Cloud computing consists of hardware and software resources made available on the Internet as managed third-party services. These services rely on advanced software applications and high-end networks of server computers.
Types of Cloud Computing
Service providers create cloud computing systems to serve common business or research needs. Examples of cloud computing services include:
- virtual IT: configure and utilize remote, third-party servers as extensions to a company’s local IT network
- software: utilize commercial software applications, or develop and remotely host custom built applications
- network storage: back up or archive data across the Internet to a provider without needing to know the physical location of storage
Cloud computing systems all generally are designed to support large numbers of customers and surges in demand.
Examples of Cloud Computing Services
These examples illustrate the different types of cloud computing services available today:
- Amazon EC2 – virtual IT
- Google App Engine – application hosting
- Google Apps and Microsoft Office Online – software as a service
- Apple iCloud – network storage
Some providers offer cloud computing services for free while others require a paid subscription.
Consumer vs. Business
Let’s be clear here. We’re talking about cloud computing as it impacts individual consumers—those of us who sit back at home or in small-to-medium offices and use the Internet on a regular basis.
There is an entirely different “cloud” when it comes to business. Some businesses choose to implement Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), where the business subscribes to an application it accesses over the Internet. (Think Salesforce.com.) There’s also Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS), where a business can create its own custom applications for use by all in the company. And don’t forget the mighty Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS), where players like Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and Rackspace provide a backbone that can be “rented out” by other companies. (For example, Netflix provides services to you because it’s a customer of the cloud services at Amazon.)
How Cloud Computing Works
A cloud computing system keeps its critical data on Internet servers rather than distributing copies of data files to individual client devices. Video-sharing cloud services like Netflix, for example, stream data across the Internet to a player application on the viewing device rather than sending customers DVD or BluRay physical discs.
Clients must be connected to the Internet in order to use cloud services. Some video games on the Xbox Live service, for example, can only be obtained online (not on physical disc) while some others also cannot be played without being connected.
Some industry observers expect cloud computing to keep increasing in popularity in coming years.
The Chromebook is a good example of how all personal computers may evolve in the future under this trend – minimal local storage space and few local applications beside the Web browser (through which online applications and services are reached).
Cloud Computing Pros and Cons
Service providers are responsible for installing and maintaining core technology within the cloud. Some business customers prefer this model because it limits their own burden of having to maintain infrastructure. However, customers cannot directly control system stability in this model and are highly dependent on the provider instead.
Likewise, home users become extremely dependent on their Internet provider in the cloud computing model: Temporary outages and slower-speed broadband that are a minor nuisance today can become a critical issue. On the other hand, such an evolution would likely drive Internet providers to keep improving the quality of their service to stay competitive.
Cloud computing systems are normally designed to closely track all system resources, which enables providers to charge customers according to the resources each consumes. Some customers will prefer this metered billing approach to save money, while others will prefer a flat-rate subscription to ensure predictable monthly or yearly costs.
Using a cloud computing environment generally requires you to send data over the Internet and store it on a third-party system. The privacy and security risks associated with this model must be weighed against alternatives.