What is the cloud? How does it work? And why is it even called “the cloud?”
This hyped up buzzword isn’t really new in the world of technology.
In fact, the cloud acquired its name as a metaphor for the internet, the symbol itself having repeatedly been used to depict the internet in diagrams and graphics in workplaces from all over.
More specifically, in the realm of business IT “the cloud” refers to servers that are accessed over the internet, as well as the software and databases running on said servers.
While the physical reality behind the metaphor may seem less lofty than the term suggests, the cloud is, at the end of the day, a critical component of modern business computing.
One of the reasons it has become so popular in recent years is because the cloud lets businesses utilize computing power without having to build their own data centers from scratch.
This offers companies and employees greater flexibility, more remote work options, and makes scaling easier.
In this article, we’ll help you get a solid understanding of what cloud computing is so you can decide when and how to implement cloud technology for your business.
The Features of Cloud Computing
Cloud computing itself is made possible by a technology known as virtualization, which creates “virtual” software-based computers that function like “real” hardware based ones.
From this core technology, a number of useful features and characteristics emerge. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
Broad User Access
The cloud allows for broad user access, meaning users can easily access or upload data to and from the cloud from just about anywhere.
All users need to utilize the cloud and any resources on it is a computing device and an internet connection.
One of the more attractive features of the cloud is its option for self-service provisioning, which is a capability that enables users to select a specific cloud service for provisioning with little intervention from the cloud provider.
This allows cloud service users complete control in scaling their computing resources as needed based on real time stats like uptime, storage usage, and processing demand.
Another great feature of the cloud is the option to pay-per-use.
If your business only needs to utilize certain cloud resources during office hours, you could turn off your cloud applications at night to save money.
Leverage Shared Resources
This feature is also known as “multi-tenancy resource pooling.”
Put simply, it allows cloud service providers to give multiple clients (or “tenants) a sense of almost infinite scalability by leveraging the shared resources of their cloud servers.
Contrast this with traditional on-premise servers, which aren’t so easy to scale as you have to plan and pay for the servers themselves, their installation, their electric bills, their maintenance, etc.
This feature gives organizations the option to transfer certain files or applications to and from the cloud, and even between different cloud platforms.
Migration flexibility allows your business to save money by altering your server usage or location when desired.
Lower Management Overhead
With traditional on-premise computing, your company has to manage local, physical hardware. This includes planning and paying for set-up, installation, and maintenance to keep your servers working as intended.
With cloud computing, your service provider takes care of managing the physical servers, so any costs that come with the management would primarily impact their bottom line, not yours.
The Difference Between Cloud and On-Premise Computing
On the surface, the difference between the cloud and traditional on-premise computing is fairly straight forward.
As we dig deeper into the differences, though, you’ll see a clearer and more granular understanding of what makes these two kinds of computing distinct from each other.
For instance, instead of managing your own local, physical hardware, cloud computing allows some or all your servers, software, and networks to be hosted off-site.
Data and applications hosted on the cloud are also distributed across multiple servers, and sometimes across multiple data centers and geographic locations.
This way, if one server fails or one data center loses power, the chances of your business losing data and experiencing disruption of service becomes greatly reduced.
The cloud also allows for greater flexibility and scalability of your resources like storage, processing power , and bandwidth.
This feature reduces and can even eliminate the costs associated with investing in and maintaining local hardware that comes with on-premise computing, which ties into one of the primary benefits of cloud computing: lower ongoing costs associated with IT management.
Since cloud computing reduces managerial overhead and enables ease of scalability, it’s easier for you and your company to create a more predictable IT budget.
Now that we’ve covered what makes cloud computing distinct from its more traditional counterpart, let’s look at a few of the ways your business can utilize the cloud.
Cloud Types: Public, Private, and Hybrid
As with any IT project, before you move forward with cloud computing, you should conduct a proper assessment of what IT resources your company currently utilizes.
This involves taking a look at your company’s current business objectives, capabilities, and conducting a cost/benefits analysis of implementing cloud computing.
Once you know where your company currently stands based on the results of your assessment, you’ll have the information you need to determine what IT resources your company needs and whether or not some or all of them can be acquired via the cloud.
There are three main types of cloud computing deployment and each comes with their own unique benefits and tradeoffs.
With public cloud, cloud IT services are accessible publicly over the internet. These services are typically free or subscription-based where the client (your company) is charged based on how many computing resources they’ve consumed.
In public cloud, the vendor is in charge of the development, management, and maintenance of its computing resources, which are pooled and shared between multiple clients.
Public cloud is popular because the services are highly flexible, scalable, and can be low-cost.
Unlike public clouds, private clouds aren’t shared between multiple clients.
Instead, companies create and manage their own cloud computing resources, privately delivered across their own secure and private network. One of the primary benefits of private clouds is their customizability as they can be designed specifically to fit the needs and wants of a company like yours.
Private clouds can be created locally or offsite with the third-party data center provider. The greater personalization and increased set-up time usually entail a higher setup fee and greater maintenance costs.
As the name suggests, hybrid clouds are a mix of private and public cloud types.
Since the resources are distributed across multiple public and private data centers, hybrid cloud services are known to be especially reliable.
Hybrid clouds also offer greater flexibility to your company. You can even move your company’s applications and data between your public and private servers if desired.
This cloud type is not cheap, however. Businesses typically use hybrid clouds when they’re in a situation that involves sensitive data that needs private storage but they also want to save on costs with the public cloud.
Types of Cloud Services
Public cloud resources are delivered in a variety of service models, depending on how the responsibility for setup and maintenance is split between your company and your vendors.
Let’s take a look at the most common public cloud service delivery models and some examples of each.
Software as a Service (SaaS)
With SaaS, your company’s cloud applications and computing resources are managed by a third-party. Many SaaS applications are able to run directly from your web browser, eliminating the need for downloads or installations on your end.
SaaS Delivery — With SaaS, your IT staff won’t need to install or download your company’s applications to each individual workstation.
SaaS Advantages — Frees up resources for your IT team by reducing the amount of time and money that goes into the installation, management, and upgrading of software.
SaaS Characteristics — You can tell if an application you’re using is powered by the cloud because it’ll be accessible over the internet, hosted remotely, managed from a central location, and you won’t be responsible for any updates.
When Would SaaS be Used? — SaaS is often used by startups and small businesses that want to avoid having to deal with server issues. It’s also useful for certain short-term and infrequent tasks such as virtual team collaboration or online taxes.
SaaS is one of the most common delivery models for many popular business applications such as Zendesk, Intuit, Salesforce, and Microsoft 365, to name a few.
Platform as a Service (PaaS)
With PaaS, most of your company’s cloud services are managed by a third party, but not all.
PaaS is useful for developers because it gives them a framework to build upon, which they can use to create custom applications. The developers manage their cloud applications while the cloud provider handles the servers, storage, and networking.
PaaS Delivery — Instead of delivering applications over the internet, like SaaS, PaaS offers a platform for the creation of software; the platform itself is what’s delivered over the web.
PaaS Advantages — Some of the main advantages of PaaS include its scalability, accessibility, and simplicity, i.e,. it’s easy to migrate over to a hybrid model allowing developers to customize apps without worrying about software maintenance.
PaaS Characteristics — You can tell if a development application is a PaaS if it’s easily accessible to a large number of users, is built on virtualization technology, and integrates databases and web services.
When Would PaaS be Used? — The most common use-case for PaaS is when your company needs customized applications or when it needs to quickly develop and deploy an app. It’s also useful for situations where multiple developers are working on the same project and need to streamline their workflows.
Some popular examples of PaaS companies include Windows Azure, Heroku, OpenShift, and the Google App Engine.
Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)
IaaS provides your company with all the technologies and capabilities of a traditional data center without the need to physically maintain or manage actual hardware.
With IaaS, most if not all of your cloud computing resources are managed by the user, allowing your business to buy resources on-demand and as needed. It’s built out of scalable and highly automated computing resources.
IaaS Delivery — Cloud computing infrastructure (including storage, servers, network, and OS) is delivered via virtualization technology. Your organization typically gains access through an application programming interface (API) or a dashboard.
IaaS Advantages — As far as cloud computing models go, IaaS is the most flexible. It allows for hardware and resource purchases to be based on consumption and necessity. Your company retains complete control over your infrastructure.
IaaS Characteristics — Common characteristics include it’s highly scalable services, incredible flexibility, and consumption based costs. Resources are available as a service and your organization retains complete control over the infrastructure.
When Would IaaS be Used? — Startups and smaller companies that can’t afford to have their own physical data centers often take advantage of IaaS, and larger enterprises that want to pay only for what they consume may also prefer this model. It’s also useful in situations when a company needs the ability to scale and adapt quickly to changing needs.
Some common examples of IaaS include Cisco Metacloud, DigitalOcean, Linode, and Rackspace, to name a few.
Cloud Computing Business Use Cases
Cloud computing services are being utilized in a variety of ways across organizations of all kinds. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine a major business today that hasn’t adopted cloud services.
To give you an idea of how common cloud services are, consider that over 600,000 businesses worldwide use Slack to improve workplace communication, and even independent freelancers have taken advantage of accounting applications like Quickbooks and Freshbooks.
From email software to digital workstations, we’ll take you through different examples of what utilizing cloud computing services might look like in your organization.
Cloud email services are SaaS products. If you see a company email address like “[email protected]” chances are that that business is using email cloud hosting services.
These products grant your business access to email tools over the internet. With these services, the vendor provides you all the necessary security, maintenance, and technology needed to keep your email solution running smoothly.
- Outlook for Business — This solution is designed to provide your business with enterprise-level email hosting. Since this product comes with Microsoft 365, your company will also be able to utilize the cloud storage granted from OneDrive as well as the other apps associated with the Microsoft Office Suite. One of the things that makes this product so popular is its customizability. With Outlook for business, you’ll have full admin controls over employee accounts.
- G-Suite Email for Business— The primary benefit of this SaaS product, like its Microsoft counterpart, is that it is designed for enterprise use. It gives your company full control over all emails that are associated with your business and compared to standard Gmail, which is free, you get additional storage space (30GB with their basic plan). With G-suite, you also have full admin control over your business’s Google Drive.
Cloud Files & Data Storage
Cloud storage and file-sharing services come in the form of SaaS and PaaS products. They’ve properly addressed a growing needs that come with distributed workforces and the budding remote work culture since, if critical files can’t be accessed by employees, they can’t do their work.
Business cloud storage and file-sharing solutions are designed to move, host, and manage enterprise levels of data over the internet.
- OneDrive for Business — In the same way that Google Drive is included with G-Suite, Onedrive comes with Microsoft 365, Office 365, and also Sharepoint Online plans. Its default storage capacity is 1TB per user If your business has an Office 365 subscription with 5 or more users, your OneDrive for Business storage becomes unlimited.
- Google Drive for Business — If you get a basic G-Suite subscription you will be allotted a certain amount of storage, but you can upgrade to their business & Enterprise level to get at least 1TB per user. G-Suite’s standalone cloud storage solution, Drive Enterprise, comes with Google Docs, Google Sheets, and Google Calendar.
- Azure Cloud Storage — This is Microsoft’s advanced cloud storage solution for businesses looking for greater scalability, security, and durability. The core services of the Azure Storage platform include Azure Blobs, Azure Files, Azure Queues, Azure Tables, and Azure Disks, all of which can be accessed within your business’s storage account.
- Cloud Storage on AWS — Like the Azure Cloud Storage platform, cloud Storage on AWS offers a variety of services. The three broad categories of storage on AWS include object storage, block storage, and file storage. You can further optimize your storage on AWS with their S3 Storage and EBS Storage products.
To put it simply, cloud applications are pieces of software that users access primarily over the internet. Since they aren’t run locally, users don’t typically need many onsite resources to utilize them—a laptop is often enough.
Your company can get the benefits of cloud applications by either implementing a SaaS solution or by using PaaS services to create cloud environments for your applications to run in.
- Quickbooks — This is an accounting software application developed by Intuit. It’s simplified income and expense tracking allows for easy cash flow management and reporting, and its time tracking feature makes payroll and invoicing a breeze
- Salesforce CRM — This CRM is by far one of the most popular in the marketplace. At a surface level, it tracks and helps your business visualize every stage of the sales process so that multiple departments can easily understand where customers and leads sit in their respective funnels.
- Zoom — You’re almost certainly familiar with this one. Zoom is probably the top video-conferencing application. You can also use Zoom for audio conferencing, hosting webinars, live chat, screen sharing, and other useful capabilities.
- Microsoft 365 — Formerly known as Office 365, Microsoft 365 is a subscription service that comes with the latest office applications and Windows 10. It has a consumer level, a business level, and an enterprise level.
- Microsoft Azure — While we already mentioned Azure and it’s storage capabilities, the complete application itself is Microsoft’s cloud computing platform. It was formally known as Windows Azure, but they changed the name because the platform can now handle far more than just Windows. You can even run Linux Virtual machines on it.
Cloud workstations go by many names, including cloud desktops, hosted desktops, and even Desktop as a Service (DaaS).
In simple terms, cloud workstations present a virtualized, fully functional computer on your preferred device. Businesses typically purchase licenses for these desktops which are hosted by the vendor.
The fact that they enable employees to log into their workstation from any device makes remote work significantly easier than otherwise.
- Amazon WorkSpaces — With this secure service, your company can provide Windows or Amazon Linux desktops to your employees across the globe over the internet. The key benefit of Amazon WorkSpaces simplifies the complexity that typically comes with having to track, manage, and maintain a fleet of physical desktops.
- Windows Virtual Desktop — This Daas solution virtualizes both desktops and apps over the cloud. It’s additional features also enable your organization to migrate existing remote desktop services (RDS) and apps to any computer, virtualize Microsoft 365 apps for enterprise, and manage Windows 10, among other things.
Cloud servers are virtual servers that are built, delivered, and hosted via a cloud computing platform over the internet. They’re stable, secure, fast, and avoid the issues often associated with physical servers.
They also offer more scalability than physical servers, and any software issues that occur within a virtual server are isolated in their own environments, so even if you use the same provider as another company and their server becomes overloaded, it won’t impact your virtual server.
- Google Compute Engine — This is the IaaS offering of the Google Cloud Platform. Google Compute Engine enables users to utilize virtual machines (VMs) via the cloud. It provides for both Windows and Linux OS for their machines, though you can technically run it on any OS you want due to its custom machine option.
- Azure Virtual Machine (VM) — This is Microsoft Azure’s IaaS offering. There are technically hundreds of VMs to choose from, but common types of Azure VMs include General Purpose, Compute Optimized, Memory-Optimized, Storage Optimized, GPU, and High-Performance Compute.
How Relevant is Geography When Considering Cloud Computing?
Just because you’re utilizing the cloud doesn’t mean you can simply ignore geography – location still matters. Here are a couple of reasons why this is.
When the data center housing your servers are closer to your users, data can be more quickly processed and viewed by them.
When they aren’t, your users may experience slower loading speeds which cause them to, for example, bounce from a webpage. This is called latency.
You want to consider the level of risk for natural disasters attached to the data center(s) that will house your servers.
For example, if your IaaS vendor’s data centers are located in California, earthquakes are a risk to your cloud servers. If their data centers are located in Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Tornados are a concern. East coast cities are prone to hurricanes.
Logic might suggest that the safest data centers, then, would be in areas that aren’t located in disaster zones, but you also want to keep disaster response time in mind.
There are certain parts of states that aren’t high at risk of natural disasters but are also incredibly isolated. If a disaster were to occur in that area, emergency responders would be less likely to arrive on time to help than if the center was located in a more densely populated city.
This is one reason why it’s a good idea to utilize geo-redundancy for your cloud infrastructure. If one data center location were to be disrupted due to a cyber disaster or natural disaster, geo-redundancy may prevent disruption to your server uptime.
Data Localization Requirements
Cloud computing regulations actually vary across the world. The flow of data is not “borderless.”
Data localization requirements, which are laws that require data related to a country’s citizens to be not only retained but also processed within the said country, have been a growing trend.
Depending on the location(s) of your business operations, compliance with such regulations may be a necessary consideration to make before taking the leap into cloud computing.
This issue is also related to data sovereignty, which is the idea that data collected in a specific country is subject to the laws and regulations of said nation. The data sovereignty regulations are also known as the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR).
Businesses that do not abide by GDPR the laws may be subject to fines.
How to Keep Your Cloud Computing Secure
Cloud security is one of the primary concerns that businesses have with cloud adoption—especially public cloud adoption, given that it entails sharing underlying infrastructure and hardware with other clients of your service provider.
That being said, breaches in cloud security are rare, and when they do occur, they tend to be caused by a company’s internal errors, rather than being a result of a provider’s lack of data security measures.
Regardless, here are some tips to help your company enjoy the convenience of cloud computing services without risking breaches in sensitive data.
- Use Encryption — Before you or your employees upload data into the cloud, make sure it is encrypted. Generally, your cloud service provider will offer options for encryption, ranging from encryption of critical/sensitive data to an encrypted connection.
- Local Data Backup and Recovery — One of the key benefits of cloud computing services is that providers offer redundancy and instant backups to protect against data loss or corruption. Still, your company can take an additional step for data security by backing up your most important data locally.
- Virtual Private Network (VPN) — With cloud storage, your company is able to conveniently retrieve company data over the internet, but the internet isn’t necessarily private. If the device you’re using isn’t secure, hackers might be able to gain access to your company’s critical data. You can prevent this by using a VPN to create a secure path that your company can use to privately access your cloud services.
- Virtual Firewall — Another way to keep your cloud network secure would be to utilize a virtual firewall, also known as a cloud firewall. The firewall would filter traffic to and from your network. They can also be deployed as virtual instances of next-generation firewalls.
- IP Restriction — IP restriction is one of the most popular forms of security used by organizations to keep their cloud computing resources secure. The feature enables IT admins to restrict network access to specified IP addresses. This would be used primarily against malicious or unknown IPs.
- Follow Password Best Practices — Passwords are one of the most common targets of cybersecurity attacks. Some general rules to mitigate the risk of a password breach include blacklisting use of common passwords, testing the strength of chosen passwords, utilizing single-sign-on applications, and much more. Learn more about password best practices in our article here.
- Conduct Security Tests — Even if you have a strategy for cloud security, the only way to make sure that your security measures work is by experiencing an attack, a disruptive event, or simply by conducting a test. Your IT team or managed service provider (MSP) should be able to work with your organization to safely test the strength of your cloud security.
Pros and Cons of Cloud Computing
Now that we’ve covered the common use cases and the real-world applications of cloud services, it’s time to take a look at the pros and cons of cloud computing.
Cloud Computing Advantages
- No hardware purchases are necessary.
- Lower management overhead.
- Ability to access business applications so long as you have an internet connection.
- Easier to scale than on-site computing.
- Leveraged resources and 24/7 support from cloud service providers.
- Improved Uptime.
- Better redundancy
- Basic security guaranteed by major providers.
- Access to the latest software, since major cloud service providers are always updating their products.
- Reduced total cost of ownership (TCO).
Cloud Computing Disadvantages
- Migrating your existing data or applications to the cloud may be cumbersome and expensive.
- You’ll need to plan out and clarify where new and or freed up resources will be allocated once your physical servers are gone.
- There may be a knowledge gap in your organization’s IT team. The IT staff may not have the expertise to migrate, deploy, and manage your organization’s cloud systems. Additional training, outsourcing, or taking on new staff may be necessary for a smooth transition.
- Your organization may not be comfortable with complete reliance on your internet connection. You can mitigate this issue by using some local files, servers, and applications. For instance, if you have Microsoft Word installed, you can still use it even if your internet is down. Some cloud applications even have offline modes.
- In the end, you’ll be trusting a third party with your business’s data and security.
Up and Coming Cloud Services and Technologies
Like any market, cloud services and technologies will only continue to improve as companies grow and update their products to stay ahead of the competition.
One such emerging service is the development of cloud-native applications, which are a collection of smaller, independent services that are coupled and designed to improve the speed at which applications are developed.
This process of developing applications was born out of the need for companies to deliver cloud applications that meet client needs at a pace that was efficient and reduced the development costs of the software development companies.
Another advancement in cloud computing relates to the growth of machine learning and AI. These technologies grant users a wide selection of cloud-based AI and machine learning services that are ready to use. Some examples of services like this include:
- Google Cloud Speech API
- Amazon Machine Learning
- Google Cloud Machine Learning Engine
- Google AI
What The Future Holds for The Cloud and Businesses
Although cloud computing is already a few decades old, it’s still in its early stages of adoption in the business.
Many businesses were hesitant to transition to the cloud for a variety of reasons, but privacy was a common concern. The idea of a company’s sensitive data being in the hands of third parties took a while to get used to, but it has and will only continue to become more common.
Given the events of 2020, however, many businesses were simply forced to transition to the cloud in one form or another in order to keep operations going.
To provide you an idea of the scale of this change, Microsoft alone saw a 775% increase in demand for its cloud services as a result of the stay-at-home orders.
The Flexera 2020 State of the cloud report also seems to indicate that COVID-19 will only increase enterprises reliance on cloud services for the foreseeable future.
The New Normal Runs On The Cloud
As cloud computing technologies continue to improve, so too will business as cloud services inevitably drive digital transformation across industries and the world.
By now you should have a comprehensive understanding of what the cloud is, its use cases, and what to consider when assessing whether or not migrating to the cloud is right for your company.
- What is the Cloud? — The cloud refers to servers that are accessed over the internet, as well as the software and databases running on said servers.
- Features of Cloud Computing — The features of cloud computing include broad user access, self-service provisioning, pay-pay-use capabilities, migration flexibility, and lower management overhead.
- Difference Between On-Premise & Cloud Computing — Rather than having your own local, physical hardware for servers, cloud computing enables all your servers, software, and networks to be hosted off-site by a third party. Because of this, the cloud offers more flexibility, is easier to scale, and can reduce IT costs.
- Cloud Computing Use Cases — Cloud computing can be utilized in a variety of ways, but most commonly comes in the form of software as a service (SaaS), Platform as a service (PaaS), and Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS).
- Cloud Types — Public, Private, and Hybrid are the three cloud types.
- Cloud Services in Action — Cloud services are used in a multitude of ways. They can be used for email services, data storage, file sharing, a variety of cloud applications, workstations, and even for virtual servers.
- The Importance of Geography & The Cloud — Geography is incredibly important and can have a serious impact on cloud services. The geography of data centers impacts latency, determines their risk for natural disasters, and governs the data localization requirements your company may have to abide by.
- Cloud Computing Security — Breaches in cloud security are rare, but in order to add greater protection and lower the risk of security breaches, we advise you to utilize encryption, local data backup and recovery, IP restrictions, virtual private networks (VPNs), virtual firewalls, follow password best practices, and conduct security tests.
- Pros and Cons of the Cloud — There are many pros and cons to consider when thinking about the cloud. Some of the most important advantages of cloud computing include better redundancy, less managerial overhead, and it’s scalability. Some disadvantages include the potential complications and expenses that may come with migration, knowledge gaps in your current IT team, complete reliance on the internet, and having to trust third parties with your business data.
- Emerging Cloud Services & Technologies — Important cloud services and technologies that are emerging include the continuous development of cloud-native applications and the growth of machine learning and AI.
- The Future of Cloud Computing — Cloud computing is still in the early stages of its adoption, but that was accelerated this year in large part because of the stay-at-home order that was made in response to COVID-19. As cloud services and technologies continue to improve, they will inevitably become more and more common in business.
Find Your Company’s Place in the Cloud
If your company is one of the many that are making the transition to the cloud, you may have noticed that migration involves quite a bit of work.
Integrating the cloud with your business isn’t a one-size fits all kind of deal. Your business is unique, and the cloud services you decide to go with should reflect that. We’ll help you make smart decisions that lead to a worry free migration experience.