Heard about ‘The Cloud’?
I’m betting you have, but do you know exactly what it means? Well, if you’re not entirely clear then you’re far from the only one. And here’s why…
Right now ‘The Cloud’ is a hot term, and people and businesses are using it in all sorts of ways, to mean all sorts of different things. Some people are even using it when they actually mean ‘The Internet’, which are in fact two entirely different things.
So let’s get this straightened out once and for all…
So what exactly is ‘The Cloud’?
Well, Wikipedia has a typically dry description:
What is the cloud?
“Cloud computing is the use of computing resources (hardware and software) that are delivered as a service over a network (typically the Internet)”
So one possible way to think of Cloud Computing is a group of computers all working together and then delivering information to you over the internet.
Google runs on a cloud for example. So does Amazon.
Google can be thought of as a Cloud Service delivered over the internet. And reportedly Google runs on over 100,000 PCs, all working together to deliver you the most relevant search results possible, as quickly as possible.
So why does Google have more than 100,000 PCs, and why does it need so many?
Well, one reason for having so many computers working together, is it’s easier, and more realistic than having one hugely powerful super computer. All the necessary hardware is easy to purchase and put together. But the tricky bit, and what makes Google unique is the software they created to make all those computers communicate with each other to find and deliver search results to you.
- Finding every public web page on the internet
- Examining all this information for usefulness and relevancy
- Creating an index of what it found out
- Doing lightning fast calculations of whatever you’ve typed in and presenting you with the most relevant results it can find from its index
So some of these computers are scanning the internet, some are calculating relevancy, some are simply storing all this data, and some are presenting it to you.
And importantly, not only are all these computers very busy, but apparently each computer is duplicated four times. In other words, what Google’s up to is actually done on 25,000 computers (at last count) but computers break sometimes, and when you’re dealing with that many computers, potentially dozens are breaking every day.
And each time a computer breaks it could slow the system down or worse, so the reason for four times as many computers, is four times the redundancy. The task one computer does is copied across three other computers, so when one breaks, one of the others takes up the slack so the system never stops working and delivering you results.
This creates an incredible level of data and operational redundancy that helps ensure that Google is very rarely, if ever offline.
Also, I would be very surprised if all these computers were in one location and I would expect Google to also create geographical redundancy, so if there’s a lightning storm and one of their data centers goes dark, there’s one or more other data centers to take up the slack, so for us typing our searches into Google, it’s as if nothing ever happened.
Or how about another example – Amazon.
Amazon have huge ‘server farms’ (groups of computers) in multiple countries all working together to present you with web pages, help you find the most relevant results for your shopping search, and to make the checkout process as quick and easy as possible.
Amazon of course doesn’t have the task Google does of attempting to index the entire internet, but what they have achieved is to become one of the world’s largest retailers, possibly with the biggest product line ever seen anywhere, all while keeping their website quick, easy to use, and very importantly keeping your personal and billing details 100% private, which is a huge undertaking in itself.
Those are just two examples of very successful websites, which both depend on huge Cloud Computing power to present you with the information you’re looking for, and to stay available to you around the clock.
Other examples of The Cloud are:
- SalesForce — Powerful business software that instead of installing it on your computer, you simply access it through a web browser. All your information is safely stored online, and you can access the software and your data from any location that has an internet connection.
- DropBox — A Cloud service that gives you a certain amount of storage space, and allows you to upload your files to that storage space, either to share with others, as a backup, or simply so you can access it easily from multiple locations. This is the new computer backup storage of the future.
- Google Docs — Easy to use software (word processing, spreadsheet functionality…etc.) that can be accesses through your web browser for creating documents without needing software on your computer, and that can be accessed from anywhere that has an internet connection.
What Are The Benefits and Drawbacks of The Cloud?
.The benefits of The Cloud are many, including:
Benefit: Massive Data Redundancy (generally)
When your data is on The Cloud, it’s generally not just on one server, but rather copied across multiple computers in a ‘server farm’ as that’s the only way the amount of processing power necessary to run The Cloud is possible, plus it greatly reduces the risk of data loss.
However, some people running Cloud services either don’t really know what they’re doing or are cutting corners – perhaps they’re starting small and have only got three servers, and your data happens to be on just one of them. Then if that server malfunctions, your data could potentially be lost.
That’s one problem with such a new term that’s become ‘hot’, it gets widely misused by people who are more interested in making a sale than actually delivering the service they promise.
If you’re using a service like DropBox, they’re so large and so established that it would be incredibly unlikely they’ll lose your data, even if they have serious technical issues, since they’ve planned for such occurrences.
That said, with large, and small providers, issues do occur. So depending on The Cloud to keep your data 100% safe and secure is not the best plan for peace of mind. So it’s important to ensure you have copies of your data on your computer and on external hard drives too.
Benefit: It’s Easy
Cloud services are usually incredibly quick and easy to start using. There may be a learning curve with software, as with any software, but some of it is so easy and intuitive to use that you can start being productive with it even within 10 minutes of starting.
So in less time than it takes to install some software on your computer, you could be up, running and productive with a Cloud service.
And all the technical challenges of data redundancy, uptime and cloud security are hidden from you, and you can simply focus on the task at hand.
This may be particularly appealing for small businesses that don’t have the budgets nor technical skills to create their own private Clouds, and are happy to pay a low monthly cost to use someone else’s.
Drawback: You’re depending on someone else to safeguard your data
Two big issues with The Cloud:
Issue One — it’s not always available. Since even Google and Amazon are offline from time to time (very occasionally though) companies smaller than them are going to struggle to stay available to you every hour of every single day. And serious technical issues can sometimes take hours or even days to fix.
So you must be aware that whatever you’re using The Cloud for, whether it’s data storage, online software (SaaS: Software as a Service), or even hosting a website, it may not always be there for you, and as is often the case it especially may not be there when you need it the most.
As much as Cloud providers tout their uptime and availability, and even if they offer you money back for any downtime, if their service or your data is vital to your business, and you can’t access it when you need to, that can cause significant issues for you, and if your data is actually on servers thousands of miles away, there’s pretty much nothing you can do in the mean time.
Some of these providers may even promise 99.9% uptime, but that’s still close to nine hours of downtime a year.
Issue Two — is your data really for your eyes only?
If you’re uploading family photos to DropBox you may not care if some DropBox employee has a browse through. Or if some hacker accesses their servers and downloads your pictures. It’s not ideal in any way, but both of those circumstances may well be possibilities, and it’s something to bear in mind and a risk you take with any data placed onto computers you don’t control.
But if you’re uploading vital business documents and those somehow become available outside of your business because of a security failure on DropBox’s behalf, that could potentially be a black eye for your business, or even something much worse.
There are potential ways around this, including compressing your data into a password protected file and only uploading it then. This does make things more difficult for you and the person you’re sending the data to, but it is an option.
There are also more business focused services like Box.com which really stress security of your data. But for certain businesses that still won’t be good enough, and what they’ll be looking to do is create their own Cloud on their own servers, so everything’s under their control.
That said, a private company server you can share files with others on used to be called an FTP Server, so the names may have changed but the idea certainly isn’t new in any way, which is one more reason the hype about The Cloud really does obscure the fact that it really isn’t a new idea, and there’s no particularly reason for certain sections of the population (the media specifically) to get so excited about a computing concept that’s been around for decades, just under different names.
Is The Cloud Right For You?
Well, as mentioned above if you’re just sharing personal files and have backup copies on your computer, Cloud services like DropBox may be perfectly fine for sharing files with others.
And if you’re a student for example and want a no cost option for creating documents and spreadsheets, Google Docs may be absolutely fine, as long as you accept the potential (even very slight) risk of data loss, and not being able to access your documents at some point in the future.
But if you’re a business sharing important and private information, you’ll need to consider ways to encrypt your data, accept the risk of potential downtime, or find a way to create your own private Cloud so that your information stays private and only accessible to the people you want to see it.
Doing that does however create a raft of technical challenges including data redundancy issues, keeping hackers out of your private server, and keeping your servers available whenever they’re needed. This would generally require at least one person with specialized skills looking after this for you.
That said, many may concede that for smaller businesses, the benefits of The Cloud outweigh the drawbacks, and it’s an easy and inexpensive way to get access to software and services that would be difficult and expensive to manage yourself.
But as your business grows, depending on other businesses (Cloud providers) to keep your data safe and available to you 24/7 may start losing its appeal, and the benefits of creating and managing your own private Cloud may appeal more and more.
Craig Bennett is a long time website owner who’s experienced many of the ups and downs that dealing with different web hosts brings, and now offers you a $0.01 first month HostGator coupon so you can try out very high quality web hosting from a well known company at almost no risk.