The Definitive Guide to Cloud Computing 

Everything you need to understand the basics of cloud computing.

Cloud Computing

Few things in our world stay static for long, and that includes technology. With new innovations and ideas consistently sculpting the ever-fluctuating landscape of modern technology, the possibilities today are greater than ever before. Cloud computing is among the most popular recent shifts in how data is used and stored, opening the door to compelling possibilities that remove the need for in-house servers and computer-specific file and program access.

Seen by many as both the present and future of computing across all avenues, recreational and professional alike, cloud computing offers a wealth of opportunity.

What Is Cloud Computing?

The idea of cloud computing sounds a little more ethereal in concept than it actually is: in reality, cloud computing simply refers to the practice of using remote servers to host programs and store data rather than physical, on-site servers. Servers can be managed by an in-house team, much like traditional servers, or can be hosted by a third party that allows individuals or companies to use space as needed.

Unlike a standard server, in which an entity owns the entirety of the server, regardless of how much space is needed, many cloud arrangements allow users to pay only for the space they need, creating a more flexible and affordable alternative to storage. Cloud-based servers can host virtually any aspect of computing operations, from applications to file directories. This frees up physical space and on-site IT demands while also enhancing user access; cloud-based applications, for example, can often be accessed across any device at any time as compatibility is not computer- or location-specific.

While cloud computing was once a choice, some companies are shifting over to an entirely cloud-based model. This trend is now turning cloud computing into an essential step rather than an optional one, leading to a rapid growth in popularity.

The History of Cloud Computing

The idea of the cloud seems fairly modern in its capabilities, a perception that is likely spurred by a relatively recent embrace of this approach to storage and hosting. However, the original concept aligns more closely with the start of modern computing.

Theoriginal framework for what is now cloud computing was first noted over 50 years ago. The idea was proposed by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a division of the U.S. Department of Defense, in 1963. For the price of just $2,000,000, DARPA requested that scientists at MIT create a solution that would allow a computer to be used by multiple people, simultaneously. At this time, computers were a far cry from today’s MacBooks and ThinkPads, with large bolts of magnetic tape in use to store data. Despite the unusual nature of the ask, MIT’s computer science experts created a way to allow several people to work with the same machine at the same time. The term “virtualization” was coined to describe this process.

Virtualization, despite its early origins, is still an important concept in computing (virtual servers are becoming increasingly popular as well), but not exactly in its original sense. Anyone who has used a virtual private network to connect to work servers from home or a program like GoToMyPC or Remote Desktop Protocol to access a remote desktop has had experience in the current ideation of this concept.

Virtualization pre-dated the internet as well; the groundwork of the internet formally came into being in 1969 with the ARPANET, an abbreviation for Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, as created by J.C.R. Licklider. His original vision included what he called the Intergalactic Computer Network, a concept that, in practice, evolved into what is today the internet. And, while cloud computing and the internet are not one in the same, the internet is a key element of cloud computing; without the internet, cloud computing as it exists today is an impossibility.

The idea of a web-supported server first began to make waves in the 1990s as the Internet crawled into the public eye. This original context referred more to empty space – the “cloud,” so to speak – between a service provider and an end user, and the potential this space had in optimizing software and application availability. The tech giant Salesforce was among the first to bring modern cloud computing into reality in 1999, using the internet to deliver products to users rather than through physical items like floppy disks or CD-ROMs.

Amazon is another key player in the debut of cloud computing. In 2006, Amazon launched Amazon Web Services (AWS), a still-popular option for hosting and storage for those who do not want or need their own servers. The original version Google Drive, Google’s answer to web-based alternatives to Microsoft Office, launched in 2006 as well. Google began offering hosting services in conjunction with IBM the following year, and NASA’s OpenNebula, an open-source network for both hybrid cloud and private clouds, came about in 2008.

Over the last decade, cloud-based options have grown exponentially, with countless companies offering software options, hosting options, and infrastructure options designed to optimize workflow and manage business costs in a way standard server technology can’t.

What Cloud Computing Services Are Available?

Cloud computing, or cloud technology, comes in several different forms: IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS. These three cloud platforms make up the bulk of the cloud service providers, cloud storage, and any other cloud computing services.

Infrastructure as a Service

Infrastructure as a Service, more commonly known as IaaS, is a form of virtualization in which outside cloud service providers hosts many of the components of a traditional on-site data center, like servers and networking hardware.

For companies that do not want to handle these tasks, do not have the resources or manpower to take on the complexities that come with on-site services, or want to offload these functions in favor of more important priorities, an IaaS platform can be compelling. In many cases, IaaS options can take on far more than simply hosting data and applications; these operations can encompass a wide range of related tasks and services, including network security, data management, billing, system monitoring, and backup and recovery services. This allows for a greater level of automation on the end user side as these routine functions are taken on virtually.

IaaS users receive data and support via a wide area network, most commonly the internet. Once services are available, users can then expand on what is being offered, including downloading new programs, using IaaS servers to create virtual machines, installing operating systems, and creating storage buckets to manage workloads. In general, IaaS frameworks require the use of a third-party provider. The most common employed for this service include public cloud services like Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud Platform, although private clouds are becoming increasingly popular as a business’ cloud infrastructure.

Pros and Cons of IaaS

As with all things in technology, no solution or cloud platform is perfect. IaaS avenues do offer pros and cons individuals or businesses must carefully weigh before proceeding.

There are many advantages of IaaS, including the ability for rapid changes. Temporary, growing, or changing technology needs can be ideal in a cloud-based environment, with the flexibility to accommodate developments, test environments, and other computing resources as company objectives grow and change. Further, IaaS options are often billed on a per use basis or based on storage space required, offering a way to pay only for space and services needed rather than absorbing the cost of a long-standing on-site solution. For companies worried about security, a private cloud can be used to offer the same benefits regarding scaling without the potential challenges that come with using a third-party’s general hosting services.

Despite the cost benefits, it’s important to understand that cloud solutions aren’t always as cheap as users envision. It’s common to require more usage time or storage space than originally expected, driving up costs and potentially negating savings. A lack of transparency into infrastructure can also be problematic, as IaaS providers own their own models and thus users are subject to existing systems without the level of customization in-house services can provide. This can make system monitoring and management harder. Users of IaaS are also highly dependent on a provider. If there’s some sort of network problem, like connectivity issues, users have to reach out to support to bring things back online as all fixes and updates must occur on the internet provider’s end.

Platform as a Service

Platform as a Service, or PaaS, is a cloud model in which hardware tools, most commonly those used for application development and other computing services, are hosted and shared over the internet rather than on on-site servers. This allows developers to work in a web-based space rather than relying on downloaded and installed platforms. Unlike IaaS, PaaS opportunities do not replace a company’s entire IT infrastructure but rather offer options in a complementary fashion. These solutions are used in conjunction with existing platforms, infrastructure, and applications that employ additional computing resources for key services. This can provide an optimized environment for large-scale projects without forcing users to worry about the underlying support requirements.

While PaaS options come in numerous forms and for many functions, application development is the primary purpose of most PaaS solutions. PaaS products offer a collaborative environment that can move and grow as needs for development and computing resources change, creating a flexible way to enhance the process of computation and storage infrastructure.

Pros and Cons of PaaS

Like other cloud computing services, there are both advantages and disadvantages of which users should be aware. The primary benefit is, of course, convenience and simplicity. There’s no complicated back-end maintenance, leaving developers free to focus on more important tasks. These models can also be affordable, with pricing based on a per-use basis or a flat monthly fee without regard for usage needs like most of the cloud computing vendors today.

For some cloud solutions, availability can be a challenge. If a cloud vendor experiences downtime or has tech issues, these generally cannot be remedied on the user’s end. It can also be difficult to migrate products and services to other competing platforms as functionality is often tethered to a PaaS infrastructure. Any internal changes may offer challenges in work progress; for example, if a provider stops providing compatibility for a certain software suite or coding language, progress on a development project can effectively cease immediately.

Software as a Service

Possibly the most common form of cloud computing, software as a service, or SaaS, allows providers to share software applications over the web. With a hosted application management model, businesses can employ solutions that are available from everywhere across varying devices via network-based access to an individual copy of a software product. While access and data use are specific to each customer, the source code is universal and any changes that are rolled out apply to all users. Service-level agreements with service providers can dictate whether data is stored locally or in a larger public cloud space.

SaaS programs exist in virtually every arena, including email, financial tools, bookkeeping, customer relationship management, billing, and human resources functions. Some businesses choose to use solely cloud-based software while others utilize a blend of traditional and SaaS solutions. Some of the largest players in this space include names like Salesforce, Oracle, Intuit, and SAP, many of which offer integrated suites that can address a large portion of a business’ support needs.

Pros and Cons of SaaS

SaaS programs have plenty of advantages for users, the largest of which is most commonly scalability. As revenue, customer relationships, or any other aspect of a business grows, SaaS products can grow, too, allowing for the use of an increasing depth of services and features for the given workloads of SaaS applications. Automatic updates are also advantageous, ensuring all users are up to date and will not encounter compatibility issues. Accessibility is easier with SaaS solutions, as users can often utilize software across multiple devices and operating systems anywhere with internet access. SaaS programs can also rival traditional alternatives cost-wise, with the use of a cloud reducing on-site support requirements.

However, SaaS solutions aren’t perfect. Like IaaS and PaaS, users must rely on an outside vendor, which opens the door to vulnerabilities and service interruptions that can’t be controlled. Those who store mass amounts of proprietary data in the cloud may also be concerned about security and protection. Further, automatic updates aren’t always wanted. Some companies choose not to update their software for varying reasons, and automatic updates may force features that are undesirable or complicate ongoing tasks and workloads.

What Are the Different Types of Cloud Computing

As indicated, cloud computing can cover numerous different aspects of computing requirements. However, it’s also important to note that all clouds aren’t made equal. Depending on business and security needs, due diligence on the varying options is an essential part of choosing cloud-based solutions.

Public Clouds

Public clouds, as the name implies, are clouds that can be used by members of the public. Most cloud-based solutions operate through public clouds, providing easy access to all kinds of users. Google Docs, for example, functions in a public cloud that all Google account holders are able to access. Documents and data are still kept private and accounts are managed individually, but use of the cloud itself is not. With a public cloud, all storage, infrastructure, hardware, and software are managed by the cloud provider with no real input from users.

Public clouds are often preferred by recreational web users due to their ease of use and lower costs with no need to purchase or provide maintenance. Business users appreciate public clouds for similar reasons, with additional benefits including a large opportunity to scale and reasonably high levels of reliability. However, privacy can be a very real concern for those companies that work with proprietary or confidential data.

Private Clouds

Private clouds are the opposite of public clouds: private clouds only exist for the use of one individual organization or operation. Private clouds can be located at an on-site data center or can be hosted by third parties specializing in private servers. When a private cloud is in use, all resources are limited to, and can only be accessed by, permitted members. This form of cloud usage is often preferred by companies that desire higher levels of security, customization, or organization. These are most commonly employed by government bodies, financial institutions, healthcare organizations, and other companies that feel obligated to protect and manage data in a more stringent manner.

Private clouds are more flexible, more functional, and are also extremely scalable. However, they are almost always more expensive and, if they are operated in-house, require a similar level of maintenance and support as traditional physical servers, eliminating any cost savings benefits. Although the costs can be higher, what a business gets for the price is greater. Cloud infrastructure, cloud storage, hardware and software, and any other cloud computing or workloads can be handle by a competent private cloud provider.

Hybrid Clouds

For many users, hybrid clouds offer the best of both worlds, providing a way to harness the privacy of a private cloud with the flexibility and ease of use of a public cloud. Others will utilize a mix of onsite infrastructure and a public cloud or private cloud. For example, a business may wish to host sensitive information on a private cloud while other forms of data, particularly high-volume applications, on public cloud platforms. Hybrid clouds also allow for a concept known as cloud bursting in which functions can transfer between clouds when user needs so require. A busy season, like tax season at a financial products company, is an example of this – during the year, the demands of customer access to tax software isn’t high, but in March and April, usage surges in a way that could exceed limits of a small or modest private cloud. With the ability to shift some functions into the public cloud, businesses can effectively prevent service interruptions.

Hybrid clouds are frequently viewed as most flexible of cloud computing options and allow for the greatest sense of control while still reducing costs. Use of a hybrid cloud also provides ease of use with minimal onboarding obligations as getting started can be a gradual process split between both clouds. Some businesses get their feet with a hybrid cloud model allowing for an easier cloud adoption since they feel they can get versatility with a multiple cloud set up.

Although hybrid clouds seem like the best of both worlds, they have a number of downsides as well. The primary issue with a hybrid cloud model is performance. When computers and some data is stored locally, but other servers or applications are hosted elsewhere performance can decrease. Another factor to consider is there is additional hardware costs since you will maintain having data onsite. Many companies also have cyber security concerns with their data being split into multiple locations and having to ensure multiple fronts are protected and secure.

Why Is Cloud Computing Important?

In many ways, nothing typifies the state of modern technology like cloud computing. As a deviation from the origins of computer use, many benefits of the cloud promote collaboration, flexibility, and easy access. Web users, both casual and regular, can access just about anything in the cloud, from shared Google Docs to bookkeeping software like QuickBooks. Cloud computing is a demonstration of where technology has been as well as where it’s going, representing the best in present business trends.

Cloud Computing for Business

While cloud computing is certainly convenient and appreciated by recreational web users, businesses are far better positioned to take advantage of the benefits of cloud computing. With cloud solutions, businesses of all sizes are able to access applications and development spaces, and manage infrastructure from virtually anywhere, leading to optimization that can’t be matched using traditional servers. When using the cloud, employees can check database records on the go, upload receipts to accounting software, generate dashboards with a few clicks, or do whatever else is necessary to keep business moving forward.

Cloud computing also offers scalable opportunities that can allow for growth and change over time, ensuring there are no storage or software constraints as goals are achieved and targets grow. Via a combination of IaaS, SaaS, and PaaS options, businesses can create a cost-effective and customizable approach to a business infrastructure that facilitates fast, efficient, and accessible workspaces.

The Risks of Cloud Computing

Nothing on the internet is completely secure, and that includes services and solutions hosted in the cloud. While all providers work diligently to reduce the risk to users, there are still many ways in which cloud users can find their data compromised, applications at risk, and productivity at a standstill. While different users will have different fears and priorities in ensuring safety in cloud computing, the most serious risks to users include:

  • The possibility of unauthorized access to user data
  • Security risks including unscrupulous employees, vendor security, and poor employee training
  • Compliance and legal risks, particularly for companies operating under more stringent privacy regulations, like GDPR , DFARS, or HIPAA
  • Availability risks, like scheduled or unscheduled server downtime

As with any technology, companies should carefully evaluate the risks when shifting to a new cloud infrastructure or cloud provider.

Cloud Computing Security

Despite the ever-present risks of hacking, viruses, and other ways in which information and access can become compromised, cloud service providers work tirelessly to provide the best possible security to users and clients. While measures differ based on the service in questions, cloud security functions typically employ a multi-faceted approach in order to ensure as many bases are covered as possible. While different operations have varying priorities, the most common security methods include:

  • Identity Management:

    A way to ensure only those authorized can access data, many providers use a combination of SSO security or biometric-based ID systems to manage the identity of users. This kind of information is generally encrypted to prevent against hacker and provider employee access.

  • On-site Security:

    In addition to protecting access virtually, providers also utilize physical security to safeguard the technology that supports cloud-based servers, like routers, against vandalism and natural resource damage.

  • Employment Screenings:

    To ensure just anyone can’t come into contact with private or sensitive data, employment screenings are generally rigorous for those involved in the hiring and training of provider employees.

  • Data Encryption:

    Data maintained in the cloud is highly encrypted to prevent against unauthorized access, with common methods including cyphertext-policy and key-policy attribute-based encryption, fully homomorphic encryption, and searchable encryption.

Competent service providers also take compliance seriously, working to meet the regulations surrounding legislation like the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

Disaster Recovery

Disaster recovery is primary focus for cloud providers. As no business can afford to lose data, cloud computing providers go to great lengths to ensure that information can be recovered, even in disaster situations. In this context, disaster recovery includes a backup and restoration strategy in which numerous copies of client data are maintained in several forms so that even an unprecedented event cannot destroy everything.

Data is often backed up in multiple locations and at multiple intervals. For example, a provider may make a daily or even hourly copy of data that is stored for a period of time, like a week, while also creating physical backup copies on a slightly less frequent timeline, like once a month. The details of a particular provider’s disaster recovery plan are generally included in service-level agreements, including any kind of compensation should disaster recovery fall short. This should be a key component of due diligence for users considering several options.

The Costs of Cloud Computing

Cloud computing is frequently touted as a cost-effective alternative to more traditional services, offering a scalable resource that can save money, reduce hardware and software needs, optimize performance, and accommodate growth. However, this is hardly a quantifiable description of what companies can expect when transitioning to the cloud.

Despite the fact that the cloud can be a way to save money, the true costs are extremely variable. Some cloud solutions, like Google Drive, are completely free, while others may cost thousands or even millions of dollars to properly implement. Companies that require expansive, enterprise-scale solutions will find themselves facing far steeper costs than a startup striving to get off the ground.

The best way to evaluate costs is to reach out to SaaS, PaaS, and IaaS operations, seek quotes, and perform a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis before moving forward, regarding both costs today and in the future. Many cost-saving opportunities won’t happen this year or next year, but instead several years down the road, so consider the ways in which cloud computing can reduce license costs, FTE requirements, and other related charges.

Cloud computing is an important part of the present and the future of modern technology. With impressive opportunities available for both professional and recreational web users alike, it’s guaranteed that cloud computing will continue to offer compelling solutions today and for years to come.

If you’re looking to make the transition to a cloud platform, like a public cloud, private cloud, hybrid cloud, or are just looking to update your infrastructure, we can help you navigate what is currently available and steer you in the right direction. Looking for a cloud provider or cloud platform can be challenging, especially with so many popular types of cloud like Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure, Rackspace, and Amazon Web Services.

We can help you maneuver through these crowded options and point you in the right direction. We have the most secure private cloud environment in the country that can handle any cloud computing work, but you may not need that and we will be up front and tell you. You may just need some extra cloud storage, more computing power, or frankly different software to handle your company’s workloads. We can show you how the benefits of cloud can improve your productivity, mobility, and cyber security.

At Avatara our definition of cloud computing is simple: it is simply a better way to run a business.