Cloud Computing 101: What “The Cloud” Really Is and Is It Right For You

Cloud Computing

Lately, the talk is all about “the cloud”. Microsoft’s TV commercials say “to the cloud!” But what does it all mean? And why should you care?

The “cloud” is THE most overused term in IT marketing today. It means anything and everything and, because of that, it means virtually nothing. When someone approaches me with a “cloud” solution my first response is frustration and then I usually blurt out the question “what are you really selling?”. This Dilbert joke really makes the point:

Dilbert.com

And what about this Cloud Computing diagram? It seems like anything fits into the cloud, even the kitchen sink!

Cloud Computing

I have worked in IT, from a customer perspective, for many years, making decisions on what hardware/software to buy and what external IT services to use. I have also served as a judge for competitions like the TechTarget Product of the Year or the Best of VMworld Awards (for the last 3 years). Because of that, I have developed an ability to quickly cut through the marketing-speak, the hype, and the over-use of the cloud term to figure out the question: what are you really selling? So let’s take a look at what the cloud is really selling.

As I see it, today’s cloud is, for the most part, yesterday’s “hosted” services and “application service providers (ASP)”. These types of services were also called “distributed computing”, “grid computing”, or “utility computing”. But, I don’t want to be pessimistic and say that there is nothing new about today’s cloud.

Today’s cloud computing offers unique advantages. In my mind, the biggest advantages in cloud computing today, as compared to similar services in the past are:

  • Development of the software behind the cloud has advanced tremendously
  • Cloud providers have worked hard to make cloud computing simple
  • More users have seen the value that cloud computing can offer them

As I’ll cover below, today’s cloud computing comes in many different flavors, tailored toward many different users and companies. In general, the typical “core” expectations of most cloud services are:

  • Self monitoring & self-healing
  • Automation “galore”
  • Service level agreements
  • Self service
  • Pay only for what you use
  • Greater reliability & availability than what most companies can provide

In general, the cloud is able to do things better than you can in your own IT shop for (hopefully) a lower overall cost, thus leaving your company to do what they do best (which isn’t IT).

With the cloud meaning so many things to so many people, how can we quickly break it down into useful silos? First, let’s throw out the use of the cloud term and try to use more meaningful terms. I like the terms that VMware has come up with to define its different offerings. They are:

  • IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service) — this is what I usually think of when I think of the cloud; with IaaS a cloud company is offering virtual hosted servers/machines to end users on a “pay as you go” basis, with features like self-service, SLAs, high availability, and virtual machine upload/download. Of course, there are even various flavors of this such as the difference between VMware’s vCloud Datacenter (VDC) and vCloud Express. Examples of VDC providers are Bluelock, Terremark, Colt, and Verizon. Outside of VMware’s cloud standard, there are a number of IaaS companies that use their own backend and design, the largest one being Amazon Web Services (AWS).
  • PaaS (Platform as a Service) — with PaaS, software developers can build new apps without having to purchase development, testing, or production infrastructure. Examples of PaaS are Salesforce’s Force.com, Google’s App Engine, and Microsoft’s Azure.
  • SaaS (Software as a Service) — most of us use SaaS everyday, without even thinking about it. For example, Gmail, Dropbox, Logmein, Office Live, and Skydrive are all SaaS. In my case, I am already using most of these SaaS apps. PC Magazine recently posted an article 13 Terrific Cloud Services for Small Businesses that includes a number of these SaaS options.

You should also note that all of these cloud services listed are Public clouds. You can also have Private clouds which would be internal clouds in your datacenter (most likely used by larger companies) or Hybrid Clouds. For more information on Private or Hybrid Private Clouds, read about VMware’s IT-as-a-Service (ITaaS). There are even other, less talked about, types of cloud computing like DaaS or Desktop as a Service, where your desktop PC is “in the cloud”, accessed over the Internet.

For a very long list of all the players in this, still, crazy area of tech see Top 150 Players in Cloud Computing.

Real-World Practical Advice: Should You Be Using the Cloud

Beware! As in the comic below, many cloud companies advertise that they can “do the impossible”. So how do you know when you should “look to the cloud” and when it’s just hype?

Graphic thanks to Migrating Your Applications and Processes to the Cloud: Practical Checklist

Here’s the “lowdown” on cloud solutions. If you break these services down into the IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS silos then they are easier to understand and qualify whether they are a viable option for you and your company.

If we take them in reverse order and start with SaaS, you can look at each SaaS option on it’s own. What does it do? What does it cost? What will it cost if your company loves it and every employee uses it? What will happen if it goes down, is there an SLA? For example, Quicken offers hosted Quickbooks called “Quicken Online“; clearly, this is SaaS. It has benefits like not having to install software, no software updates to perform, no backups to perform, you can access it from anywhere, etc. On the other hand, you will pay for it every month, for eternity and you are putting 100% faith into Quicken to backup your data, keep it secure, and make sure that it is available when you need it. Each of these SaaS options can be evaluated in a similar manner.

Next, with PaaS, you only need to look at it if you are a developer. PaaS will allow you to get your application “to market” much faster and you won’t have to worry so much about servers and operating systems. Many people try to compare VMware vCloud and Microsoft Azure but these are two very different offers; vCloud is IaaS or ITaaS and Azure is PaaS.

Finally, IaaS is the option to choose if you want to virtualize your physical servers (or desktops) in the cloud. You could use IaaS to “pay as you go” (per computing “unit”) like vCloud Express and even put it on your credit card. Or, if you have a larger datacenter, there are more enterprise cloud options. IaaS is great for spinning up test servers to do a proof of concept, great for disaster recovery (your DR site in the cloud), and for training end users on applications. Examples of IaaS offerings are Terremark vCloud Express, Skytap, or Amazon EC2. While these three examples are all IaaS options, you’ll quickly find that they vary tremendously in how they do what they do, how easy they are to use, and how many advanced features they offer.

Is Cloud Computing Right For You?

With so many cloud computing solutions available, chances are the cloud might be able to help you in some way, and I encourage you to give it a try.

What do you think about Cloud Computing? What are you using now? What do you plan to use? Post your comments and feedback below. I’ll make sure to respond to each one.

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