Inside the cloud

The cloud is one of the most popular terms in IT today but perhaps also one of the least well defined. FUTURES guides you through the how and the why.

BY STEVE CLAYTON

There are two ways of talking about the cloud. Cloud computing is a more tightly defined term that typically is used to explain the use of computing capability delivered across the Internet in a utility or on demand fashion. The cloud is a more all-encompassing term that is at times a metaphor for the Internet itself but increasingly used to explain a shift that is happening in the computing landscape.

Rather than focus on another definition, it’s more fruitful to look at what is driving this change.

At first glance it looks like a return to centralised or mainframe computing but is actually quite different. While the cloud takes advantage of centralised computing resources in vast data centres, it’s different from the mainframe era in that time is not shared on these computers as a precious resource. The cloud model of computing is built on the notion that these data centres could have almost infinite scale providing vast computing capability to any user, be they a consumer, small business or large enterprise.

The cloud is an evolution in the computing arena that takes advantage of the falling cost of CPU’s and storage (Moore’s Law) combined with the ubiquity of broadband Internet access and dramatic increase of Internet connected devices. These factors combined create a new landscape of computing that has power at the edge of the network – think of the smartphone you may have in your pocket – with the ability to connect those devices across the Internet to vast computing power that comes from virtualising thousands or tens of thousands of servers to appear as one.

New ways of using software

This is leading to a change in how we consume software: it’s now a blend, with some software being on the device we’re using and some being delivered or streamed across the Internet to that device. From a consumer perspective, this may be streaming a full-length movie to your PC or games console. That means it does not have to take up space on local storage and is available anytime, anywhere – assuming you have an Internet connection.

For a business, this may mean using the computing capability in the cloud on demand – perhaps at times of peak load for a site at Christmas or around the end of a financial year, when there is demand for intense computing horsepower. Outside of these peak load times, a business doesn’t pay for the resources it uses, so it becomes an attractive way to “buy” computing power.

Pay as you grow

Equally the cloud allows small businesses to use the same software as the enterprise brethren without having to install, run and configure servers on their own premises. For a start-up software company, it removes many some of the capital outlay it may have previously had to get their business off the ground. Now it can literally pay as it grows (or shrinks!).

It’s early days for the cloud, though there are already a few common layers that are talked of when referring to it. IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service) commonly refers to the raw computing horsepower that data centres provide. PaaS (Platform as a Service) typically refers to a developer capability that allows 3rd parties to build applications that run in the cloud – an example may be a remote PC backup service built on Microsoft’s Windows Azure Platform. Finally, SaaS (Software as a Service) is probably the most well-known type of cloud computing where full blown applications are delivered across the Internet to connected devices. Typical examples of Salesforce.com providing a CRM system or Microsoft’s Exchange Online, which provides email and collaboration as a service delivered across the Internet.

In summary, the cloud is the next evolution of computing and like previous shifts, bringing great opportunity for consumers, businesses, developers, academics, governments and more. It’s early days for the cloud but exciting times lie ahead for those involved in these fields.

Steve Clayton is the Director of Cloud Strategy in Microsoft International. He also writes an award winning blog entitled “Geek in Disguise”.