What is the Cloud, Anyway?

December 30, 2015


What is the Cloud?

One of the most bandied about terms in technical circles is “The Cloud.”  Merely mentioning it can spark in depth debates about on-demand utility computing, software as a service, infrastructure as service or, just as likely, puzzled looks, shrugs, and eye-rolling.  The problem is, “The Cloud” means many different things to different people.  And while many have vague ideas of what the Cloud is, few have the whole picture.


A little background.

The term “Cloud” has its roots in network diagrams where a picture of a cloud was used as a symbol that simply meant “some other large network or computing resource.”  Most often the cloud was used to identify the public Internet and the various connections that a company had to it.  Greatly simplified, a network diagram might look something like this:




It was a shorthand way of communicating the idea that one known network was connected to some other different, unknown, untrusted, complicated network. 


Start of the Cloud.

Given its background, one might be tempted to simplify things and equate the word “Cloud” with the Internet, and many people do use the term that way.  However that’s not wholly correct -- it’s a bit of an over simplification.  The Cloud is not just the Internet, but the Internet is an example of a Cloud technology. The term began to reference a combination of technologies, services, infrastructures, and technical know-how that could be used to provide some specific computing resource or application like an e-commerce site, email, databases, digital storage, backup, or virtually any application one could think of.  Some of the earliest Cloud services included free e-mail websites like Hotmail or Gmail.  These services took a computing application – email – that typically required an investment in servers, email server software, internet connectivity, electricity, and technical expertise and bundled it together as a free application available to anyone with an Internet connection (for free, no less)!   That’s how the “Cloud” services industry got started.  Some of these services, especially paid services, became known as Software as a Service or “SaaS” providers.  They broke from traditional software licensing models based upon large lump sum software purchases and subsequent upgrades and moved to a subscription model that did not require any upfront purchase of computer hardware or software.


Evolution of the Cloud

As various technology companies rolled out more and more web based applications and subscription based services, it became more and more challenging for each individual company to build out its infrastructure – the specialized servers, software, storage, and bandwidth – required to support the business.  Using our email example above, you need a lot more computing horsepower to host 500,000 email accounts than to host 500.  Moreover, many companies noticed that their computing needs and the demand for their services varied based upon the time of year, economic conditions, media events, and the whims of popular culture.  One of the bigger problems was that a company needed to build out its infrastructure to handle peak demand in order to ensure their service remained usable and responsive during periods of peak demand.  However, for much of the day, and in some cases for much of the year, the costly infrastructure sat idle.  Amazon faced just such a challenge.  As the business grew, they needed to deploy more web servers, database servers, and add storage and bandwidth to keep up with peak purchasing times around the holidays, but all that computing power (and money) sat around underutilized during much of the year.  So in 2006 Amazon did what any smart company would do – they looked for a way to offset the costs of their excess capacity.  They did so in the form of Amazon Web Services, or AWS for short.  And simply put, they rented out their excess capacity to other companies that needed enterprise class computing power.


The Cloud Today

AWS started as a way to defray the costs associated with building out Amazon’s infrastructure, but today it and services like it – Microsoft’s Azure, Google Cloud Platform, Salesforce, and IBM’s Softlayer among others – are maturing businesses in and of themselves. In 2015, Amazon alone reported $1.6 Billion in sales on its AWS platform alone.  At their core, these services rent out their infrastructures and charge customers based upon the amount of computing power they need.  They are known as Cloud Platform Providers, Platform as as Service providers (PaaS), or Infrastructure as a Service (“IaaS”) providers.  These cloud providers build out multiple football filed sized data centers throughout the world packed with servers, storage, and network equipment.  Businesses large and small utilize these services and only pay for the computing power they need.  You probably use more than a few of the services made possible by modern cloud computing without even knowing it.  Both Netflix and Dropbox are companies that rely on companies like Amazon, Microsoft and Google to handle their infrastructure needs.  Businesses even distribute their computing needs across disparate cloud platforms in order to ensure the best experience for not only their customers, but for their internal operations like business continuity and disaster recovery.   Today a wide array of companies including Lexpath leverage the power of the cloud to design solutions that meet customer needs, increase the availability of data, and best of all keep costs low. Talk to us today to learn how your business can take advantage of cost effective Cloud based solutions. 





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