Cloud Computing Fundamentals

If you’re a beginner, you first need to understand cloud computing fundamentals to help you build a strong foundation in cloud computing.

What is Cloud Computing?

If you’ve read anything about the cloud or cloud computing, there is a phrase you may have already encountered. It’s a few words some people use to describe the cloud. If you haven’t seen this phrase yet, you’ll probably see it soon. You might see it on a laptop sticker, a tee shirt, or a coffee mug. It says:

“There is no cloud. It’s just someone else’s computer.”

It has become quite popular. You can find dozens of products with this saying on it.

shirts with cloud slogans on them

This phrase is short and memorable, and there is an element of truth to it. But there’s also a problem. It completely misses the point! It puts our attention on the wrong thing. Let’s be honest, this isn’t an objective and neutral definition. It’s a bit of an insult. It’s a little dig and dismissive.

Hmmm… the cloud. What’s the big deal? It’s just someone else’s computer.

Now to be clear, my issue is not that I need everyone to be polite and respectful about the cloud. If you want to poke fun at any technology, be my guest. Also if you’re coming into this with some criticisms, doubts or just feeling completely unsure about all this cloud stuff, that’s perfectly fine. What I’m going to suggest is that an oversimplification like this one just isn’t useful here.

It doesn’t help because this can encourage you to trivialize and underestimate how important the cloud already is and definitely how important it’s becoming. There’s a recent Gartner report that talks about yearly revenue of commercial cloud services. It’s now on track to hit $330 billion by 2022 for some perspective.

Yearly revenue of commercial cloud services

If that was the revenue of just one business by itself, it would still be the fourth or fifth biggest business on the planet. There is real substance here, Yes, this term cloud can sometimes seem vague or ambiguous, so let’s deal with that.

Is cloud a technology buzzword with a lot of hype? Yes, it is, but there’s good reason for all that hype. Not just one good reason but many. But to get a little deeper into those reasons, the benefits of cloud, and even the risks and challenges of it, we need to get clear on some terminology, some jargon.

Types of Cloud Computing

There are basically two ways to categorize cloud computing as it is ever growing: Cloud Deployments and Cloud Services. These are further divided as shown below.

Types and sub-types of cloud computing

Some different phrases and acronyms we can’t avoid here are…

  • Software as a service
  • Infrastructure as a service
  • Platform as a service
  • Virtualization
  • Multitenancy

…and so much more!

We’ll talk about how clouds can be deployed, mainly by public clouds, private clouds, hybrid clouds. We will also examine the risks of cloud computing and lots more. We’ll cover the current marketplace and see a lot of the different companies offering cloud services. We will also cover how to recognize and understand what it is these companies actually provide.

But we need to begin at the beginning. What exactly do we mean when we say the cloud or cloud computing? Can we even be exact about those terms? Cloud computing can be defined in various ways. For example, according to Wikipedia

Cloud computing is the on-demand availability of computer system resources, especially data storage and computing power, without direct active management by the user”.

Another way it’s described is…

Cloud computing is a computing service you traditional did local (on-premises), now performed remotely, across the internet (off-premises).

Some might put it simply as…

Cloud computing is on-demand computing resources, delivered to you over the internet.

However, I will do more than just defining and understanding a few pieces of technical jargon. I want to take you far beyond that, so you can actually feel comfortable with cloud computing, feel fluent when you’re talking about it and even get some hands-on experience.

This will help you to intentionally widen how you think about it. Here’s what I mean by that. As we go through it, I’ll ask you to consider cloud computing from a personal (individual) perspective. How could you just yourself get more out of this? What are the products and tools? What are the ways of thinking?

But then we’ll widen that perspective and think about how this could apply to your team because that will be different. We’ll then widen that perspective and think about your organization, their different roles and what they’d want. Then we will be able to push that viewpoint outwards to think about how this could solve issues for your clients or customers.

Cloud computing applies to individuals, team, organization, clients or customers

It’s from doing this, from combining some technical understanding with an intentional awareness of the different audiences, their reasons and their motivation can we get a real sense of what cloud computing is, why it’s become so important over the last few years and how you could use it in different situations. It’s only from doing this that you will be convinced there is a cloud and it is much more than just someone else’s computer.

A few Reasons for Using Cloud Computing

When I first started teaching about cloud computing, I realized one of my big challenges is I’d go over one or two examples. My students would often be just a little bit too quick to say, okay, I’m good, I got it. I understand now.

That can be an issue because, unlike some technologies, cloud computing is not something that can be explained well with just one or two examples. In fact, that’s a very good way to get the wrong impression about it. But let me unpack that statement because, let’s face it, usually when you want to know more about a technology, it is pretty helpful to just go over one or two examples.

So, you might wonder, why do I say that’s not the right way here? Well, good question dear reader. Let’s imagine I’ve gathered four volunteers together, four people who’ve told me they’re already well-informed about cloud computing and work with it every single day and they’re in different roles.

Four people with different explanations of what they use Cloud computing for

I have a student, an IT professional, a software developer and a chief information officer. Then I ask them to explain cloud computing to me, assuming I know nothing about this, and to just give me a simple explanation in a few words the main benefit of it. What do they use it for?

The student says…

“Well, I use the cloud to back up all my stuff. So, my documents, photos and videos are all safe and I’ll get them anywhere I need them. Oh, and, I use it for streaming music and movies too. That’s a cloud thing.

The IT professional says…

“Since we moved to the cloud, it’s so much quicker to push out new applications. We don’t have to spend as much time on updates and maintenance, and it’s so easy to scale the systems up when things get busy.”

The software developer says…

“We’re using the cloud as a machine learning and data mining platform. It’s been great. We just didn’t have the capability to do any of this before.”

And the CIO says…

“Cloud computing is a strategic focus for us. We’ve reduced expenses by outsourcing IT functions and we’ve improved cashflow.”

Now, if I was indeed completely new to this, I’d be entitled to say you people are useless! I asked for a simple description but you all described totally different unrelated things. There’s no crossover at all in anything you talked about.

But now imagine if my introduction to this had been just from one of the things these people said. I might think I understood it, but I’d actually have a very narrow and limited understanding. This is a key idea as you get started. The reasons for using cloud computing, the use cases, the benefits, and even the risks and challenges can be incredibly different between individuals and across teams and organizations.

This is why many people find this technology a bit tricky to understand it first. It can seem vague and really hard to define because we’re human. We want a straightforward explanation. The cloud is for doing this thing or the cloud is for doing that thing. But it evades that kind of simple description.

Anyone who says it can be explained with just one basic sentence is giving you a limited view of it. But even if we can’t describe it in just a few words, that doesn’t mean we have to go to the other extreme and say,

“Oh, you can’t even define the cloud. It’s so loose and nebulous. It means anything.”

Now we can get to a better idea about this, the general reasons that anybody finds this useful, by taking a few of those examples (those four scenarios), but then asking a couple of additional but simple questions like, couldn’t you do that already? Let me show you what I mean.

Different Reasons, Same Benefits

Let’s go back to our hypothetical student. He said his reasons for cloud computing were backup and streaming. Let’s take backup because that’s not some new thing. We’ve talked about backup for decades. So, I might ask him, why do you say you need the cloud for that? I mean, couldn’t you do that already?

He says…

“Well, I mean I used to have to plug my phone into my laptop and then manually copy things across. Sometimes I’d copy that to an external drive in case anything happened and sometimes I just forget. But yeah, I could back up before. The thing is now, if I back up to the cloud, well first I don’t have to do all the manual plugging and unplugging. So, it’s a little faster. I don’t have to be at my desk, I just need an internet connection. So, it’s a bit more convenient. The software on my phone makes it happen automatically in the background so it’s easier. I don’t have to buy and take care of any hardware so it’s cheaper. Oh, and my photos and files aren’t just backed up; they’re also automatically synchronized to all my other devices and that wouldn’t have happened before.”

The reasons our hypothetical student uses cloud computing

High-Level Benefits of Cloud Computing

What is often described as the reason for using cloud computing, like doing backup, isn’t actually the reason because we could have already done that thing. But the real benefit is when we add cloud computing to the picture, we can often do the same thing but do it easier, faster, cheaper and with a few additional features we didn’t have before.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to backup. When you explore any specific use case for cloud computing, they will all lead to these same high-level benefits which I’ll describe as cost, convenience, speed and features.

Four High-level benefits of cloud computing

There is a split here. The first three benefits, cost, convenience and speed can let us recognize that what we’re doing here often isn’t brand new and ground-breaking. We’re dealing with applications, websites, databases and storage. These are all things we might’ve been doing already, either before cloud computing or without cloud computing. But when we add it, those things can become cheaper, easier and/or faster. It is sometimes a little and sometimes much cheaper, easier and/or faster.

But with the fourth benefit (features, which I could have also called capabilities or options), allows us to recognize that adding cloud computing will often enable us to do extra things we simply couldn’t do before, or even if it had been technically possible. That is, things that would have been so cost prohibitive or so time consuming we would never have actually done it.

Now, I’m not pretending that just by adding cloud computing, everything instantly becomes cheaper, easier, faster and more fully featured. No. These four benefits can be prioritized differently. For some organizations, it’s all about the cost of benefits where the only thing they want to get from cloud computing is efficiency, capital expenditure or cashflow.

Now, I’ll admit I dislike it when I hear someone explain cloud computing as nothing but a way to reduce expenses. True. That may be the number one reason for some organizations, it’s not the only reason. Many companies go into it fully expecting it to be an expense because their priority might be in the new capabilities or just being able to reduce time to market. Some examples are shown below.

Important factors for cloud computing are different for these two companies

I’ll argue that anyone’s specific reasons for using the cloud can be explained in benefits in any different combinations and priorities of cost, convenience, speed and features. But if that’s the high level of why (why are we doing this now), we can go to the next level of what, that is, what exactly is cloud computing, and how will it let us get to these benefits?

Cloud Products and Services

If I searched the web for commercial products and services with the word “cloud”, the results might include…

  • Apple’s iCloud
  • Adobe Creative Cloud
  • Alibaba Cloud Products & Services
  • Google Cloud
  • IBM Cloud
  • VMware Cloud
  • Oracle Cloud
  • SAP Cloud Platform
  • Accenture Cloud Platform
  • East-West Composer Cloud

There’re also companies like Cloudera and CloudFlare. This very incomplete list only includes companies that actually have cloud in their names. If I expanded this list to include say companies often mentioned in articles about cloud computing, names would include Amazon, Microsoft, Dropbox, Salesforce, media companies like Netflix and Spotify.

If I expanded that further still to include a few business publications and their lists of top 100 cloud-focused companies, you’d find an abundance of names, many of which you’ve never even heard of. See the figure below.

A list of some cloud service providers

But if you recognize any of these businesses, you’ll know that some are aimed at individuals. I might get out my own credit card and pay for a subscription for myself to use the cloud services of these businesses. Others are more for professionals and teams. Some target small businesses, others are the corporate or enterprise level. Some are aimed at specific kinds of businesses like start-ups, agencies or restaurants.

Some deal with just one thing like invoicing or fleet management. This just reinforces the fact that they have very different reasons, audiences and solutions. But they do have things in common.

None of them are products in the classic sense, meaning they’re not physical or touchable. I can’t hand you a CD with a copy of Apple’s iCloud on it. I can’t give you a flash drive with Salesforce on it. They can’t be delivered that way. They’re all some kind of service delivered over the internet and we use the word “service” all the time when we’re talking about cloud computing.

Some companies might describe what they sell as a product, but I’m going to use the term cloud services to describe all of these. These companies are all providers of cloud services and we can be consumers of those cloud services. Sometimes as individuals, sometimes as teams or organizations.

They might seem completely unrelated, but there are several common characteristics and qualities we can expect. Okay, there’s a few exceptions and edge cases. So right now, let’s just focus on just what is true 99% of the time about every single one of these cloud service providers.

Characteristics of Cloud Computing

The first and simplest quality of all cloud services is we’re going to need to be connected to the internet. Okay, this may go without saying.

Some of the characteristics of cloud computing

The first and simplest quality of all cloud services is we’re going to need to be connected to the internet. Okay, this may go without saying. If you know one thing about the cloud, you know it’s something to do with the internet but it doesn’t mean that every single cloud service will now require us to be connected 100% of the time.

For example, I might have a phone using a cloud-based backup service like Dropbox, OneDrive or iCloud and I could still be disconnected from time to time on a flight or by choice. If I’m using a service that’s provided over the internet at some point, I’m going to need to reconnect to continue using it. This can lead to this sometimes-unspoken question:

“Is the cloud just the same thing as the internet? If not, what’s the difference?”

The short answer is no. It’s not the same thing. Sure, there are people who will say things like “The cloud is just a metaphor for the internet”, but it’s not a very good metaphor and it doesn’t stand up to any kind of analysis. The internet is much broader and encompasses more than what we’re talking about here. Not everything on the internet can also be considered cloud computing.

“Does cloud computing require the internet?”

Yes, the same way that the world wide web and email requires the internet. It doesn’t mean that they’re all the same thing. But we can assume that the internet is the underlying background, the network that makes it possible, that allows us to have this connectivity between devices, whether those devices are phones, laptops, servers, game consoles, smart TVs, cars, fridges or whatever we have.

We need that connection because when we use any kind of cloud service, that means we’re going to be using some computing resource that isn’t running on our own machine.

Another characteristic of using a cloud service is that it involves using someone else’s computer hardware (third-party hardware, depicted above), but we need to refine that statement. For example, anytime we send an email or just visit a website, we’re going to be using someone else’s computer hardware along the way. But this does not bring us the misconception that the cloud is just someone else’s computer.

That description is so loose because it describes your next door neighbor’s laptop as a cloud as well. No, what we’re talking about here refers to large tech organizations like Microsoft, Google, Amazon, IBM, Oracle, Alibaba, Apple and so many others.

They have built and staffed data centers, dedicated buildings, sometimes entire complex full of computing hardware, thousands of servers and hard drives, networking hardware, multiple redundant connections to the internet, cooling systems, security systems and independent power backups for power failures.

Google Cloud Data Center in Lenoir, NC USA


Servers working in a cloud data center

These are in locations all around the world. See IBM Cloud Data Center locations in the figure below.

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