Introducing the Cloud (Cloud Computing Tutorial 1)
This is the first of an evolving multi-part tutorial series on cloud computing.
Just so you know, I’m actually writing this post from the cloud – I’m on a Delta flight to San Diego, cruising above 30,000 ft. I’m plugged into a 110V outlet, so my battery life isn’t even a factor. It’s amazing how far technology has come, and how much farther we’re still gonna go.
In the coming days, weeks, and months, I’m going to fill this blog with tons of useful content. I promise to make it informative, practical, and interactive – please make sure to engage me with comments, emails, tweets, and Facebook posts. Heck, use smoke signals if you want. I’ll engage you right back. I want this to be hands-on and useful to you.
Before we even dig into why the cloud can be so beneficial, let’s start at the usual starting point – the beginning. Let’s start by talking about what the cloud is.
A few days ago, my Mom was visiting, and I was telling her about my passion for cloud technology. My Mom, being my Mom, was very interested, and very confused – “Gerry, what is this cloud you keep talking about?” So I set out to explain it to her in Mom-terms.
To really appreciate this, you have to understand my computer setup at home – a MacBook Air connected to an external monitor, so I have both internal and external displays going at the same time. My Mom kept pointing to the screen I wasn’t using, and asking, “Is that computer in the cloud?” I realized I had to slow down a bit if anything was going to make sense to her.
The cloud is a pretty big space
We hear the term “cloud computing” bandied about all over the place – advertisements, trade journals, newscasts, probably even from your boss. In reality, cloud computing is nothing new – remember your first Hotmail account? That may very well have been your first foray into cloud computing. Anytime you are storing your information in some location that you or your company doesn’t own, you’re really using cloud computing. That means that email services like Hotmail and Gmail are cloud services; so are photo services like Flickr and Picasa, online backup services like Carbonite and Backblaze; even sites you visit every day, like Facebook, can be considered part of the cloud.
Of course, cloud computing can go beyond just a place to store your stuff. Here’s where we get into cloud services – where you can operate entire parts of your business without having your own data center. If you need customer relationship management – or CRM – you can install it yourself, or you can leverage a cloud service like Salesforce.com. If you need an entire enterprise resource planning (or ERP) suite, you can install SAP or Microsoft Dynamics, or you can just “rent” it monthly by partnering with a company such as Netsuite. Heck, you can even replace your entire Microsoft Office suite with a cloud offering from Google or Zoho.
So, cloud computing can mean storing your stuff – like email or photos – or even offloading entire parts of your business. Cloud computing can even mean offloading your servers themselves. Chances are your company has at least one server – and probably a few racks of them. You might be running software you bought from another company, or even software you’ve developed in-house. Another great aspect of cloud computing allows you to move those servers themselves into the cloud – meaning you don’t have to have physical hardware. Companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and Rackspace (and countless others) allow you to make this switch with relative ease.
So, while “cloud computing” means a lot of things – it’s a really big space – it all boils down to having your stuff - information, applications, even computers themselves – running “in the cloud,” meaning somewhere off where you don’t know quite where it is, you just know it’s there, working, and accessible when and where you need it.
Ooh, sounds scary…
How does that make you feel, having all your critical information under someone else’s control, in some unknown place, accessible over the Internet with just a password? Yeah, that’s how a lot of people feel.
Realistically, though, the companies who operate the major clouds – Microsoft, Amazon, Google – are probably better at security and uptime than you (no offense). They are really good at keeping your information in your hands only, keeping it backed up, and keeping their networks going 24x7x365 (ok, 366 this year). There have been some reports of network outages, but then again, your computers probably have had more frequent problems. Trust me, the companies that operate these clouds are really, really good at what they do.
Buzzwords! Gimme some buzzwords!
Ok, I know you’re itching to start sounding like an expert, so here goes. There are three primary type of cloud computing – Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS), and Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS).
The most basic type of cloud computing is SaaS, where software that might typically be installed on your computing device or network is instead “outsourced” to a cloud provider. Gmail and Salesforce.com CRM are good examples of SaaS.
The next level of cloud computing involves making a platform available in the cloud. In the physical world, a platform is:
1 a raised level surface on which people or things can stand: I built and displayed my project on a large platform.
Likewise, in the computing world, a platform is something that you build and display your programs or applications on. A PaaS cloud offering lets you write programs without having to worry about the underlying infrastructure, such as servers and settings. Microsoft Azure is mostly a PaaS offering, as is Salesforce.com’s Force platform.
Finally, the service closest to the metal – meaning it looks and feels like a real server, where you have access to all the settings – is IaaS. When you use IaaS, it appears to you that you have real servers – you can log into them, start them, stop them, and do anything you could do with a server in your own datacenter. The most popular IaaS offering today is Amazon’s AWS.
Putting it all together
So now you know that “the cloud” really encompasses a lot of things you probably already use, like Gmail and Flickr. It comes with nifty buzzwords like SaaS and PaaS and IaaS (and oh so fun to say!), but really boils down to having someone else manage your computing resources. There are a ton of reasons to leverage the cloud (and even some reasons not to), and some really cool technologies behind the curtain. We’ll delve into those in future blog posts.
For now, let me know what you think. Leave comments, good and bad. Together let’s embark on a wonderful journey into the cloud…
Click to go to the next tutorial article. For more on this series, see the whole tutorial:
- Introducing the Cloud (this article)
- A Look Behind the Curtain
- The Guts of the Cloud
- Stretching in the Cloud
Gerry Miller is a business and technology visionary, and is the Chief Technology Officer of cloudticity, a leading cloud consulting company.