Definition and History of the Cloud
The are many version of the history of the term “cloud” as it relates to computing. In my university days, the “cloud” was called the “internet”. The “Cloud” is basically another term for a network of machines. I think the best way to explain this is with the graphic below. In it, all machines and devices that do certain functions, outside of the devices we know and care about, are collected into a cloud shape – usually the big fluffy thing in the middle.
Traditionally, computing has been done with applications installed on a local machine and in more corporate situations, these applications may talk to, and store data on a centralised server inside the corporate network. Cloud computing throws all of that out the window. As shown in the graphic, the only device that people actually use is the screen, the interface. The entire application, storage, processing and communication between interconnected services, is handled by some other device, somewhere else. And that really is the basis behind the “cloud”. It’s data being processed and loaded for you, by a machine that you don’t necessarily know where it is, what it is, or even if it’s doing anything else at the same time.
The concept of cloud computing was first coined back in the 1960’s as a way of time-sharing technology. Professor John McCarthy believed that computing applications could be served in a similar way to utilities such as water and electricity. Unfortunately, the technology of the day was a little big, cumbersome and expensive, so this idea didn’t really gain any momentum. It wasn’t until the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, when technology was leaping forwards, that this idea was revisited. Today, you can do everything you would normally do on your computer, but do it in the cloud.
Are there many Clouds?
So, if the cloud is essentially the “internet”, can there be more than one cloud? Well, yes. If we break down the concept of the “cloud” even further, a “cloud” is nothing more than a network of computers or machines. There are millions upon millions of networks around the world today – chances are you have one in your house and you are using one right now to read this article. Each and every network is essentially a “cloud” in it’s own right. The network has data storage available, applications available, other interconnected devices and might even be connected to other networks. After all, this is exactly how the internet started – it is a network of networks. Each cloud, or network, is independently owned, but collectively (at least for the most-part), they serve the entire world with the internet websites and applications we’ve come to love. Each of these smaller “clouds” are collected together into the behemoth cloud of the “internet”.
Your Own Cloud
Since a cloud is a network, or network or networks, it is of course possible to have your very own cloud. In fact, many businesses today use this principle. A Private Cloud is a network, similar to the internet, but scaled way down and constructed for very specific purposes. A Private Cloud is more or less cut off from the rest of the outside world and there may be reasons this might be a good idea. The network and connected computers are essentially much, much more secure and immune to viruses and malicious attacks if they are not part of the wider internet. However, a Private Cloud is generally not completely cut off from the wider internet. Email still needs to be able to travel in and out of the Private Cloud. In this case, the email gateway is configured to bridge the Private Cloud to the internet and only allow scanned email to travel between the two. There are many more security issues here than we don’t need to deal with right now, so we’ll leave Private Clouds there.
Some business build their own public cloud for a specific application and offer it to other business and consumers as a service. These applications are known as Software-as-a-Service, or SaaS.
Using the Cloud
We know you’re already using the Cloud to read this article, but cloud computing isn’t really browsing websites. Cloud Computing is the concept of taking all of the processing and data crunching your computer would normally do, and letting one or more computers out there on the internet, specifically built to do the kind of data crunching you need, process the data very, very quickly. This allows your computer to simply ask a question of a remote service, and give you the answer, without your computer actually doing any thinking on its own. How does this effect you? Remember trying to multitask on your desktop? If you were say, using a particular program that needed a fair bit of computing power, then everything on your desktop would slow right down, and the hourglass (Windows/Linux) or spinny wheel (Mac) would stop you from doing anything else until your computer caught up with what you had asked it to do. Moving these tasks out into the Cloud, on different machines specifically built to handle them, all concurrently, gives you incredible freedom to work/play/stream/edit at phenomenal speeds, all while letting you listen to your favourite music, which is streamed from the cloud too, of course. Also, since all your applications and data are stored in the cloud, you are no longer tied to using a specific computer. You have the freedom to use any computer, anywhere in the world, and access and use your music, files, videos and everything else, instantly.
Cloud Computing is proving to be a natural progression of technology. As applications become more intensive, more powerful computers are needed to run them well. The cloud provides the perfect solution to this by combining very high computing power, with the easy of access of a web browser.
How is your business using Cloud Computing technology? Leave your comments below.