Cloud 101: What Is Cloud Computing?

By Colby Dyess | April 21, 2014

This blog posts kicks off a 3-part Cloud 101 series on what the cloud is, what advantages it provides and why organizations should use it. While this may be basic knowledge for many of our users, we thought it would be helpful to explain how we view cloud computing and how it impacts the way we build our private cloud software.

What is Cloud Computing?

Cloud computing is an increasingly fundamental part of IT. Starting with this entry, we will go in depth about what the cloud is, the different ways in which it can be used and why organizations should take advantage of it. Think of the series as a Cloud 101 primer.

Cloud computing covers a wide range of technologies and service models, but at its core it is, as per the National Institute for Standards and Technology's definition, a model for enabling on-demand access to shared resources for compute, storage, services, networking and applications. The value proposition of the cloud as a whole is that it enables rapid resource provisioning, minimal interaction with service providers and levels of self-service, elasticity and metering that facilitate highly efficient IT workflows.

NIST stipulates that cloud computing has five essential traits:

  • On-demand self-service - users are able to provision infrastructure, development tools, software and other resources on their own, often via a Web browser. As such, they can get what they need when they need it, without having to go through a service provider or conduct a lengthy procurement process.
  • Broad network access - cloud resources are delivered via an IP network, typically using standard Web protocols such as HTTP, HTML and Java. These mechanisms ensure the availability of cloud computing services to the many different components of heterogeneous (mixed legacy and cloud) IT environments.
  • Resource pooling - resources for compute, storage and networking are available to multiple consumers. Plus, the servers supporting them function as a single unit, abstracted from the underlying hardware.
  • Rapid elasticity - cloud resources are flexible, capable of being dynamically reassigned and/or released in response to sudden changes in user demand.
  • Measured service - users and administrators can monitor and control how resources are utilized. As a result, they can keep tabs on cloud computing spend, which often follows a variable, pay-as-you-go business model.

The technical, logistical and business aspects of cloud computing depend on the particular deployment model, which is either private, public or hybrid (we'll dig more into these categories in a subsequent post). For example, the number and type of users that can tap into resources may vary between a public and private cloud deployment. Regardless of model, however, cloud computing platforms are designed to facilitate easy, quick and scalable access to various IT resources and services.

What are the Basic Advantages Afforded by Cloud Computing?

The cloud holds many potential benefits that span areas such as cost control, time to market, infrastructure management, automation and business partnerships. For instance, utilizing a cloud platform in tandem with, or as an alternative to, on-premises assets opens up possibilities for streamlining and automating processes such as testing and development. Whereas in the past an organization would have needed to undertake a complex equipment and software procurement process just to acquire additional resources for its users, now they can do so through something as simple as a Web interface.

Accordingly, the cloud empowers companies to quickly scale resources to accommodate shifting user demand, decoupling this process from considerations of physical infrastructure. In practice, this means that applications can be written, tested, debugged and sent to market in much less time than in environments that adhere to traditional service models. Quality of service can also be improved, with requirements now easier to adjust and meet as conditions evolve.

In terms of infrastructure, using the cloud enables IT teams to determine particular reliability levels for machines and then adjust them without user involvement. Moreover, cloud services enable superior utilization of existing assets, many of which are underutilized in traditional IT setups. A Cognizant white paper estimated that as much as 70 percent of equipment earmarked for testing purposes was underused, underscoring the opportunity for cloud-oriented IT models to revitalize essential processes while also introducing new business opportunities.

Who Uses Cloud Computing?

Organizations in nearly every vertical have found some use for the cloud. A 2013 survey of 855 IT decision makers, business users and cloud vendors, conducted by North Bridge Venture Partners and GigaOM Research, found that 75 percent of respondents used the cloud in some capacity. Service agility and scalability were the main drivers of cloud adoption among this population.

There are many use cases for cloud computing, from storing data to enabling application development and testing processes. Many startups and small to midsize businesses have gravitated to the cloud as way to kick-start operations without having to set up full-fledged IT infrastructure.

"[F]rom a capability standpoint, cloud computing allows SMBs to gain access to technologies that they might otherwise need sophisticated IT support to obtain," stated the authors of the McKinsey report "Winning in the SMB Cloud." "[F]ew small businesses have the knowledge and expertise to perform ongoing management of dedicated servers, and storage in order to run commercially available ERP or CRM packages. By leveraging [cloud] solutions, these companies can stop worrying about the details of installing and running infrastructure or sophisticated software packages and instead simply contract for these offerings as services."

In the next entry in this Cloud 101 series, we'll go into detail about the different cloud service types (IaaS, PaaS and SaaS). We'll also take another look at the difference between public, hybrid and private cloud deployments, and why organizations may choose one over the other.

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