Cloud Computing

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Cloud computing

Overview

You may have heard the term cloud computing or ‘the Cloud,’ but could you describe what it is? There are so many definitions flying around that you wouldn’t be alone if you struggled to define it. Cloud computing is simply a set of pooled computing resources and services delivered over the web. When you diagram the relationships between all the elements it resembles a cloud.

Cloud computing—not to be confused with grid computing, utility computing, or autonomic computing—involves the interaction of several virtualized resources. Cloud Servers™ connect and share information based on the level of website traffic across the entire network. Cloud computing is often provided “as a service” over the Internet, typically in the form of infrastructure as a service (IaaS), platform as a service (PaaS), or software as a service (SaaS).

Cloud computing customers don’t have to raise the capital to purchase, manage, maintain, and scale the physical infrastructure required to handle drastic traffic fluctuations. Instead of having to invest time and money to keep their sites afloat, cloud computing customers simply pay for the resources they use, as they use them. This particular characteristic of cloud computing—its elasticity—means that customers no longer need to predict traffic, but can promote their sites aggressively and spontaneously. Engineering for peak traffic becomes a thing of the past.

Everybody is sure that cloud computing is key to the future of IT, but people often seem unsure quite what it is. In fact, it’s an umbrella term for a number of different trends, all involving the internet and its potential to simplify the way we use computers and extend their capabilities.

The “cloud” is the internet, and the term is fitting – it’s large, out there somewhere, and fuzzy at the edges. Cloud computing is about putting more of your material out there and less on PCs or servers that a business runs for itself.

You can do this in many ways, but with every vendor claiming to do cloud computing in some form it has become confusing. It is worth understanding terms such as SaaS (software-as-a- service) and PaaS (platform-as a-service) so as to evaluate vendor claims. There are radical differences between the various forms of cloud computing, and they do not all offer the same benefits.

Essentially, cloud computing is the name for a large network of computer servers and connections. Many people make the mistake of assuming it is the internet, but it isn’t – you can certainly access cloud computing through the internet or internet-enabled devices (such as smartphones), but it is actually a system of computing. It allows ordinary users to access supercomputer levels of computing technology, which naturally opens up the number of things that you can achieve through computing.

For instance, it allows you to store and analyse much more data than previously, which can be useful when you need to compute information in order to make use of it. Say, for example, you have a large amount of data relating to your business but, as it stands, it’s just a load of numbers and coding and you can’t really make much sense of it. Processing it with a regular computer may well take a long time, but if you were to use cloud computing technology, such as the Amazon EC2 cloud, it would speed it up and enable you to use your data much faster.

These results can then be utilised in businesses to identify things such as how many customers they have had, trends in customer purchases and any other relevant information. This is obviously hugely useful when it comes to working out areas businesses are doing well in and other areas where they might need to improve.

Cloud computing can definitely help everyone, from businesses who want to make direct use of cloud computing technology to web users who might not even be aware that they are using it. For example, when you do a search through an online search engine such as Google, you type in your search phrase and then it comes back with a load of results for you to choose from. For the web user, this is a quick and simple process, but it’s actually made possible by Google’s vast network of computers and connections right across the world: this means that the information you get back in your search results is essentially data from the cloud.

Cloud computing also allows web users to access more technology more easily. An example of this is the Google Font Directory. For ages, web designers have been fairly limited in the fonts that they can use on websites because many people’s browsers are limited in what they can support. However, transferring the font directory to the cloud computing system means that there is a great quantity to choose from, which is revolutionising not only the way people work with computers but how we view the web.

Below and in the accompanying glossary we attempt to answer common questions and explain baffling terms about this new area of computing.

Q: What’s the point of cloud computing?
Reasons vary, but often include the desire to outsource the maintenance burden of servers and applications; the need to scale systems up or down on demand; the benefit of being able to access your data from anywhere with an internet connection; and the ability to replace occasional heavy expenditure on IT with regular and predictable operational expenditure.

Q: What is utility computing?
The idea that businesses should not be spending effort and money on installing and maintaining complex hardware and applications, when a specialist can supply those same services on a pay-as- you-go basis. Businesses do not generally generate their own power – utilities are bought when needed. In the same way, the argument runs, essential IT services can be managed better externally.

Q: What is software-as-a-service (SaaS)?
Pre-baked services that you access simply by navigating there in a web browser. Google Mail and Google Docs are examples of this kind of cloud computing.

Q: What is platform-as-a-service (PaaS)?
A set of lower-level services such as an operating system or computer language interpreter or web server offered by a cloud provider, on which developers can build custom applications. Microsoft Windows Azure and Google App Engine are examples of PaaS.

Q: What is infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS)? 
Provision of servers or virtual servers that organisations use on a pay-as- you-go basis. Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) is an example of IaaS. In practice, cloud suppliers often provide additional services alongside IaaS offerings, so the boundary between IaaS and PaaS is ill-defined.

Q: What is a rich internet application (RIA)?
Modern web browsers have fast script engines and rich graphics and plug-ins, such as Adobe Flash, to extend their capabilities. A rich internet application has applications running in the browser that have rich graphics and the kind of sophisticated user interface that at one time would only have been possible in a locally installed desktop application. The term was made popular by Adobe for applications using its Flash plug-in, but it is also sometimes used to describe advanced HTML applications.

Q: What is multi-tenancy?
Cloud-hosted applications where multiple customers share a single application, even though they only have access to their own data. Salesforce.com is an example. Multi- tenancy is the most cost-effective form of cloud computing, since the software itself is shared.

Q: What is the difference between public, private and hybrid clouds?
Some organisations, especially larger ones, want the benefits of cloud computing but without the risks inherent in trusting their data to a third party. They can achieve this by creating a cloud-like infrastructure in their own data centre. This is called a private cloud. The public cloud refers to providers such as Amazon, Google and salesforce.com, whose shared services are available to all. A hybrid approach uses both public and private services.

Q: What is virtualisation?
Emulating computer hardware in software, so that one or more emulated computers can run simultaneously on a single physical computer. This is a boon for cloud computing: service providers can use hardware efficiently by running many virtual servers on each machine in a data centre. Sometimes virtual machines can be moved between company premises and cloud providers.

Q: Is cloud computing green?
Cloud computing goes some way towards solving a problem called under- utilisation, where servers run constantly with little computing load, wasting money and power. Service providers use virtualisation and other techniques to make full use of their hardware. The downside is that these datacentres are power-hungry, and we are using more of them as demand grows. The hope is that a new generation of more efficient super computers will make cloud computing a truly green option.

Q: What is Microsoft’s cloud computing platform like? 
Microsoft makes most of its money from traditional desktop software, Windows and Office. Nevertheless, it has developed its own cloud platform, including free consumer services such as email, blogging and online file storage under the Windows Live brand. The platform also includes hosted versions of its business servers such as Exchange for email and SharePoint for collaboration under the BPOS (Business Productivity Online Standard Suite), and a platform for custom applications, called Windows Azure, which also offers online file storage and database services. In addition, Microsoft offers software to organisations building their own cloud platforms.