What is the cloud?

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What is the cloud?

Over the past several years, this idea of “The Cloud” has been gaining more and more popularity. You hear all sorts of services that are cloud based or companies that are migrating to the cloud. But do you really understand what “The Cloud” really is? What are it’s benefits? What can it do? Most people are still unsure about these questions and more. Today I will help you better understand the concept of “The Cloud” and what it really means for you and your business.

For starters, lets try to define what “The Cloud” really is. The base premise of it is that there is a collection of very powerful servers, centrally located and maintained, that does all of the heavy processing, security, storage or other specialized service that client computers can remotely connect to. This takes form in a number of ways. For starters, most people have already started using cloud services in the form of Drop Box or Google Drive. These are simple examples of “Cloud Storage”, where you simply sign up for a service (paid or sometimes free). That company tackles the problems of security, hardware maintenance and performance. All you have to do is utilize it. Another concept of cloud computer that most people have not seen is the true essence of  “Cloud Computing”. The idea that “The Cloud” will preform very complicated, intensive tasks such as highly detailed 3D rendering, real-to-life simulations or data processing on a super massive scale. These types of tasks require so much processing power that most companies cannot afford the equipment to run them, let alone manage them. But by utilizing a service that offers cloud computing, even a small company can now take advantage of the raw power that modern super computers can offer. The last concept I will touch on is the idea of virtualized computers. This is an implementation of “The Cloud” that is designed to reduce operating and labor costs. The concept is to utilize thin clients to connect to a remotely hosted virtual computer. I’ll go into more detail about all of this in a bit.

There are also two ways to think about cloud computing. There is the internet based cloud and locally hosted cloud. The internet cloud is simply one that is hosted and accessed through the internet. A local cloud is one that is hosted and accessed through a LAN (local area connection). These are usually only seen in much larger companies that can afford to host such services for themselves.

Cloud Storage

Cloud storage is the simplest concept of cloud computing. You simply store data on another server hosted by a company on the internet. If anything happens to your computer or office, your data is safely stored elsewhere. Most people are already fairly familiar with this concept, in fact you may already use it. But there are some drawbacks to consider when looking into this type of service. The first of which is security. Now that is not to say that the cloud is not secure, far from it. Any given cloud storage service is most likely far more secure then your home or office could ever be. But the one flaw with any system hosted on the internet is passwords. This really comes down to you as the user. If you make strong secure login credentials, you will be fine. You can learn more about what makes a good password here. But if you decide to make your password “password” you can bet your data is compromised. Additionally, you need to consider the amount of data you want to transfer, how often you want to access it and how much of it you will be accessing at a time. The reason for this is internet bandwidth. Most companies and homes do not really have a lot of internet bandwidth. Internet service providers focus on giving users download bandwidth, because that is what most of us need. But download bandwidth is only used for taking information from the internet, not putting it up on the internet. Most service connections only provide you with 1.5Mbs to 5Mbs even if you have a large package with 45mbs download speed. That means if you have 200GB of home movies you want saved, it would take you almost 310 hours to transfer it to the cloud. That’s almost 13 days! And only if you have the transfer running non stop and full speed. But if all you need backed up is copies of critical work documents, a photo album or two, or maybe your favorite music, then you might not have a big problem. Just look at the total amount of data you want to store compared to your upload speed.

True Cloud Computing

This area I won’t go into to much detail, simply because it won’t really be relevant to most readers. But for informational purposes, lets dive in for a minute! Lets say you are an amateur 3D animator, and you have made an awesome short film with a very high level of detail. This type of project will take a lot of computing power to render. In fact, it can take hours or even days to render a single frame of the animation depending on how powerful your computer is. This is the where cloud computing comes in. Instead of spending tens of thousands of dollars (at least) on powerful hardware, you could instead rent out a processing server that specializes in 3D rendering. Then you would pay a fee, usually based on processing power * time needed, send out your project to this server and wait for the finished result. In the end, you have your finished product, spent less money and don’t have a bunch of unnecessary equipment left over.

Virtual Computers

This may be the the most relevant implementation of cloud computing for business owners. The idea is that instead of having to manage computers in house, you only have what are called “Thin Clients”. In reality, these are usually no different than a normal computer, except that they are very low end, inexpensive and easy to replace/repair. You might ask “Why would I want such low end equipment?” Well, the reason is that these thin clients only do one thing: connect you to a virtual computer. This virtual computer would be hosted somewhere else, on very powerful systems and can be scaled to be as powerful or cost efficient as you want it to be. The main benefit is that if the thin client gets damaged, you simply replace it and reconnect to the virtual machine. All of your programs, data and projects are still there, unaffected by whatever hardships befell your poor thin client. This also helps when it comes to managing hardware costs associated with fluctuating staff. You no longer have to spend $1.2k on a new computer every time you hire someone, or have unused equipment laying around if someone leaves. When you hire a new employee, you simply have the service provider add on another virtual machine. When someone leaves the company, you simply remove the virtual machine. It’s really that easy. And instead of worrying about maintaining high end computers, each thin client is cheap and interchangeable. So its very cost effective to just have extras on hand, and when one goes down, simply swap it out with an extra one and your staff can just keep on working like nothing happened. Now again, the big item to consider here is bandwidth. If you have 20 people all trying to use virtual machines hosted on the internet, that is going to use a lot of bandwidth. Additionally, this type of setup is highly dependent on a stable and reliable internet connection. If your ISP loses connection for a time, your entire operation can be brought to a halt. There are alternatives that do allow small companies to take advantage of these concepts. Windows Server allows for the hosting and access to virtual computers in this way and can allow you to host a local cloud environment inside your office. These deployments can be quite costly, running well over $50k, and require expert staff to maintain. But don’t let that deter you from asking about it. There may be cost effective solutions available to you that can really help your bottom line and productivity.


Tom Patch

I'm an IT consultant with 8 years of experience. Currently supporting consumers and small businesses in King and Pierce counties in Washington state. I can help with any general technological consulting, network administration and security, web development and hosting. Email - tom@local-pc-pro.com Blog - http://www.local-pc-pro.com/news-and-tech-tips/

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