Demystifying The Cloud

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Devices Connecting to the cloudIt’s a strange term isn't it? The cloud. To the uninitiated, the phrase brings about concepts of fluffy water-based formations up in the sky. With reference to the Web however, “The Cloud” refers to a collection of computer, information technology and software applications by means of a network connection.

Often, these resources are accessed through data centers by using Wide Area Networks (WAN) or Internet connectivity. Cloud computing enables the availability of computing resources anywhere, anytime. It also enables quick and easy deployment of such resources with minimal configuration.

An Often Misplaced Interpretation Of The Meaning

When I first heard of the term “The Cloud”, my immediate instinct was to attribute the meaning as implying “something that is out there”,  as in something that is in the sky somewhere. In my mind, I used to think that the term comes from the way we access cloud services; in a manner that makes it sort of out of reach. I am certain I was not alone in this kind of thinking.

In actual fact, the basis for the term derives from how resources are accessed rather than where those resources are located. If you are coming from a scientific or technical background, then the term is akin to talking about a black box.  

In a black box, as the term states, you have a box. What’s interesting about the box is not its colour, but how you interact with it. Essentialy you give a black box input and get the resulting output after the box is done manipulating the input. As a user of the black box, you do not concern yourself with the inner workings that produce the output in response to your input.

In other words you are blind as to how the changes come about- hence it is a black box. Think about a computer: you push on keys on the keyboard and voila, they appear on the screen. As an ordinary user, you do not care that there is first kinetic energy from your motion on the keys that in turn affects circuitry to produce ones and zeros, at the end of which the text appears on your screen.

The cloud works in a similar fashion - it is a black box. You submit input and get the resulting output without intimate knowledge of what is going on with the servers and the networks underlying the system that makes everything possible.

A Matter Of Metaphors, Metaphorically Speaking

The cloud is a metaphor for the concept it represents. As human beings, we conceive metaphors in order to describe and explain concepts that are abstract. By referring to a metaphor, we can communicate the essential aspects of an idea without going into technical complexities.

Computing is generally not well understood by the general population. This fact is however immaterial for most users of the technology. Only the technicians need to bother with the intricate details of how computers work whilst the general population just need to know enough to use them. This also goes for a lot of concepts in our world.

In order to convey functional but not overly detailed knowledge to allow people to use computers, we collectively develop metaphors for how they work; from Social Networks to Cyberspace, and all the metaphors in between and beyond. 

Take a social Network as most people understand it for example. It is not even close to how a computer sees it. But the idea of a Social Network as generally understood is relatable to everybody for everyday use in contrast to the abstract reality in technical terms. 

It’s All About Resource Management

In the history of computers, computing has gone through extensive transformations. From computers large enough to occupy entire buildings to ones fitting inside of your pocket but with even more computing power, to going further by throwing most of the necessary computing power to  machines you will never see with an even bigger boost in computing power.

From the early days of large physical computers to today, the main drive for change has been resource management. Resource management in computing has seen extensive optimization since the 1940s. Optimization in energy consumption, computing speed, power, spatial occupancy and resilience.

"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."  This was Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM in 1943. Boy was he way off the mark! Now computers are ubiquitous and computing power moving to the cloud. Moving computing resources to the cloud is a massive optimization for efficiency.

Essentially, the Cloud allows us to better manage computing resources by pooling them. Pooling computing resources in this way means that their use is better optimized and managed. In a cloud environment, resource use is managed in real time. The cloud allocates computing resources when and where they are required so that nothing lies idle.

Perhaps the biggest advantage to resource management in the cloud manifests itself in terms of financial advantage. Whenever numerous people make use of a resource in a commercial setting, economies of scale come into play. By pooling resources, cloud service providers can offer computing power cheaper, and everybody wins.

Hiding Complexity and Delegating Responsibility

Going back to metaphors and the black box, the cloud makes possible a unique way for people and businesses to deal with complexity and delegate responsibility. People and businesses often face a lot of challenges in acquiring as well as in managing technology and moving to the cloud reduces the variables to consider.

If you are running all or part of your operations in the Cloud, it automatically means you will need lesser technical expertise to manage business processes. This means lesser man-hours are needed to keep operations running.

It also means that there is less time investment in training required since you or your staff complement will have fewer responsibilities in as far as technological resource management is concerned. This also translates into lower costs than it would take to run all infrastructure and services on-site.

There is also the important matter of security. Pooling computing resources translates to a better strategy when addressing computer security threats. The reasoning behind this is that the responsibility of protecting computing resources from various threats is entrusted in the hands of specialists who can dedicate more resources to the effort of implementing security.

Deployment and Service Models

There are three main levels of deployment. The “private cloud” has cloud infrastructure operated solely for a single organization which may be managed internally or by a third-party. It can also be hosted either internally or externally.

In the case of a "public cloud" , services are rendered over an open network in public use and some services may be available for free. There is very little difference between public and cloud architecture, if any, even though the security models may be substantially different. 

A “hybrid cloud” model incorporates the best of both private and public cloud architectures that merges two or more clouds.

Depending on needs, there are three primary service models to consider. With Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS, the consumer can deploy and run arbitrary software including operating systems and applications. The consumer does not manage or control the underlying cloud infrastructure but has control over operating systems, storage, and deployed applications.

With Platform as a Service (PaaS) the consumer has access to custom applications using choice programming languages tools. The consumer however does not manage or control the underlying cloud infrastructure including network, servers, operating systems, or storage.

Software as a Service (SaaS) is what most individuals and small business will use.  The consumer niether manages or controls the underlying cloud infrastructure including servers, operating systems, storage or, with a few exceptions, not even the individual application capabilities.

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