Nobody understands the cloud

Greenlight Cloud Blog | Greenlight | Jersey, Guernsey, Channel Islands

In the film ‘Sex Tape’ Cameron Diaz berates her partner who has accidentally uploaded a private video to ‘the cloud’. When she asks why he can’t ‘get it down from the cloud’ he turns and shouts at her – ‘nobody understands the cloud’. It turns out that he isn’t alone in this. According to a poll commissioned by Citrix, albeit one that is two years old, 51% of respondents thought that stormy weather would interfere with cloud services and 22% admitted to feigning knowledge of the cloud and how it works.

So let’s start by defining it.

What is “the cloud”?

You’ve probably used Google Docs – that’s an office suite in the cloud. You’ve probably used Dropbox – that’s storage in the cloud. You’ve probably had a Hotmail account – that’s email in the cloud. But hold on a minute. “The cloud” is the new kid on the block, we’ve only been hearing about it for the last couple of years and Hotmail is nearly 20 years old. How can that be “in the cloud”?

The answer is simple – the internet is major component of “the cloud”. So when people say something is “in the cloud” they often mean “on the internet”. Amazon is a retailer in the cloud. Google is a search engine in the cloud. In fact for most non-business conversations the internet and the cloud are synonymous. However as I’ll discuss later you can use the cloud without touching the internet.

Why the rebrand?

If “cloud” is in large just the current buzzword for “internet” what’s all the fuss about? Well, the cloud is the current trend. It’s cool. It’s hip. Lots of organisations label their products and services with it because it then associates them with the household names of the cloud – Google, Amazon, Facebook. Five or so years ago websites were all about “Web 2.0”, today it’s “the cloud”.

SalesForce was one of the first companies to offer a cloud-based application and today the word cloud features heavily in the names of their products and their marketing. However back in 1999 when Salesforce launched there was no mention of it. Instead it introduced the application as a ‘new Internet site’, encouraging potential clients to ‘’Exploit the Power of the Internet to Harness Your Sales Information!’ .

This current rebranding shift is no different to previous trends where a product gets re-branded to fit with the current technological zeitgeist. For example IBM’s Message Broker being renamed to Integration Bus to bring it in line with the growing popularity of the “service bus” architecture even though the product itself was not fundamentally changed.

Where did the name come from?

The phrase “the cloud” is simply a contraction of cloud computing. Cloud computing is the ‘proper’ terminology complete with formal description and classification; “the cloud” is the generalization and user friendly name.

As to why the name ‘cloud’ was chosen it is thought to be due to the long-standing use of a cloud symbol in networking diagrams to represent the internet.

What is ‘cloud computing’?

“Cloud computing is the online provision of computing resources and services”. It is clear from that definition that services available on the internet fall in it. But also note that the definition does not explicitly require use of the internet; ‘online’ simply refers to something that is controlled by or connected to a computer. This means those services that are available within private networks are also part of “the cloud”. So if you are a legal firm and you provide an online Practice Management System from your own data centre – that’s part of your cloud. If you are a financial services company and you host a fund administration platform – that’s part of your cloud.

So there’s two types of cloud – in-house and internet?

The concept behind cloud computing is that it treats all computing resources and services as equal, regardless of how or who provides it - it effectively commoditises them. From a users point of view the cloud is a single nebulous blob and that’s the way it should stay – keep the users away from the implementation details, let them focus on efficiently using the services and deriving the most benefit from them.

However from an IT perspective there are huge differences between consuming third-party services over the internet and providing services for yourself. As such it is useful to categorise the cloud into one of three types – public, private and hybrid. The public cloud consists of those services available over a public network, generally this means the internet. So earlier I talked about Google Docs and SalesForce – they are  both part of the public cloud. The private cloud is made up of those resources run exclusively for your organisation. It’s important to note though that whilst you may choose to host and manage it with your in-house IT team you can outsource it to a third-party but it still remains part of the private cloud. The third type is hybrid cloud which, as the name suggests, is a combination of public and private clouds, often more than one of each.

What does “computing resources and services” actually mean?

The best things come in 3s. So just as there are 3 basic types of cloud, there are 3 basic service models – IaaS, Saas and PaaS. Nati Shalom has drawn a simple but effective diagram showing the value and audience for each service model.

Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) is the provision of raw computing resource. That means processing power, memory and storage – in effect you are renting a computer which you can then use for whatever purpose you wish. IaaS also includes other low-level resources like DNS, VPN connectivity, CDN caches and vast archive storage.

Platform as a Service (PaaS) provides a complete environment – operating system, development tools, hosting infrastructure – for developing applications. PaaS sits firmly between IaaS at the bottom which provides bare-bones computing resource and SaaS at the top which provides complete, out of the box applications. Probably the most well known example is, a SalesForce service which allows non-technical users to create add-on applications that integrate into SalesForce.

Software as a Service (SaaS) is the most easily understandable because it’s the one model that people will have had most exposure to. It’s simply the provision of an application. Gmail, SalesForce, Facebook, Instagram, Xero, Github, Workday and Harvest are all examples of SaaS.

So that’s my summary of “the cloud” and how I view it. I’ve tried to boil things down to basic concepts and avoid getting dragged into the details but I hope even at this high-level it’s given you some useful definitions and examples and that you’ve come away with a better understanding of the area. If you have any questions or comments please add them below.

Phil Ruelle | Greenlight Blog |  Jersey, Guernsey, Channel Islands

About the Author

Phil joined Greenlight as COO in 2014 and has really made an impact. An expert in technology and software architecture, Phil has benefited both Greenlight and our clients with his attention to detail.

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