Friday, February 11, 2011

What is the Cloud?

A view from above the clouds over NevadaI caught a few minutes of a radio show where “the Cloud” was being discussed by tech-savvy guest “promoters” that had a marketing perspective on the cloud. Marketing often equates the cloud to the internet or Google Apps like Gmail and Google Docs and now thanks to recent Microsoft commercials, Outlook and Office.

But is that really what the cloud is all about? That is only a small part of it. The cloud has three primary marketplace stakeholders:

  1. consumer (you and me)
  2. service provider (apps)
  3. cloud provider (infrastructure)

In the case of Google Apps, Google is really a service provider that uses its own cloud to host the applications. Microsoft is a little different. Microsoft is both a cloud provider (Windows Azure) and a service provider with Office and Skydrive in the cloud. It is not uncommon that promoters don’t realize there is a difference and, as a result, blur the distinction and understate the value of the cloud.

Software as a Service

The cloud provides a platform for many vendors to provide their software as a web-based service, instead of the more traditional shrink wrap software that you install on your home or work PC using a CD or DVD. That is an attribute that is shared by both the cloud and the internet.

The following are characteristics that the cloud provides, but the internet may or may not represent.

Dynamically scalable on demand

One of the best examples for its ability to scale up to handle large bursts of traffic is how a company that advertises during the Super Bowl that normally handles 10,000 page visits per day might need to handle a quarter of a million visitors in a just a few minutes.

Multi-located for performance

An application and/or its data may be located in multiple locations across the globe so that when a person uses the system, it detects where they are geographically located and serves up a version from a data center that is physically closer to the user. The shorter the distance the data travels, the faster it gets there.

An additional benefit of multi-location is that other regions will still have access to their programs and data in the event there is a natural disaster like a tsunami (or a government – Egypt blocks all internet and cell traffic) that wipes out internet connection for an entire country.

Replicated for redundancy

Many cloud platforms automatically create multiple copies of a program and its data so that if a piece of hardware fails, or a physical data trunk is cut, the “replica” can immediately take over and serve its users without interruption.

Priced by usage (to the service provider)

Parking meterBy pricing by usage, it provides a near constant pricing scale that grows (or shrinks) as demand changes vs. the traditionally high initial capital cost for servers in addition to maintenance and support costs.

  • Computing cycles
  • memory
  • storage
  • bandwidth

The pricing model to the consumer varies depending on the financial model of the service provider. Some software like Google Apps are free to the home consumer because it is funded by advertisements, but it might be priced on a per person basis for organizations.

Infrastructure Purchase Flexibility

Cloud providers provide the flexibility to purchase the specific services needed:

  • Virtual Machines (VM)
  • Storage
  • Database
  • Service broker
  • Applications


Typically when a service provider purchases cloud services, they are not buying a physical piece of hardware. They are buying (leasing) an address that points to a cloud provider managed virtual server(s). The fact that it is virtualized means the services can be moved around from server to server and location to location by the cloud provider as necessary to improve availability, performance, and maintainability.

Proprietary Operating Systems

Most computers and hosted servers on the intranet are running standard available operating systems. Because of the nature of how the cloud providers allow their service providers to configure their services and to scale on demand, they often don’t run directly on a native Operating System. They often have an intermediary operating system or control layer that has multiple virtual Operating Systems installed or running on top of. Microsoft’s Azure cloud service has what it calls the AppFabric.

Unicorns and Rainbows

a rainbow wall of M&M'sThe Cloud has many benefits to both the consumer and the enterprise, but it’s not without its disadvantages. Until private or hybrid clouds allow clouds to be hosted on your premises maintained by your IT staff, you will have to rely on a third party (or multiple third parties) to protect and maintain your priceless data.


Parking meter photo courtesy lancefisher / CC BY-SA 2.0

1 comment:

  1. This link is to a video of one of the Proof of Concept cloud data center containers on display at PDC 09 in Los Angeles