Sales/Support: 0800 040 7228

What is the Cloud and How Does It Work?

04 September 2018

We all love a sunny day with blue sky and no clouds but for anyone who runs a modern business the cloud is an absolute must-have. When we talk about ‘the cloud’ we aren’t chatting about the weather, rather we’re using a shortened version of the phrase cloud computing and referring to the delivery of computing services via an internet connection. This means that the servers, storage, and network that you use day-to-day sit in third party data centres rather than on your office premises. Access to those services is achieved via an internet connection and is charged on a pay-as-you-go basis by the cloud provider.

What is the Cloud? A Beginners Guide

Still a bit foggy about it? All will become clear by reading this straightforward guide which explains what the cloud is in more detail and more importantly, why it could be good to use for your business.   

  1. What Exactly is the Cloud?
  2. How Does the Cloud Work?
  3. What are the Benefits of the Cloud?
  4. How Safe is the Cloud?
  5. What is the Difference between IaaS, PaaS and SaaS?

"What Exactly is the Cloud?”

Unlike those fluffy white things in the sky, the cloud we’re referring to is very much a physical thing. The concept behind cloud computing started in the 1950s where computers were so big and expensive that companies started renting the right to use them and share the costs. This led in the 1970s to the creation of virtual machines which allowed multiple computing environments to exist in one physical environment. The actual term cloud computing was first coined in the late 1990s as another evolution along the line.

What the cloud provides is rows of servers that hum away in a rack in a data centre, through which you can access the computing resources you need. Those files and that data that you’re working on sit on a network of connected servers, rather than locally on the hard drive of your computer or a hard drive underneath your office desk. Each server will have a different function and the way your business chooses to set up its cloud will dictate that. Some servers will deal with storage, others with running your applications or databases.

In the early days of the cloud you could rent compute power and storage. Today the cloud gives you access to a whole new world of opportunity to store, manage and process data. You can pay-as-you-go for a myriad of cloud services that cover everything from application development to security and identity. The list of things your business can do in the cloud is endless.    

How Does the Cloud Work?

So how does the cloud work? The information and programs your business needs to carry out its daily operations are stored on physical servers and virtual machines that sit in data centres which are operated by a cloud computing provider – such as iomart or AWS or Microsoft. Users in your business can access these shared resources, such as documents, images and video, from wherever they happen to be, on whatever device they happen to be using, via a secure internet connection.

The cloud provider will maintain and operate the data centres, which means you don’t have the expense of buying and maintaining any physical hardware.  They also have the ability to backup and protect your data across multiple locations for added security and redundancy, as well as restore everything in the event of an unforeseen crisis, according to the agreement you have with them.

Depending on the requirements you have around the security of your data, you might use a cloud provider that stores it in an unspecified location somewhere in the world, or one like iomart that can tell you exactly which data centre it is in.  Again, depending on your business requirements, it could be on a server shared with other users, or one that’s just private to you. That’s the beauty of the cloud, it can be tailored to your exact requirements.

What Are the Benefits of the Cloud?

There are many benefits to using the cloud. One of the main ones has to be around the opportunity to hand over the day-to-day maintenance, operation and management of what can become pretty complex IT infrastructure to another party. That cloud provider is then responsible for dealing with any updates that need to be made and any issues that crop up with the data centre infrastructure. This not only saves money because there’s no need to buy expensive hardware or worry about power and cooling, it also means you can divert staff away to more interesting work than simply dealing with its maintenance.

The cloud is also dynamic. It allows you to scale your computing resources as and when you need to. As a result you don’t need to have resources running when they’re not actually being used. You can access resources when you need them and scale them back down immediately after the spike is over, only paying for what you need at any one particular time.

Providing you have good internet connectivity you can access these cloud resources 24 hours a day from wherever you happen to be working and on any device.  This allows users to collaborate in real time on projects while working from different locations and keep better control of the versions of documents they are working on.

The requirement for fewer physical servers means the responsibility for power and cooling becomes that of your cloud provider, allowing you to effectively reduce your carbon footprint.

You can also still combine use of the cloud with an on premise data centre to meet any regulatory standards. – this is known as hybrid cloud. That’s the thing about the cloud – it has a number of different delivery models to suit any business requirement.  

How Safe is the Cloud?

Attempts by regulators to keep on top of the security implications of the growing use of cloud services means that any organisation considering moving to the cloud has to be aware of its responsibilities for data protection.

This responsibility however exists in tandem with the cloud provider that the organisation chooses to use. While the cloud provider has a duty to ensure its infrastructure and services are safe from attack – both physical and cyber – equally the organisation consuming those services has to ensure it is compliant with government and industry standards.

Unplanned downtime can be extremely costly and can be caused by several different factors:

  • Attack by a malicious third party
  • Human error, hardware failure or power outage
  • A spike in traffic that overloads a server

The good news is that such incidents can be better dealt with in partnership with a cloud provider because the provider will continuously monitor their infrastructure and network for potential vulnerabilities. You will hear them talk of redundancy – this is where they have backup components and power in place should anything fail. In many cases they will also backup copies of your data at separate locations. Unfortunately outages do happen occasionally but it is how the cloud provider responds that is important.

On a day-to-day basis cloud providers will encrypt data both in transit and at rest (when it’s stored on their servers). However the overall strategy for the protection of the data comes down to you as the customer and what sort of security controls you want to implement to control who has access.  

In the end, it’s your data and despite the fact that you are handing it over to a third party, you are still responsible for it. Your cloud provider has certain obligations, for instance to protect personally identifiable information of EU citizens under the General Data Protection Regulation, but so do you. 

This is why security concerns should be addressed before you move to the cloud and not be treated as an afterthought once you’ve migrated.  It is clear that with careful planning there is no reason why a cloud deployment cannot be as or even more secure than an on premise one.

What is the Difference between IaaS, PaaS and SaaS?

The cloud is a broad brush but when you drill down to what you want the cloud to do for your business you need to be more specific about the way you want to consume it. There are three main delivery models, each of which has its own acronym – IaaS, PaaS and SaaS.

Let’s look at what they mean:

IaaS

IaaS is short for Infrastructure as a Service. It’s the most basic cloud model giving you the basics of what you need to operate your business using the cloud.

Under the IaaS model you are able to access a pool of physical or virtual machines on a cloud provider’s infrastructure in their data centre. The cloud provider is responsible for maintaining and configuring the infrastructure, you just decide what resources you need and order them. Very often IaaS will include the management of your infrastructure.

The hyper cloud vendors Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud are the biggest and best known names in the IaaS market, however there are many other cloud providers who offer their own public cloud, including iomart. All of them offer servers, storage, networking, virtualisation and the hypervisor layer, giving you the ability to scale your cloud services when necessary on a pay-as-you-go basis. If you need to know exactly where your servers are in the UK for data protection purposes, then iomart can tell you exactly which data centre they are in.

IaaS is the most common step for an organisation to take as it considers moving its data centre off premise and into the cloud. It allows you to reduce your infrastructure costs by outsourcing it to a third party while still giving you full control of what you put on it. 

Examples of IaaS include: AW, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, iomart.

PaaS

When you are ready to move on from IaaS, the next stop is PaaS or Platform as a Service. PaaS gives you everything you need to develop and deploy applications in the cloud. In the PaaS delivery model, as well as the infrastructure, the cloud provider also supplies the operating systems, application services, middleware, business intelligence and database management systems, as well as other ‘runtimes.’ You no longer have to worry about what’s going on inside the server. All you have to do is tell your code or container where to go to be tested and to go live and your application will do the rest.

PaaS gives you: faster coding times and shorter life cycle for new apps; new development capabilities; access to powerful software and analytics tools without upfront investment; and it enables collaboration between teams in remote locations

Examples of PaaS include: AWS Elastic Beanstalk, Windows Azure, Heroku, Google App Engine.

SaaS

SaaS or Software as a Service is the highest level of orchestration. Using SaaS means you are consuming software or applications on-demand, as and when you need to. The software sits on the cloud provider’s infrastructure and all you do is log in via your device to access it. Pretty much everything apart from managing how you get access is the responsibility of the software provider.

Some of the most common examples of SaaS are for CRM, ERP and media storage software.

Examples of SaaS include:  Salesforce, Office 365, Google Docs, and Dropbox.

Conclusion

Spending on hosting infrastructure and cloud services is growing year on year. Indeed it’s estimated that half of the enterprise organisations that have already taken their first steps to the cloud will have gone ‘all-in’ on it by the end of this decade. However they will only have done that if the business case is right.

To ensure that your business makes the move and doesn’t regret it, speak to one of our cloud specialists for a thorough understanding of what migrating to the cloud will involve. You can get in touch via our contact form or give one of our advisors a call on 0800 040 7228.

We look forward to hearing from you.

 

Tags: What is the cloud?, What is the cloud computing?, What is the cloud for computers?