So what is “The Cloud”?

| February 29, 2012

Paul Armstrong founder and managing partner of web development company Sitback Solutions explains the ins and outs of Cloud Computing in layman’s terms.

Remember when you used to buy a newspaper as opposed to reading it on your iPad? Or when you used to buy DVDs from the store instead of downloading your films from iTunes? I can’t… Well the cloud is a bit like that – it’s the same as what you used to have, just delivered slightly differently and with a few different pros and cons.

So what is “The Cloud”? Lets start with what it isn’t. “Non-cloud” or traditional hosting is basically a big computer (a server) – or several of them hooked together – connected to the internet. The server is purchased or leased and connected to the internet from within a (hopefully!) secure data-centre (a big air-conned room). Inside the data-centre are a number (potentially thousands) of other servers, all owned and leased by other folk. The downside here is you have to source the hardware software, often with relatively high upfront costs or enter into a lease with lengthy contractual terms. There’s a locked in level of server capacity – how fast things run, how big it is and how much stuff you can “save”.

You might have to install and configure the server yourself, or pay some pesky web development company to do it for you.

Now with “The Cloud”, someone else owns a (usually very large) number of servers and you pay for access to a part of that total computing power. At any point in time you don’t really know where your servers are, what model they are, what color they are, how many stickers they have on them. The servers are simply “split up” using an approach called “virtualisation”. Well, virtualisation isn’t actually simple at all, but for your purposes it is.

What you actually get is not really any different to what you get with your own servers, but you can rent access by in some cases the minute, and as the underlying hardware is upgraded (see Moore’s law if you’re wanting to upset yourself about how the laptop you bought today is already out of date) you can simply move your stuff to the latest and greatest with zero capital outlay.

Benefits include low cost of entry but also ability to scale up and down as needed – you pay for only what you need at any point and if your needs increase you simply pump up the volume. Kind of like renting a room in a hotel and being able to check in or out whenever you like and upgrade to a better (or worse) room with minimal fuss. Except there’s no minibar….

Now some drawbacks.

• The servers themselves are often housed overseas which can cause speed issues i.e. a slow website, so tactics (such as server caching and optimisations) may be needed.

• Data sovereignty – a foreign government can access the data on your machines – is often touted by traditional hosting providers to err users away from cloud based options.

So if you’re housing very sensitive user data you may want to seek legal advice and certain countries have reciprocal agreements in place to mitigate this.

• There have also been some cases (so far very rare) of access to servers being

removed, recently in the case of Megaupload.

Regardless of whether you’re cloud or non-cloud hosting, due diligence should always be adopted in terms of the implementation of a Disaster Recovery (DR) plan.

Some cloud platforms to look at include Rackspace, Amazon EC2 and, locally here in Australia, Ninefold.There are a raft of other options, some tailored to specific software stacks such as Acquia.They all come with their own subtleties so investigation and mapping to your requirements and skill sets should be taken before choosing any particular option. And cheapest usually isn’t best – look at third party independent reviews regarding provider service levels as any savings on monthly fees will disappear in an instant should something go wrong and you can’t get the support you need. So don’t be penny pincher!

What we’ve covered so far is “cloud hosting” , on top of which comes “cloud

applications” (commonly referred to as Software as a Service (Saas) – effectively online tools that run on cloud hosting – tools such as Gmail, Salesforce, Google Docs, Basecamp etc. These have their own raft of pros (and some cons), but that’s another story.

The cloud isn’t right for everyone or for every scenario but it’s it definitely worth exploring.

Do any readers have any experiences, good or bad, in relation to cloud hosting? Any myths they’d like discussed and hopefully debunked? Does anyone want to go into detail around anything mentioned? If so, please shout up!

Paul Armstrong is the founder and managing partner of Sitback Solutions, a Sydney based web development and UX focused digital agency. He’s hopefully been able to relate something technical in a (relatively) non-technical way.