Cloud computing reshaped how companies large and small acquire, use, and sell software. Perhaps more subtly, it shifted the playing field of computing away from large companies that could afford massive data centers to allowing anyone with a credit card to acquire state-of-the-art technology. However, it’s often taken for granted and not fully understood.
Cloud Computing Technologies and Trends
At a conceptual level, cloud computing isn’t a new idea. In the early era of computing, many companies employed “time-share” technology, where individuals would have access to a terminal that could submit computing tasks to a large central mainframe computer, each terminal sharing computing time from that central mainframe.
Cloud computing does a similar trick, where high-powered computers are located elsewhere and shared by many users. The term originated from early architecture diagrams representing large networks as a cloud, and you may have heard someone quip that “that will happen ‘in the cloud’” when discussing these networks. The widespread adoption of the internet and increasing speeds allowed almost anyone to connect to a robust network of computing power and share software. Hence, cloud computing became mainstream.
Aside from the technology, new business models and a robust ecosystem of software companies make cloud computing so compelling. Before the widespread availability of cloud computing, most companies would purchase software and hardware from various vendors and spend significant sums installing and maintaining that software. Obviously, the more complex and costly the software, the higher the cost of acquisition, support staff, and ongoing maintenance.
Cloud computing changed that dynamic. By shifting the hardware, software, and all the supporting maintenance and development to another entity, small companies could now access “big company” software at a price point that was compelling for both the customer and the provider. Arguably smaller companies even gained an advantage. By not owning millions of dollars of infrastructure and staff to support on-site resources, they could quickly acquire and switch cloud providers as business needs dictated.
Types of Cloud Computing Technologies
There are several types of cloud computing technologies, broadly defined by who owns and who can access the underlying resources. The most familiar is the public cloud, where a company like Google or Microsoft owns the hardware and software and provides access to these resources to the general public in order to develop their own applications. Multiple companies, each called a tenant, can access the underlying resources to build their own applications.
The “big three” cloud providers, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, all provide public clouds, and your favorite apps like Gmail, Spotify, and Netflix all run off these public clouds.
On the other hand, a private cloud is generally dedicated to a single company that may or may not own the underlying infrastructure. An organization can create its own pool of computing resources and build its own private cloud or pay another company to build and maintain a private cloud.
Hybrids or multiclouds blend some combination of company-owned infrastructure with public or private clouds, creating what seems like a single environment.
There are various concerns in determining which type of cloud might be right for your organization, with security, scalability, and cost all varying to some degree between the types. For example, the lower cost of a public cloud might benefit a company testing a new application. In contrast, the security requirements of a government entity might require a private cloud.
For initial forays into cloud computing, the public cloud provides rich functionality that’s easy to extend at competitive prices. For more complex systems, there are specialists who can help design the right cloud environment for your needs.
Where to Start: Top Cloud Computing Applications
You’re likely using the cloud already, even if you don’t know it. Commonplace applications ranging from Google Docs to Microsoft Outlook already leverage cloud computing technologies. Here are some of the top categories of cloud applications and some examples you might already use today.
Software as a Service (SaaS)
Software as a service (SaaS) is the now-ubiquitous model of paying a recurring fee for access to a software application that is delivered or hosted in a public cloud. Microsoft 365, which includes the popular Office suite, is a SaaS offering, as is the Adobe Creative Cloud. Many companies are also investigating SaaS models for software products they can sell to their customers.
Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)
Infrastructure as a service (IaaS) allows entities to “rent” hardware and the associated infrastructure at someone else’s location. IaaS providers offer everything from individual servers (called “bare metal”) to time on a shared server or web hosting platform.
Platform as a Service (PaaS)
Platform as a service (PaaS) provides a layer of abstraction from the physical hardware, allowing entities to purchase computing capacity rather than specific hardware. Amazon Web Services (AWS) is perhaps the best-known PaaS offering and will enable customers to develop applications using a standard set of tools without worrying about the specifics of what kind of servers or networks are running the application.
File and Data Storage
If you’ve used Dropbox, OneDrive, or Google Drive, you’re already familiar with cloud file and data storage. These platforms allow users to store and share data without worrying about disk drives, backups, or data centers. File and data storage are often combined with other cloud offerings.
The cost for computing and storage infrastructure associated with big data storage and analysis can be significant, so cloud computing providers have addressed this challenge by essentially “renting” the capability via cloud computing. Providers like Collibra, Smartsheet, and DemandTools allow customers to “ingest,” store, and analyze large data sets without investing in their own infrastructure. In some cases, these providers even include industry-specific analysis tools.
As cloud adoption has increased, so too have cloud-based cybersecurity providers. Moving elements of your cybersecurity to the cloud allows you to tap into additional expertise and better manage devices that are no longer limited to sitting in a physical office. Companies like Palo Alto Networks and Carbonite provide services ranging from detecting rogue devices to alerting you when company data are stolen.