All About: Cloud Computing

You have likely encountered Cloud Computing without realising it. Web-based email services such as Gmail or Hotmail are classic examples of common cloud computing experiences. Instead of running software on your computer, you login to a remote server to access your account. As connectivity and networking speed increase the ability for businesses to rely on ‘The Cloud’ for a widening range of services increases, coinciding in the rise of Software as a Service, Platform as a Service and Infrastructure as a Service models that can be accessed globally.

Cloud computing is slowly modifying our approach to computing by shifting the emphasis of computational power into network capabilities. Cloud based services, whilst reliant on some processing power and reasonable viewing hardware, work based upon their ability to provide their users remote access to a given service through a dedicated user interface. The emergence of widespread cloud computing has touched all of us whether using business services or not: cloud based music services (Spotify, Pandora), image hosting (Imgur, Picasa, Tumblr) as well as video streaming and almost any format of online gaming. Cloud based enterprises are on-demand services – that is unless there are network connectivity issues, the service is maintained and ready for access at all times, from nearly any location.


How does Cloud Computing work?

Understanding how cloud computing operates is relatively simple, especially if broken down into its core components of front end and back end operations. Front end operations comprise the visual aspect of any cloud service, where cloud computing clientele can access their service. The back end deals with networking, connecting the front end user interface with the servers that form ‘the cloud’. Let’s look further at the back end.


The back end of Cloud Computing

The back end of a cloud computing operation will focus on a large data centre full of dedicated service servers and data storage units that process operations and maintain information. There will often be a central server processing unit that provides administrative services to other servers, allowing the cloud computing service owners to exercise control across the network. Data centres for largest providers are vast warehouses filled with server racks, featuring specialised cooling systems and enhanced connections to the outside network to uphold connectivity. The sheer number of servers in a data centre means a number of units will not be running at capacity. Here, system administrators can virtualise their servers: they create virtual server partitions in existing servers to ensure that capacity is being reached, reducing the overall number of physical servers needed.

The size of a back end cloud computing service will vary largely relating to the server and data storage demands. The variety of service is usually not an issue – most servers can be programmed to run a specific service be that gaming, video or music. It is not uncommon to have multiple services running from the same data warehouse to ensure financial viability for the server owners (if not business owned). A specialised type of software called Middleware ensures that all servers are communicating with one another, and that all data repositories are functioning as they should. With the removal of localised software from business and home computers has come the requirement that more information is stored in the cloud. Aside from the vast number of servers, each data centre must have at least two complete sets of storage devices to contain their user’s data – one for current access and the other for backup in case of system failures. This process is known as redundancy.


The front end of Cloud Computing

Front end services comprise the visual, client interaction side of cloud computing. Consider some common cloud computing services:

  • Apple iCloud: Apple’s cloud service provides a backup service for photos, music, applications, device system settings, including calendar, contacts, email etc. This service has front end functionality across multiple operating systems (OS) and can be accessed globally.
  • Google Drive: Google’s cloud computing service operates a broader definition of cloud computing when compared to the iCloud. Google Drive comprises storage facilities and data backup for smart devices, but also comes complete with desktop software applications such as word processing and spreadsheets with the option to add more applications through a dedicated store. Google Drive also offers multi-user functionality where several members of a business can work on the same document concurrently. Many, if not all of Google’s services can be considered cloud based.
  • YouTube: The pioneer of cloud based on-demand video services (also owned by Google, see above). Millions of user posted videos accessed through the cloud.
  • Social Media Networks: All social media networks operate cloud capabilities. The vast nature of services such as Facebook and Twitter and their capabilities for image and user data storage mean we interact with the front end user interface, whilst our data is stored in their vast data centres.
  • Siri/Phone Assistants: The rise of smartphone voice assistants has largely become reality due to the ability to store large amounts of data in the cloud. These device assistants ‘learn’ by recalling specific datasets recorded to the cloud and accessing them as needed through a vocal interface. Services like this focus on an advanced user experience, individually contextualised to our daily requirements.

Whilst just a small segment of common cloud services, you will note a common theme: user interface design. Cloud computing services rely on their user interfaces to promote their use. A bad design can see a loss of potential clientele to other, easier to access services. The variety of front end services can also be further defined by the usage type of the local computer:

  • Fat Client: A local computer (client) that interacts with cloud computing servers, but also completes a large amount of computational processing without relying on the service. A periodic connection to the cloud is required for the up and download of relevant information but the local computer is still functional when disconnected.
  • Thin Client: A client that relies heavily on cloud functionality to complete its processing functions. A thin client may maintain a small amount of process power and data storage but maintains a constant connection to a central server for additional processing needs. Most contemporary smart devices can be considered thin clientele due to their reduced storage and consistent interaction with networks, with an emphasis on utilising cloud storage over the local.


Cloud Computing for businesses

The need and requirements of a business will indicate which variety of network is preferential for operations. Cloud computing offers a range of popular and largely positive options for business that can be scaled up or down according to business size, and can be seen to be enabling access to advanced software for many smaller business as well as potentially reducing overall ICT costs. Cloud computing advocates point to access for small businesses to services that once would have required expensive licenses, but now can be accessed on a pay-as-you-go scheme where the service is only used as required. Others use the example of the additional computing power that can be harnessed through cloud computing processes meaning businesses can scale down the demands of their own hardware, or even purchase less advanced versions of existing technology. Security is another key component of cloud computing, though this is widely debated, with many arguing that whilst centralised data storage can provide more advanced data security, once that is breached the attacker will have potentially compromised many thousands of businesses and individuals rather than just one as in a single attack.


Where is Cloud Computing heading?

The Cloud is set to grow. Many see the next evolution of the web into an entirely cloud based service where a ‘cloud of clouds’ communicate with one another to ensure seamless global data transition, fitting seamlessly with the ‘internet of things.’ The role of cloud computing is clear in many cases, just how far our digital society evolves with it is yet to be seen.


Cloud Computing Terminology

Some additional Cloud Computing terminology you may encounter when selecting your provider:

  • Scalability: The ability for a cloud service to modify the proportions of service offered to individual or multiple clienteles across a broad spectrum, keeping in line with demand.
  • Multitenancy: the sharing of a pool of resources through a large number of users. This allows for:
    • Centralisation: infrastructure centrally located to contain costs (electricity, property rental etc.)
    • Peak Load Capacity: pooled resources can manage sudden surges in activity
    • Utilisation and Efficiency: Improved in pooled systems which are often only 10-30% utilised.
  • Virtualisation: Technology allowing the sharing of servers and storage devices to increase utilisation and enhance redundancy.
  • Private Cloud: Cloud for sole usage of one organisation.
  • Community Cloud: Shared cloud for a given community.
  • Hybrid Cloud: Considered a composition of private, public and community clouds, offering benefits of shared resources for all whilst remaining separate entities. Examples include in-house cloud services where sectors of storage are restricted to certain users, but those users may still draw from the resource pool.
  • Intercloud: The goal of many web users. An interconnected cloud of clouds.

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