What Is the Cloud? Defining Remote Internet Infrastructures
In computing terms, "the cloud" has nothing to do with weather. An internet cloud is made up of servers that users access via the internet.
A cloud-based resource requires no special software installed on a computer. It also needs no physical proximity to servers or resources. Anyone with the right permissions can hop online and get started.
What is the cloud?
Think of the cloud as a method rather than an object. Cloud computing involves removing location and/or software demands from users. Instead, a reliable internet connection and proper authentication allow for full access.
A Google executive referred to his company's services by saying they were "in a cloud somewhere" in 2006. His point involved location. Users didn't need to sit in a building with Google's servers down the hall. Instead, those users could be anywhere in the world, and the services would follow them.
It was a new concept back then, but it's not new now.
You've probably used the cloud before. Almost half of the world's email market share belongs to Gmail. This cloud-based program allows you to get your mail from your computer, tablet, or phone. Log in anywhere, even across the world, and your data will be waiting for you.
Companies use the cloud for:
Backup. Some organizations set up their resources so sensitive information sits on the company's onsite server. But another version sits in the cloud, just in case something goes wrong on the ground.
Sharing. A user uploads something (like a photo) to the cloud. Another user far away (like a family member) can see it and download it.
Storage. A user uploads all vacation photos from 2019 to the cloud for social media posts years later.
In most cases, users access the cloud via a web browser or an app. When they log in, they're connected to many servers, all humming with information. Those servers can accept new users easily with few overhead costs. They also come with built-in redundancy, so nothing is lost.
How do cloud products work?
It's not easy to answer the question, "What is the cloud?" Every vendor has a unique product, and clients demand flexibility that explodes definitions. But digging into how cloud products work and how clouds are organized may help.
Four types of cloud architectures exist:
Private: The server holds information that's specific to you or your company. You don't share server space with anyone else.
Public: The server holds information from many sources.
Multicloud: Several servers in different locations hold information your users can access.
Companies use these architectures to build products. Four main types of products are available:
Function as a service (FaaS): A company runs an application on the cloud. Charges accrue only when specific actions are completed. The term "serverless computing" also describes this model.
Infrastructure as a service (IaaS): A company builds an application on the cloud by buying or renting both servers and storage space.
Platform as a service (PaaS): A company builds an application on the cloud, and they purchase everything from the cloud vendor. They don't need to buy infrastructure, operating systems, or other tools.
Software as a Service (SaaS): Applications are hosted on the cloud, and users access them via the internet or an app.
Companies you know and use every day, such as Slack, Salesforce, Canva, Mailchimp, OpenStack, and Instagram, all use these models to serve their customers.
Cloud advantages and disadvantages
The cloud model is popular, and plenty of large companies are eagerly embracing the technology. Should you do the same?
Cloud-computing benefits include:
Accessibility. Data is stored within the cloud, not on a server within an office building. You can start a document at work and make edits from your home computer that evening.
Flexibility. Companies don't need to add servers when business is booming. They also don't need to remove hardware when the market dips. Vendors handle the ebb and flow.
Being platform agnostic. In 2020, more than 40 percent of American workers logged in from home, not the office. Without cloud computing, those people needed a VPN or plenty of software. With the cloud, they needed only to authenticate, and then they could see the appropriate resources.
Cloud-computing disadvantages include:
Reliability. About 19 million Americans don't have high-speed internet access. They may experience hitches and lags when using cloud services. If their service goes down, they can't work at all.
Security. Companies don't have full control over cloud data. A hacker who gains entry could see (and steal) anything.
Compliance. Companies in heavily legislated markets (like health care) must ensure their partners will protect their data.