Demystifying the Cloud: Part 1 of 2

July 3, 2012

By Joe Kralicky, Senior Software Engineer

Q: I am hearing more and more talk about “the cloud” these days, particularly with the advent of Apple’s iCloud. So, what is the cloud?

A: We’ve all seen those high-level network diagrams of systems connecting to each other, with a puffy cloud shape in the middle that everyone magically connects through. The cloud symbol came to represent this nebulous network infrastructure that is the internet.

Nowadays, this “cloud” still represents a somewhat nebulous infrastructure, but more specifically, it represents computing and storage services offered by a wide variety of companies. The big players—i.e., Amazon, Apple, IBM, Google and Microsoft—are in the mix, but there are many small companies that are offering cloud services as well.

In a nutshell, these services provide an on-demand “elastic” infrastructure service where you pay only for what you use, eliminating the overhead costs associated with maintaining your own hardware and network. Cloud-based storage services are “elastic” in nature because their capacities can be increased or decreased very quickly.

A typical company offering cloud services maintains a large number of physical servers in a data center. Each high-end server is “virtualized,” meaning that many virtual machines (VMs) may run on a single hardware box. These virtual machines are started and stopped by users as access to these resources is needed. Users are typically given a web-based control panel or a web services API, with which to manage their compute and storage resources.

Billing for services is typically based on several factors, such as the compute power of the VM, the amount of RAM and disk storage allotted, and the amount of time the VM was running (usually in 1-hour increments). Smaller, low-power services can cost as little as eight cents per hour to run, and large services can run as much as three dollars per hour. Some cloud services companies offer reduced hourly rates, but require an up-front one-time fee to secure the reduced rate. This pricing structure makes sense for businesses that run services 24x7x365.

As you can imagine, with the ability to start and stop VMs on demand, scalability is one of the top advantages of using the cloud. For example, think about Company X, which might sell a mobile medical application through the various app stores. The app periodically gathers various health-related data from devices that the user owns, and then pushes the data to Company X’s servers hosted in the cloud, where it is stored and analyzed. The user accesses the data through a web-based interface, and can have that data pushed up to services such as Microsoft Health Vault. Being cloud-based allows the company to scale quickly and easily, especially if app sales take off. In this market, keeping the consumer waiting can degrade confidence in your product, resulting in a quick loss of market share.

Q: As a consumer, why should I care about the cloud and elastic computing?

A: The typical consumer might find the cloud mysterious, but these folks don’t always care about howthings work - just that they do. Let’s take the Apple iCloud for example. The iCloud stores all of my iOS content online, somewhere, I don’t care where, and I can synchronize it with all of my other iOS devices. It’s automatic, and I can expand my storage at any time, which I can’t do as easily with physical storage devices. My content is accessible from anywhere there is an internet connection. These are some of the reasons that consumer cloud-based storage is popular and will continue to be in the future.

You have surely benefited from cloud and elastic computing if you have ever shopped at Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) was forged out of Amazon’s desire to utilize idle servers during times of low traffic, and is now a major player in the cloud computing space. As a consumer, when companies save on infrastructure costs, this translates into savings on the products you buy. Additionally, when companies utilize the scalability of the cloud during peak usage times, this translates into an enjoyable user experience for you.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article next Tuesday, when you’ll learn how cloud computing can actually change the way a company does business…