What is 'The Cloud' and How Can We Use It More Effectively?

Over the past several years, much has been said and written about 'The Cloud' and its impact on technology. Since we work in technology and follow all the latest news, it was easy to assume that everyone had a reasonably firm grasp of what The Cloud is. At least that's what I thought until my mother got a Kindle Fire last year and started asking me what The Cloud was doing on her device.

My mom is intelligent and reasonably technically astute, and if she was in the dark on what The Cloud is, then the same is undoubtedly true for most normal, non-techie people.

As a starting point, I want to you keep one concept firmly in mind: Whenever you see "The Cloud," I want you to mentally substitute "A Computer That Is Not Here." That's all there is to it. The term "The Cloud" is used primarily as a way to abstractly describe a remote computer resource without getting too hung up on the details of how it works. Substituting "A Computer That Is Not Here" helps cut through that ambiguity for me.

The Cloud has been around for a long time. In fact, for most of the first two decades of the computer age, all computing was done in The Cloud. That's because computers were enormous, expensive machines that required their own rooms or buildings, with dedicated climate control and maintenance staff. Since they were difficult to access directly, all interaction was done through terminals (or, early on, through human intermediaries). As long as the terminals had a connection to the computer, they could access data and run programs on it. As time went on, those connections became longer and longer, until eventually, the connections spanned across vast distances and the Internet was born!

That's a very simplified version of the origins of the Internet, but it demonstrates an important point: When you use The Cloud, all you are doing is connecting a network to A Computer That Is Not Here. That network could take the form of DSL, cable, ethernet, cellular systems, or satellites, but the principle remains the same. What makes using The Cloud increasingly compelling is the ubiquity of network connections. So what we have is A Computer (or Service) That Is Not Here plus a network connection.

To demonstrate that, let's consider a simplified variant of cloud-based service that many people used at one time without calling it part of The Cloud: Netflix. I don't mean the Netflix streaming service, either, I mean their original DVD and snail-mail service. The Cloud, in that case, is their network of warehouses, queues, tracking algorithms, check-in and fulfillment systems, and everything else Netflix used to take your request and put it in the mail. You, as a customer, didn't worry or think about how the DVDs were stored, handled, or processed, you just told them which one you want and send it back when you're done. As I once told a friend, I'm happy to pay Netflix $15 per month to store my 100,000 disc DVD collection. I don't think about it or worry about it, it's just there.

The network was the US Postal Service. Granted, the latency is terrible, with response times measured in days, but the bandwidth was great.

Another service most people use in The Cloud is email. Hardly anyone these days actually has an email server on their local computer. If you're using Gmail, Outlook, your ISP's email, or any other web-based email service, that is in The Cloud. It's not a fancy, modern, sophisticated Cloud, but it is a cloud service in the sense that it is on A Computer That Is Not Here. In fact, nearly any service you use on the web that is more sophisticated than just a basic web page is a type of cloud: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google calendar, Google Docs — all types of cloud software.

When speaking of the new services in The Cloud, we're really referring to three different, overlapping segments: storage, services, and computing.

Storage is the most easily grasped segment, so we'll start there. In short, if you're storing data on A Computer That Is Not Here, you're using Cloud Storage. That's especially true if it's happening in some automated manner and can be accessed from multiple devices, but those aren't strictly necessary components. Examples would include simple file storage, like Pinterest or Dropbox, or dedicated backup systems like iDrive or Backblaze. Your files and data are going from your computer (or tablet or phone) to A Computer That Is Not Here. The advantages are that your data is probably backed up and it is accessible from any place or device that can connect to The Cloud through the Internet. That means that your laptop, phone, and tablet can all view, edit, or open the same file from a single location on A Computer That Is Not Here.

Services are more abstract, but still easily understood. The idea is that a program is running on A Computer That Is Not Here, and by sending a request to that program, you can get a response back. Think of the Google search box. You type in a phrase, hit Search, and Google's programs find a list of relevant websites (and ads) for you. You don't need to worry about how it's done or where it's done, you just know that it all happens on A Computer That Is Not Here, and you get an answer. Facebook, Twitter, stock reports, weather forecasts, and game servers are all examples of services that run in The Cloud. That's right, World of Warcraft is effectively a cloud service!

The most difficult aspect of The Cloud for normal consumers to grasp is computing in the cloud. Generally speaking, that is the idea of sending work from your local computer to a more powerful Computer That Is Not Here. That Cloud computer may actually be hundreds or thousands of separate computers, but the beauty of using The Cloud is that you don't need to worry about exactly how it works, you can just use it as needed. It could be like renting a supercomputer for only a few minutes that you need it rather than buying one outright. Or it could be as simple as renting space for a website from a service like Opalstack or SquareSpace. Basically, you need a computer (or computers) to do something, and instead of using one located in your home or office, you've decided to use A Computer That Is Not Here — in The Cloud.

All three of those intersect in various ways, of course. Facebook, for instance, stores much of your data (photos, comments, calendars), but it also provides programs (games and apps). Amazon Web Services provide data storage and computing services, mostly for businesses, although you are probably already using a program or service that is built on their system. World of Warcraft handles all the computing for interacting with the world and other players on their computers, but you can't rent their computers nor can you upload non-game data to their system. Dropbox doesn't provide programs or computing services, but it allows you to store, share, and access your data.

This is all only a very simplistic depiction of The Cloud and a small fraction of the services and capabilities that are available. If you want to learn more, Wikipedia and other online resources can help you. Our goal here was simply to demystify this weird, amorphous thing called The Cloud, and to show you how, rather than being some scary technological wave that threatens to overwhelm us all, it's really just a new term for a lot of old technologies and techniques that have been around for a long, long time.

I hope this has cleared away some of the fog for you, and that you'll now be more comfortable using and enjoying all the benefits, products, and capabilities offered by The Cloud — A Computer That Is Not Here.

Davis James
Davis James
Guest Author

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