What is Cloud Computing?
25th May 2012

What is Cloud Computing?

I’ve often heard asked in the office the deceptively simple questions of “What exactly is Cloud Computing”. While most people watch us splutter trying to explain it coherently, the real answer is that there’s no one definition to the concept. It is a buzzword, much like RAM and SEO with regards to computers. The real treasure in the term Cloud Computing is what it represents for the industry, and that is what I’m here to explain; how it works in its various facets, and why, in as simply put terms as possible. That way we’re all in the clear.

The Cloud itself is an old thing; it is simply the Internet. It is all the data-centres and servers all over the world that provide to us the medium for communicating over a cable. Cloud systems have been around for years, the most well known being “Hotmail”. This is where instead of something like Outlook, where you download your mail and keep it on your computer, all the emails are stored directly on the server, and are accessed through the internet, usually with a Web Browser. As I have discussed before, we all know what Browser that should be. Other systems have existed using a multitude of other interfaces for hundres of other applications, and this is what Cloud Computing itself encompasses.

But how exactly does it work?

When referring to these sorts of systems, it helps to divide it into two sections; the Front End and Back End. These both connect to each other remotely, usually via the internet or a network router. The Front End includes your computer, and usually an application required to access the cloud computing system (as with the aforementioned Web Browser accessed Hotmail).

On the Back End of the system, there are various computers, data storage systems and servers that are essentially “The Cloud” of computing services. On paper, the Back End could be used to run any computer program imaginable, from word processing to video games. Each of these programs or applications have its own dedicated Server.

A central server serves as the administrator of any given system, monitoring client demands, traffic and processing to ensure that everything runs smoothly. These central servers run a piece of software known as “Middleware”, which is used to allow networked computers to communicate with each other.

Most of the time, these server computers in the Back End aren’t running 100%. There’s just loads of processing power sitting there, going to waste. The computer can be tricked into thinking its more than one computer, running each its own operating system. This is known as “Virtualization” and minimises the cost of needing to include more physical machines. Data Storage, also, is gargantuan. As such, it stands that all data needs to be backed up with exact copies, in case – as nature has it – a component fails. This practice is known as “Redundancy” and ensures that data stored on the cloud is not easily lost.

Herein lies the benefits of Cloud Computing. It is a safe, central and beneficial way to run a service. If you have the time, check out Google Docs, which is an entire online storage facility for their inbuilt word processor. You can store files with their “Google Drive” service, and create and modify documents directly online. They can be accessed anywhere over the internet with a Google Account, which is free. The benefits here are limitless.

They have just released functionality to include their web-fonts, which expands the range of fonts used. Or even their Research functionality, which can take a subject matter, and find useful references for it running their world famous algorithms that scour the internet. The beautiful thing is that unless Google disappeared overnight, that presentation you have been working on won’t corrupt, won’t be lost, nor can you accidentally leave it at home. It’s there, accessible at all times.

What does this mean in the future?

With services like the much vaunted OnLive in the US, a video game, application or even an entire Operating System can be run in a remote location, and streamed to your computer. This means that any laptop with the ability to display video in HD can run a game with graphics that would make your computer embarrassed to be seen in public. This is, however, provided that you live close enough to an OnLive data centre – hence why it is only available in the US presently. With enhancements, the world could have access to a service like this

Further, technologies have been prototyped, as we mentioned in this article whereby an entire computer can be run remotely, and specially designed monitors will allow you to access them without the need for a computer tower (and all those expensive components).

The benefits of Cloud Computing (in this context) are monolithic for businesses. An executive of a large corporation, in charge of seeing that all employees have the right computer hardware and software, will have to buy a computer for each man and woman, then buy the software licensing for each one separately. A Cloud Computing server would mean that instead, a new employee would just be given a screen, keyboard and mouse. A space would be created for him or her to use as a computer from the server, and they would work away. Meanwhile, it would cost significantly less for hardware, and any software license would only need to be bought once ever. Considering that some of these can price in the thousands (more than a business grade computer), this is a considerable saving.

So what can I do about it now?

As I mentioned before, Cloud Computing has many existing uses. Google Docs and Hotmail are just two examples. There are services all over with so many applications. Collaboration software exists where one can work on a project with someone across the world at the same time. Requests can be sent with complex calculations that would take years on a normal computer, to utilize the collective power of The Cloud, returning with answers in mere hours. Even your iPhone, with is much advertised iCloud, can be used to centralise your contacts, emails, photos and more to be accessed from any Apple device.

What is plainly evident by all these explanations, examples and wistful thinking, is that Cloud is immeasurably useful, but not something that can be nailed down and given to you. When requiring a Cloud Computing service, it is best to ask for a specific purpose, and see if it is possible, rather than succumbing to the buzz as much of the world has with the recent SEO Blitz. The industry in utilising The Cloud is still very much in its infancy, so expect more and more amazing things as the years roll by.