You hear about ‘the cloud’ a lot these days. The IT term has worked its way into popular culture, and most people have some idea of what cloud computing involves. But what exactly is the cloud? Where is the cloud? There’s an undeniable mystique surrounding cloud computing, but it’s not the strange and elusive technology many take it to be.

In this article, we’re going to answer the question ‘What is cloud computing?’ in simple and straightforward terms. It will be the first in a series of four blog posts on cloud computing. The second will take on the topic of how cloud-based services can help businesses grow, the third will focus on the three different types of cloud service models (IaaS, SaaS and PaaS), while the fourth will be about the importance of cloud computing in the managed service provider (MSP) space.

There is No Cloud

Perhaps you’ve seen this bit of tech humor displayed on a t-shirt:

There is no cloud. It’s just someone else’s computer.

They say the best jokes are rooted in truth, and this one is no exception. The truth in question is at the heart of cloud computing — what it is and how it works. Here’s a succinct definition of cloud computing:

Cloud computing refers to the delivery of IT services over the internet on a pay-as-you-go basis.

But here’s the thing, the IT services and resources that are commonly provided over the cloud — servers, databases, storage, networking, software, and more — do not exist in the ether, floating free of any physical basis. Like any computing technology, cloud services live on computers, and more precisely, on servers.

So what makes cloud computing so special? The answer to this question brings us back to the above joke: When you move certain IT functions to the cloud, you’re choosing to use someone else’s computers. More specifically, you’re choosing to store and access your data using servers that are located in huge datacenters owned by cloud providers such as Amazon (AWS), Microsoft (Azure), and Google (Google Cloud).

As opposed to what? Well, as opposed to your own computers (on-premises IT infrastructure). This contrast is at the heart of what makes cloud computing such a powerful technology, but it’s also a common reason why individuals and organizations are wary about moving to the cloud …

The Cloud is Nothing to Fear

A recent report on cloud security found that 75% of enterprises are either “very concerned” or “extremely concerned” about how secure their information is in the cloud. Moving essential IT resources to the cloud — to remote servers that you don’t have physical access to — can sound like a scary proposition; on an intuitive level, business owners might feel like they will have less control over their IT environment and

diminished security simply because there is an instinct to keep the things we care about close. It’s the same instinct that drives some people to store cash under their mattress instead of in a bank.

But migrating to the cloud can have huge benefits. Contrary to what some people think, when you move data, apps, and other IT resources to the cloud, you’re not trading security for convenience — it’s more nuanced than that. In fact, there are ways in which the cloud offers businesses a more secure place to store information, as datacenters owned by large cloud providers are protected by top-notch physical security.

On top of that, migrating to the cloud can be hugely beneficial to a growing business’s bottom line. Stay tuned for the second installment in our four-part series of blog posts on cloud computing, where we discuss in more depth how cloud computing can help businesses grow and flourish, while simultaneously protecting critical data.

Now that we’ve defined what cloud computing is, let’s take a look at the different types of cloud computing.

There is No Cloud … There are Many!

Public vs Private vs Hybrid

There are two ways to categorize different cloud-based services: by deployment model and by service model. Let’s start with the deployment categorization, which distinguishes between three types of cloud computing services:

  1. Public Cloud
  2. Private Cloud
  3. Hybrid Cloud

A public cloud is shared and utilized by multiple organizations, and the cloud infrastructure is owned and managed by a third-party cloud provider. Microsoft Azure is an example of a public cloud. The idea of sharing infrastructure with other organizations might give some business owners pause. But here’s the thing, moving certain IT resources and services to a public cloud doesn’t mean that your organization’s data will be accessible to other businesses. You’re only sharing infrastructure with other businesses, not data.

Two key benefits of migrating to a public cloud are cost and scalability. Letting remote servers host your organization’s IT resources means you don’t have to buy, set up, and manage your own on-premises infrastructure. This can save you a lot of money. A study done by Avasant Research found that companies fully utilizing cloud resources cut IT expenses by 15% on average.

Also, when you use a public cloud, you can scale up at the drop of a hat. Need more computing power? Rent more servers. Need less? Rent fewer. This allows you to flexibly and near instantly adjust the amount of IT resources you’re paying for based on your ever-changing needs.

Private clouds are used by a single organization. The IT infrastructure associated with a private cloud can be on-premises or remote, but the bottom line is that it is dedicated to one organization, which allows for greater control and customization compared to the public cloud. Businesses in the healthcare, financial, and governmental sectors frequently use private clouds for the sake of compliance with government and industry regulations.

Hybrid clouds involve elements of both public and private clouds. A hybrid cloud environment can allow organizations to utilize a private cloud for sensitive data or for minimizing latency (how quickly a network can process data), and a public cloud for workloads that require quick scalability. Hybrid cloud services can also enable a company to make a gradual transition from on-premises infrastructure to cloud computing, instead of migrating all at once.

IaaS vs PaaS vs SaaS

There are three types of service models in cloud computing:

  1. Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS)
  2. Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS)
  3. Software-as-a-Service (SaaS)

These types of cloud services can be delivered via public or private clouds, and they can be understood as forming a hierarchy of responsibility. In plain English, each one represents a greater degree of outsourcing: IaaS hands over some IT resources to a third-party cloud provider. PaaS hands over more. SaaS hands over the most. So, going from IaaS to PaaS to SaaS can be thought of as moving further and further away from fully on-premises IT infrastructure.

So which one is the best?

It depends! Which service model makes sense for a particular business comes down to the particular needs and goals of that business. IT expert Paul Korzeniowski puts this point nicely: “Companies are looking to move daily business services to the cloud. That change is only possible if they can tailor cloud services to their own operations.”

Working with a trusted IT provider who truly understands your business and its goals can be tremendously helpful when it comes to investing in the right type of cloud service model. Watch out for the third installment in this series of blog posts about cloud computing, where we will do a deeper dive into IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS, and the respective benefits of each.

Concluding Remarks

The cloud isn’t so much a new technology as it is a new way of utilizing and mobilizing technology that has been around for decades. In other words, cloud computing isn’t a new kind of IT resource, but a new way of delivering familiar IT resources to individuals and organizations. The reason is exists, like any innovation, is that it helps solve certain problems. Namely, cloud computing provides faster, more flexible, and more cost-effective IT resources — benefits that we will discuss in more depth in our next installment on cloud computing here on our blog: The Top 3 Benefits of Moving Your Business to the Cloud. Don’t miss it!