“The cloud” refers to servers that are accessed over the Internet, and the software and databases that run on those servers. Cloud servers are located in data centers all over the world. By using cloud computing, users and companies don’t have to manage physical servers themselves or run software applications on their own machines.
The cloud enables users to access the same files and applications from almost any device, because the computing and storage takes place on servers in a data center, instead of locally on the user device. This is why a user can log into their Instagram account on a new phone after their old phone breaks and still find their old account in place, with all their photos, videos, and conversation history. It works the same way with cloud email providers like Gmail or Microsoft Office 365, and with cloud storage providers like Dropbox or Google Drive.
For businesses, switching to cloud computing removes some IT costs and overhead: for instance, they no longer need to update and maintain their own servers, as the cloud vendor they are using will do that. This especially makes an impact for small businesses that may not have been able to afford their own internal infrastructure but can outsource their infrastructure needs affordably via the cloud. The cloud can also make it easier for companies to operate internationally, because employees and customers can access the same files and applications from any location.
How does cloud computing work?
Cloud computing is possible because of a technology called virtualization. Virtualization allows for the creation of a simulated, digital-only “virtual” computer that behaves as if it were a physical computer with its own hardware. The technical term for such a computer is virtual machine. When properly implemented, virtual machines on the same host machine are sandboxed from one another, so they don’t interact with each other at all, and the files and applications from one virtual machine aren’t visible to the other virtual machines even though they’re on the same physical machine.
Virtual machines also make more efficient use of the hardware hosting them. By running many virtual machines at once, one server becomes many servers, and a data center becomes a whole host of data centers, able to serve many organizations. Thus, cloud providers can offer the use of their servers to far more customers at once than they would be able to otherwise, and they can do so at a low cost.
Even if individual servers go down, cloud servers in general should be always online and always available. Cloud vendors generally back up their services on multiple machines and across multiple regions.
Users access cloud services either through a browser or through an app, connecting to the cloud over the Internet — that is, through many interconnected networks — regardless of what device they’re using.
What are the main service models of cloud computing?
Software-as-a-Service (SaaS): Instead of users installing an application on their device, SaaS applications are hosted on cloud servers, and users access them over the Internet. SaaS is like renting a house: the landlord maintains the house, but the tenant mostly gets to use it as if they owned it. Examples of SaaS applications include Salesforce, MailChimp, and Slack.
Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS): In this model, companies don’t pay for hosted applications; instead they pay for the things they need to build their own applications. PaaS vendors offer everything necessary for building an application, including development tools, infrastructure, and operating systems, over the Internet. PaaS can be compared to renting all the tools and equipment necessary for building a house, instead of renting the house itself. PaaS examples include Heroku and Microsoft Azure.
Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS): In this model, a company rents the servers and storage they need from a cloud provider. They then use that cloud infrastructure to build their applications. IaaS is like a company leasing a plot of land on which they can build whatever they want — but they need to provide their own building equipment and materials. IaaS providers include DigitalOcean, Google Compute Engine, and OpenStack.
Formerly, SaaS, PaaS, and IaaS were the three main models of cloud computing, and essentially all cloud services fit into one of these categories. However, in recent years a fourth model has emerged:
Function-as-a-Service (FaaS): FaaS, also known as serverless computing breaks cloud applications down into even smaller components that only run when they’re needed. Imagine if it were possible to rent a house one little bit at a time: for instance, the tenant only pays for the dining room at dinner time, the bedroom while they’re sleeping, the living room while they’re watching TV, and when they aren’t using those rooms, they don’t have to pay rent on them.
FaaS or serverless applications still run on servers, as do all these models of cloud computing. But they’re called “serverless” because they don’t run on dedicated machines, and because the companies building the applications don’t have to manage any servers.
Also, serverless functions scale up, or duplicate, as more people use the application — imagine if the tenant’s dining room could expand on demand when more people come over for dinner!
Cloud storage vs cloud computing
Cloud storage involves stashing data on hardware in a remote physical location, which can be accessed from any device via the internet. Clients send files to a data server maintained by a cloud provider instead of (or as well as) storing it on their own hard drives. Dropbox, which lets users store and share files, is a good example. Cloud storage systems generally encompass hundreds of data servers linked together by a master control server, but the simplest system might involve just one.
Cloud computing also involves clients connecting to remote computing infrastructure via a network, but this time that infrastructure includes shared processing power, software and other resources. This frees users from having to constantly update and maintain their software and systems, while at the same time allowing them to harness the processing power of a vast network. Familiar everyday services powered by cloud computing include social networks like Facebook, webmail clients like Gmail, and online banking apps.
How safe is the cloud?
The cloud may promise to lift the burden of our ever-increasing data storage needs, but how do we know our data is truly safe when we entrust it to a cloud provider? What measures do they take to address our two biggest concerns: reliability and security?
We’ve already learned that cloud providers store backups in multiple locations. Systems that detect smoke, suppress fires and provide emergency power are also standard features of data centres, and these secret locations are heavily reinforced, guarded and internally protected to prevent intruders or disgruntled employees from physically harming or stealing the storage hardware.
To secure your data so no one else can get at it, cloud systems use authentication processes like usernames and passwords to limit access, and data encryption to protect data that is stolen or intercepted en route. And yet, passwords can be hacked; often it’s the service provider who holds the encryption keys to your data, meaning that rogue employees could access it; and your data isn’t immune to search and seizure by government entities.
So, to entrust or not to entrust? In any case, you can rest assured that — since cloud storage companies live and die by their reputation — they take great pains to employ the most advanced security techniques and provide the most reliable service possible. But the bottom line is that we live in an age where national governments have been exposed for tapping into supposedly private cloud data. Savvy surfers would be wise to keep anything truly sensitive stored on their personal computer or private cloud behind a firewall, and never upload it to the public cloud.