe their data is when it is not secure in their own home. This is understandable, which is why providers are at pains to explain why their services address any security risk of cloud computing that you may have.
Free services such as word processors can have limited features. The basics are available only. If you need more advanced features, you will need to pay a monthly subscription fee.
These costs effectively replace the money you would pay out for the additional hardware and software you would traditionally use in your home.
Another concern is the control providers have to change their services at the drop of a hat. For example, Google Docs stopped supporting older file types, e.g. the *.doc format, for Microsoft Word. This caused outrage at the time as their customers (us) would not be able to load up these older file formats after the change came in to effect.
Google eventually extended the date for the change by three months to give people enough time to save their files in the supported file formats.
You could write an entire website or blog dedicated to cloud computing. It is a huge topic, and part of the IT Industry that will heavily contribute to how we use the Internet in the future.
Keeping the descriptions basic is a challenge because of all the tech speak that surrounds the cloud (and IT in general). However, I hope you found this article easy to understand, and hope it made some sense to you.
To find out more on this topic take a look at the understanding the cloud (Opens New Window) in the GCF Global website.