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What is Cloud Computing? Cloud Services Explained

Cloud computing is designed to liberate computer users from conventional data center resource constraints, delivering on-demand computing power, storage, and services from the Internet cloud. The "cloud," of course, is a metaphor for any unseen computing assets made available free-or for a fee-by cloud services providers like IBM, HP, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft. The cloud could become particularly popular with small-to-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) since it reduces--or at least makes predictable-computing costs. Large enterprises may see an advantage in selectively outsourcing certain of their computing functions to one or more cloud providers.

Cloud Computing Overview

While the specific definition of cloud computing often varies from one vendor or user to the next, fundamentally the term refers to the ability to access applications, data, and services over the Internet or another network.

Cloud computing delivers on the dream of computing as a utility, in which users gain access to computing resources as readily-and as transparently-as consumers gain access to electrical power; the latter by plugging into a wall socket and the former by logging into an Internet terminal. In fact, an earlier iteration of cloud computing was called "utility computing."

The concept of using modern networking technology to let users flexibly access applications, data, and computing power as needed has been around for many years. But unlike previous iterations-such as application service provisioning (ASP), utility computing, on-demand computing, and grid computing-cloud computing is a hit.

The success of cloud computing is not due to a single technology breakthrough or marketplace shift. Instead, it is the product of the steady, years-long improvement in network bandwidth and virtualization and the public's and business world's ever-growing preference for performing activities online.

Since cloud computing is "hot," cloud providers-and would-be cloud providers-are taking the opportunity to rebrand their products and services wherever possible as cloud products and services. While understandable, this effort at "cloudification" serves to (1) dilute the cloud concept, just at a time when organizations like the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are trying to develop cloud guidelines, and (2) confuse cloud buyers, many of whom will be wondering whether they have invested in true cloud solutions.

Cloud Computing Service Models

Over the past few years, three distinct cloud service models have taken shape: software-as-a-service (SaaS), platform-as-a-service (PaaS), and infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS).

Cloud Software as a Service (SaaS)

The capability provided to the consumer is to use the provider's applications running on a cloud infrastructure. The applications are accessible from various client devices through a thin client interface such as a web browser (e.g., web-based email).

Cloud Platform as a Service (PaaS)

The capability provided to the consumer is to deploy onto the cloud infrastructure consumer-created or acquired applications created using programming languages and tools supported by the provider.

Cloud Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)

The capability provided to the consumer is to provision processing, storage, networks, and other fundamental computing resources where the consumer is able to deploy and run arbitrary software, which can include operating systems and applications. 

Cloud Computing Deployment Models

Cloud computing services are deployed via four prominent deployment models.

Private cloud

The cloud infrastructure is operated solely for a single organization. It may be managed by the organization or a third party and may exist on premise or off premise. 

Community cloud

The cloud infrastructure is shared by several organizations and supports a specific community that has shared concerns (e.g., mission, security requirements, policy, and compliance considerations). It may be managed by the organizations or a third party and may exist on premise or off premise. 

Public cloud

The cloud infrastructure is made available to the general public or a large industry group and is owned by an organization selling cloud services.

Hybrid cloud

The cloud infrastructure is a composition of two or more clouds (private, community, or public) that remain unique entities but are bound together by standardized or proprietary technology that enables data and application portability (e.g., cloud bursting for load-balancing between clouds). 

Cloud Services for SMEs

While leading-edge concepts like cloud computing are usually adopted first by large enterprises- owing to their ability to invest in new, even speculative, systems and applications-the current economic environment will encourage SMEs to embrace cloud computing, especially if the cloud environment is cheaper than comparable data center real estate. In this regard, the software-as-a-service component of cloud computing will be a winner.As much as the applications themselves, SME executives will be attracted to cloud pricing models, which, in many cases, feature the following:

  • No contract;
  • A month-to-month, rather than annual, commitment;and
  • Fees based on actual usage.

To help mitigate any cloud-related risks, cloud insurance is now available. Cloud customers who want to insure their data beyond the very limited liability that most service level agreements (SLAs) offer will be able to purchase policies that protect against losses associated with adverse cloud incidents such as downtime and security breaches.

The Future Outlook for Cloud Computing

The prospects for cloud computing seem bright. As reported by CSOFT International:

  • 70% of the companies currently using cloud-based services planned to move additional tools to the cloud in the 12 months after the survey was taken.
  • 63% of cloud users say being on the cloud has decreased performance issues. 

But to say that cloud computing will continue to grow and broaden is not to say that today's delivery models or business models will necessarily endure. For instance, a "cloud in a box" model may emerge in which, as described by Zynga CTO Allan Leinwand, products will be "delivered in standard server hardware and, when installed into an environment, automatically turn the compute, storage and networking capacity into a private cloud. If you have spare infrastructure resources, these products will automatically discover them and allow an enterprise to harness these resources on-demand."

Security remains a major concern about cloud computing, but thinking on the topic is changing quickly. While just a few years ago many people in the field viewed security concerns as prohibitive, some today see the cloud as actually offering security advantages because of security redundancy built into cloud networks.

Although global economic conditions are improving, enterprise planners are still under pressure to do more with less. The ability to acquire on-demand computing resources without an extensive and expensive infrastructure build out-the very essence of cloud computing-remains attractive.

About the Author

Geoff Keston is the author of more than 250 articles that help organizations find opportunities in business trends and technology. He also works directly with clients to develop communications strategies that improve processes and customer relationships. Mr. Keston has worked as a project manager for a major technology consulting and services company and is a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer and a Certified Novell Administrator.

This article is based on a report published by Faulkner Information Services, a division of Information Today, Inc., that provides a wide-range of reports in the IT, telecommunications, and security fields. For more information, visit www.faulkner.com.

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