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Introducing ... the cloud

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Introducing ... the cloud

Monday, June 20, 2016

An introduction to the cloud.

The first commercial personal computers seemed like expensive toys in a world where serious business took place on dumb terminals linked to a central mainframe computer. But within ten years they had revolutionised business practice, appearing on every desk, displacing terminals and fuelling fashionable ideas about “horizontal” corporate structures replacing out-dated hierarchies.

But we never quite let go of the rival notion – that centralising costly resources makes economic and management sense. This principle lived on as “client server” networks, where autonomous PCs had access to centralised corporate data and functions and this helped reduce fragmentation and duplication of efforts.

And now that same, centralised model is making a dramatic comeback in a form known as “cloud computing”.

What is cloud computing?

Cloud computing is basically a client server system where the client is, as before, your more or less mobile PC or smartphone device; but in this case the server is not a box somewhere in the company’s datacentre, but the Internet itself. More specifically, it is a part of the Internet that is owned and run by a Cloud Service Provider (CSP) whom you pay for the services made available to you over the worldwide Internet.

So, for all the hype about the cloud, it is not a new idea but one that is almost as old as computing itself. It was already being promoted in the last century and the only reason it never took off earlier is that it depends on really fast and reliable networking. Because the number one criterion for adopting cloud computing is this: unless the service works so well that you would not know it was not happening in your device, then you would rather do it on your own device. If, say, you are working on a spread sheet and dogged by tiny delays between keystrokes as data moves to the cloud and back, then most people would rather just install Excel on their PC and get on with it.

What are the benefits?

Taking the last example: what are the advantages of using software in the cloud rather than having similar software in your own PC – assuming the service works well?

For a start, you won’t be bothered by those tiresome upgrades and patches that always seem to crop up when you’re in a hurry: the software in the cloud will be kept absolutely up to date and in tip top condition – if it was not, word would soon get around and the CSP would lose customers. It’s the same convenience as having a hired car instead of the responsibility of your own car.

The second fundamental advantage is that, as with a hire car, you are spared the capital expenditure of buying software and upgrades – instead you get a service that you pay for as you use it. Typically this could be a monthly payment for the right to unlimited use, like a hire car, but it might also be somehow linked to actual usage.

Is this second factor always an advantage? It depends. It is generally simpler to budget for regular “pay as you go” expenditure instead of the occasional big capital outlay, so accounts departments usually prefer “OpEx” instead of “CapEx” billing, and the cloud provides that. But of course it does depend on the actual service charge: if that is high and you have good software management systems already in place, then it can still work out more economical to buy your own software.

If a large organisation makes the latter decision, to keep its software in-house, it does not necessarily mean abandoning the cloud model. The alternative is to build your own corporate cloud by linking datacentres to form a “private cloud” – becoming your own private CSP so staff gets the convenience of cloud services while you keep control of the service. More typically, businesses are choosing “hybrid clouds” that include both public and private cloud services – so everyone gets the benefit of cloud computing, without necessarily knowing that some of it comes from the Internet and the rest from the private cloud. For example, they might encourage staff to use Google apps for documents, mail and calendars, but prefer to keep financial and personal transactions in the private cloud.

So we could sum it up by saying that cloud computing is a client/server model with a virtual server instead of a physical box. And that virtual server could be distributed anywhere in the Internet (Public Cloud), or amongst a company’s own private datacentres (Private Cloud) or a combination of the two (Hybrid Cloud).

Why the slow uptake?

Like anything reliant on Internet connectivity uptake has only been able to grow as fast as our ability to connect to the Internet. While the concept of the cloud was about in the 90’s it’s taken almost 20 years for business to really unleash the full potential of cloud computing as Internet access technologies have developed - dial up has given way to ADSL and now fibre for cities and fixed wireless for regional location.

Without a rock solid broadband connection you’ll find yourself limited on what can and can’t be moved to the cloud. Learn more about the types of cloud based services available in part two of our cloud special.